First, define 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 blown transmission, the loss of a job, or a burst appendix that leaves you with big out-of-pocket medical costs. For those, you want to set up an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass fund.

You'll need a separate account to save up for your next opportunity to go to the Super Bowl.

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Choose the right kind of account

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 recurring transfers to the emergency fund.

You might choose to put your emergency money into certificates of deposit, or CDs, which pay higher interest. But there are pros and cons, because those are designed to be long-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.

Find ways to beef up your 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.

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Calculate how much you need to put away

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 recently said the coronavirus crisis has been 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. There are also emergency fund calculators online.

Yes, you really need emergency savings

Annual household spending in the U.S. is $63,036, on average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, so a six-month emergency fund for average earners should be approximately $31,520. A three-month fund would be $15,760.

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.

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About the Author

Doug Whiteman

Doug Whiteman

Former Editor-in-Chief

Doug Whiteman was formerly the editor-in-chief of MoneyWise. He has been quoted by The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and CNBC.com and has been interviewed on Fox Business, CBS Radio and the syndicated TV show "First Business."

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The content provided on MoneyWise is information to help users become financially literate. It is neither tax nor legal advice, is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. Tax, investment and all other decisions should be made, as appropriate, only with guidance from a qualified professional. We make no representation or warranty of any kind, either express or implied, with respect to the data provided, the timeliness thereof, the results to be obtained by the use thereof or any other matter.