Define what is an emergency
Since emergencies are sudden and unexpected, it may be easier to define what they're not, rather than what they are.
Your kid’s senior prom, not having Super Bowl tickets or being behind on your holiday shopping are not emergencies. True emergencies come out of nowhere and can hit you with a major expense, or interfere with your ability to earn money.
Examples include a major car repair, the loss of a job, or a burst appendix that requires big out-of-pocket medical costs. For these situations, you want to set up an emergency fund.
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Choosing the right account for an emergency fund
Your emergency fund should be accessible enough that you can withdraw money on short notice, but not so accessible that you can just dip into it on a whim.
Consider opening a high-yield savings account or money market account. Compare interest rates and fees. Make sure it’s convenient for transferring or withdrawing money in a hurry.
Eliminate the need for self-discipline or willpower. If your employer pays by direct deposit, divert a portion of your earnings to the savings account. If you deposit your paychecks into a checking account yourself, set up automatic recurring transfers to the emergency fund account.
You might also choose to put your emergency money into CD, which can pay higher interest than a traditional checking or savings account. But there are pros and cons, because those are designed to be longer-term investments.
Banks and credit unions typically charge penalties for cashing out CDs early. The penalties can encourage you to leave your emergency savings alone, but you'll take a financial hit if and when something happens and you need to tap into your money.
More: Credit unions vs. banks: Which one is right for you?
How much should your emergency fund have?
At a minimum, every household should save enough to cover expenses for three months. The target amount depends on factors such as the number of kids in the home, how much is owed on the mortgage, and each breadwinner's career prospects in the event of job loss.
Some experts recommend that you put aside enough money to get by for six months, while personal finance personality Suze Orman said the coronavirus crisis was so bad that the new standard should be three-year emergency funds.
Once you've decided how many months (or years) your emergency cushion should cover, tally up your regular expenses — including rent or house payments, a car payment, car insurance, child care, utilities and groceries.
When you've determined your monthly expenses, determine your savings goal by multiplying by the number of months you want your fund to cover. A banker, accountant or credit counselor can take a look to make sure you’re on the right track.
Another great idea is to start by using a savings goal calculator to get a roadmap to achieve your financial goals.
More: Suze Orman says Americans need to do this to survive their next crisis
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Why you need an emergency savings fund
Annual household spending in the U.S. is $66,928, on average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, so a six-month emergency fund for average earners should be approximately $33,464. A three-month fund would be $16,732.
Five-figure savings goals can be intimidating. Just remember that saving even a small amount each month is better than saving nothing at all. Stick to your goal, whether it’s $500, $200 or even $50 per month.
Jump-start your savings by shopping around for a bank that offers an introductory bonus for new customers. And resist the urge to blow the next big tax refund you receive. Each time you get an unexpected windfall, sock it away into the savings account.
If you build a big enough buffer, you’ll never have to go into debt for unplanned expenses. You'll be able to afford your new transmission or appendix surgery, and you won’t drain your retirement fund or be forced to sell stocks at a loss.
Tips to grow your emergency fund
One surefire way to boost the amount you can save is to stop spending money. Scrutinize your bank and credit accounts to find out where it’s all going.
Consider downgrading or eliminating cable TV. Cancel the gym membership, and work out for free at the community center. Skip the daily Starbucks, carpool to work, install a programmable thermostat and cook at home.
Teach art, music, swimming or carpentry in your spare time. You can also make extra money with any marketable skills you have by freelancing. Sell excess furniture, electronics and housewares on eBay or Craigslist.
A High-Yield Savings Account Is The Easiest Way To Make Passive Income In 2023
High-yield savings accounts are a great way to generate high interest and inflation-proof your savings over time. This option ensures your cash is at the ready when you need it, without forfeiting growth to do so.