Personal finance blogs and sites relentlessly advocate having three to six months worth of expenses sitting in a bank account in case of an emergency. Some even suggest that you should have a years worth of expenses sitting around waiting for an emergency to happen.
The advice is to have up to six months of living expenses in liquid savings that can be accessed immediately. Most argue that you shouldn’t rely on credit cards or other lines of credit for an emergency fund because it can cause a spiral into debt and that it teaches bad habits.
The above is not necessarily bad advice, but it’s the ubiquitous nature of it that I disagree with. This is not a good plan for everyone, and in a lot of ways it’s not even good for the average person, if there is such a thing.
Many of the advocates of the six month emergency fund argue that you need a liquid fund that big because of the danger of unemployment in a poor economic climate. What if you can’t find a new job straight away?
You don’t need such a big emergency fund
There are a number of reasons why I think you don’t necessarily need such a conservative emergency fund.
- Why base an emergency fund on your typical living expenses? In my view your emergency fund should be based around emergency spending levels, not typical spending levels. You won’t be going out to dinner, buying consumer goods or taking holidays if you lose your job. We should be budgeting for much less in our emergency fund.
- There is a large opportunity cost associated with having such a large amount of money sitting in a bank account not earning interest. For every month you’re not in emergency mode (ie 99.9% of the time) you give up income that the money could be making if it were invested elsewhere, or applied to a debt like a mortgage.
- An emergency fund doesn’t need to be so big or so liquid. An emergency like losing your job happens over a period of months, which is plenty of time to release money from a less liquid account like an investment account, brokerage account, or mortgage.
- Credit can be a useful instrument in case of an emergency until money is released from less liquid investments – credit doesn’t have to be evil, and can be used effectively to your advantage.
To expand on the opportunity cost point – compare the two scenarios.
Case A: Typical emergency fund
You have a $20,000 emergency fund sitting in a highly liquid standard bank account.
Case B: Hybrid emergency fund
You have a $2,000 mini emergency fund in a highly liquid bank account, a $3,000 credit card with no annual fee, and $18,000 in low cost index funds ear-marked specifically for emergencies.
The hybrid emergency fund breaks most of the rules that are commonly advocated as I explained above. It isn’t liquid enough for most according to traditional wisdom and relies in part on debt.
The cost of having all of your emergency fund in liquid assets is about $90 per month, assuming you’re giving up $18,000 per year at 6%. That is, in normal, non-emergency times, the cost of the liquidity in your emergency fund is high.
The hybrid model is advantageous in many cases because while there is less liquidity, there is sufficient liquidity in cash and lines of credit to get through the first week or two of almost all emergency situations, so that the less liquid investment or asset can be drawn on.
Personal circumstances to consider
Consider having more months worth of emergency expenses in a more liquid emergency fund if any of the following apply to you:
- A wildly variable budget
- Are self-employed, a seasonal worker, or at risk of losing your job
- Have children or non-working dependants
- Have a low tolerance to risk
- Can’t redraw on your mortgage
- Have a unique emergency on the horizon
- Live in the USA, Iran or North Korea or anywhere without universal health care
Consider having fewer months and a lower proportion of liquidity if you:
- Are in a relationship with another income earner
- Are a full-time worker in reliable employment
- Have no children or dependants
- Have a higher tolerance to risk
- Have a predictable and regular budget
- Can redraw on your mortgage
- Live in a country with universal health-care
Don’t believe me though – challenge me and the traditional wisdom when you’re looking at your situation. Don’t trudge through the next decade trying to save half a years worth of expenses unless you’ve got a compelling reason do to so. Instead, consider saving a mini-emergency fund, establishing an emergency credit card (only for use in emergencies, where it’s able to be paid in full within a week or two) and then applying your money to pay down debt and build assets.
Just make sure you earmark some of those assets for emergencies and have a plan to access them in case shit hits the fan. If you can’t guarantee you’ll be able to access it in 14 days, it’s probably not liquid enough in my view. But there is absolutely no need in most cases to have the full emergency fund in cash as is often recommended.
If you have a large emergency fund sitting under the mattress or in a 0% bank account, you should consider moving it somewhere more profitable.