Emergencies And Emergency Funds

Are you flying without a net? So many of us believe nothing will ever happen to us, that we’re too young, too lucky, or too far in debt already to put a chunk of cash into an “investment” that makes nothing. At least nowadays it’s hard to make any money at all on easy-access money. For most people, it’s a hard job to save three or six months living expenses and make nothing on it. I want you to re-frame that thinking.

The recent events thanks to Hurricane Sandy provide lots of good examples as to why you might need access to cash in a hurry.  I know you have your credit cards, but although they are okay for last ditch emergencies, those emergencies are the kinds of things that begin to dig people into a deep ditch that it’s hard to climb out of. Let’s look at some ways this can happen.

The most horrible way, of course, is that a tree falls on you and kills you. Even if you have great life insurance, it’s going to be a while before that pays off. Will your spouse be able to return to work immediately after such a tragic experience? Think your children might need some help coping? It can take some time to sort out the emotions AND the finances, particularly if the loss is completely unexpected. Cash on hand doesn’t solve the problem, but it sure is great to have one less thing to worry about.

What if something happens that doesn’t actually kill you, but leaves you disabled? Great, you’ve got disability insurance for that, right? (At least you do if you listened to me.) But what about the cost of care? The reduced ability of your spouse to work long hours? The loss of your own hard work around the house? The emergency fund can cover it.

Roof blows off or basement floods? Your homeowner’s insurance will cover that. Except for the deductible, that is. And if you’re meeting the deductible on you house, your wrecked car, and your health insurance all at once, well, the emergency fund is there.

If you don’t have it, what happens? All these things go on your credit card (provided you can even find a repairperson that will take credit cards!) How about if your employer folds or is forced to lay off, or just can’t pay for the days closed? You could have a big bill and much less ability to pay, a double whammy that really digs people into debt.

Most of the people I see in financial trouble haven’t wildly spent themselves into debt by staying at the Ritz or driving a Rolls. Rather, they’ve had some unforeseen disaster for which they had no backstop. Don’t go there. Think of your emergency fund as an insurance fund, and the low return as the (fairly cheap) cost of that insurance and you’ll be much more at peace with the low return.

On a college planning note, those of us touring colleges might consider asking about the college’s disaster emergency plan. It’s something you never think about until your freaked-out child calls you from a disaster area. My daughter’s school, Bryn Mawr, did a fantastic job of coping, keeping everyone safe and getting the power back on (thereby avoiding Revolution and preserving the mental health of teenagers who can’t live without wifi,) and getting enough Public Safety officers in the field to personally yell at all the ninnies who kept calling to ask about what was happening (duh). Send your child off to college with a good flashlight and batteries (they never buy them), a blanket thick enough to live in, a small first aid kit, and some cash which is NOT TO BE SPENT except in, well, an emergency. Just like yours.

About the author

Danielle L. Schultz, CFP®, CDFA

Danielle L. Schultz, the principal financial planner of Haven Financial Solutions, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP®), a NAPFA-registered Financial Advisor, and a Registered Investment Advisor in the State of Illinois. She studied financial planning at Northwestern University’s Certified Financial Planner™ certification program. She also holds a Series 65 license (Registered Investment Advisor Representative) and a CCPS (Certified College Planning Specialist).

She writes a regular column for Better Investing magazine and is currently working on a revision of their mutual funds handbook. In addition to academic training and professional experience, Ms. Schultz has personally managed Social Security, Medicare, retirement and long-term care issues; college funding concerns; and cash flow and transition planning in self-employment and divorce situations. Her social work background gives her an innovative perspective on financial planning issues; for her, financial planning is not only about money, but also a key component in a satisfying and well-lived life.

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