There’s no denying that times are tough right now for a large portion of the population. The costs of putting food on the table, gas in the car and insuring your family against unexpected medical costs swallows up the vast majority of peoples’ monthly paychecks, especially after they squeeze out their rent or mortgage payment. What’s left usually goes into paying for a night out here or there to forget the stresses of the week, or heads right to the banks to pay off credit card debt. There’s not much wiggle room for an emergency fund. But the uncertain economy makes that account you set aside for a rainy day all the more crucial. Millions of Americans remain unemployed, and many of them are finding it difficult to nail down a new job, even after searching for a year or more. With no emergency fund to fall back on, bankruptcy or homelessness could become a real possibility. No one wants to find themselves or their families in that sort of situation, but the only thing you can truly do to prevent it is to set aside money that you don’t touch. But how much is enough? How much money should you have in an emergency fund?
The old rule of thumb for emergency funds was to put aside at least three months or as much as six months’ of expenses. That was supposed to be enough to cover you if you lost your job or had to take time off to deal with a family issue or medical situation. But given the current job market and unemployment rate, that number is probably too low now. According to experts with their fingers on the current pulse of the economy, a better level for your emergency fund would be nine months of savings at least. But they all acknowledge that a full year of savings is a better bet. That should be enough to cover you in a worst-case scenario, and hopefully keep you from having to live off of your credit cards.
So how does the average man on the street stack up against that minimum requirement? Not particularly well. According to a recent study, almost half of all Americans are carrying a larger amount of credit card debt than they have secure in an emergency fund. In fact, if you have more than $1,000 set aside for a rainy day, you’re in better shape than 33% of Americans with a job today. Additional studies looking at emergency savings suggest that almost half of Americans have less than $5,000 saved up. It doesn’t take an accountant to guess that those numbers don’t equal up to a year of living expenses.
You can definitely let your living situation dictate your emergency fund to a certain extent, as long as you don’t dangerously underestimate things. For example, if you only have yourself to look out for, with no kids or elderly relatives you might be okay with a smaller fund. If you have children and are operating on a single income, you’re going to want as large an emergency fund as you can possibly put aside. If you are a retiree, with a pension, regular Social Security checks and very few expenses you’ll probably be okay with only a few months set aside.
If you find your emergency fund is not up to snuff, try not to panic. It’s not as if a bail bonds Dallas bounty hunter is going to bang on your door tomorrow. Instead, come up with a plan. Make sure you minimally have $1,000 set aside, then pay off your credit card debt. After that you can start saving money for your emergency fund as quickly as possible. With care and determination you’ll soon be able to rest easy.