3 Questions to Ask Before Using Your Emergency Fund
In a world of uncertainties, living with the security of an emergency fund is priceless. Whether you’re sitting on the $1,000 of your starter emergency fund or around $15,000 of your fully funded emergency fund, you’ll have peace of mind knowing you’ve got money saved for a rainy day.
Why? Because it’s going to rain.
But you’re ready.
Still, you might wonder when a life event is a real call to dip into your emergency fund. Do you need to rethink priorities? Should you move things around in the budget to make space for this new expense? Or is this a legit emergency? Of course, if you can move things around and cover the expense, do that first. But remember, it’s going to rain. There’s no shame in using your emergency fund if you really need to. That’s what it’s there for.
But before you do, just ask yourself these three questions to make sure you’ve got a real reason to use the emergency fund.
1. Is it unexpected?
Turns out Christmas happens the same time every year. (It’s December 25.) And that semiannual car insurance payment? Well, you know that’s coming too. If you’re not budgeting ahead for these expected expenses, it’s time to start. Otherwise you’ll be tempted to use your emergency fund for something that’s not an emergency. It’s just poor planning.
Here are some examples of the difference between unexpected and expected:
- Job loss
- Pay cut or fewer hours
- Storm damage to your home
- Car accident repairs
- Emergency medical expenses
Should Be Expected:
- Back-to-school shopping
- Basic home or car maintenance
- Routine doctor visits
See that first one on the list of usually unexpected? That’s the main reason the fully funded emergency fund is set at three to six months of expenses—so a job loss doesn’t destroy your finances. You have time to look for new employment while still paying your bills. Because a job loss is world-crushing enough without having to worry about how you’ll keep the lights on.
If the life event or expense you’re looking at is truly unexpected, then it’s most likely time to use that emergency fund.
2. Is it absolutely necessary?
Most of us would say we know the difference between a want and a need. But sometimes the line between the two gets a little blurry. For example, self-care is important. But a weekend getaway isn’t necessary. Don’t use your emergency fund for that. A good library book or a hike in the woods can be just as good for you. And both of those happen to be free.
Okay, that seems too obvious? What about these examples:
- Loss of reliable transportation
- Higher-than-anticipated tax bill
- Unexpected travel in time of family crisis
- Upgrade to a nicer, newer car
- Latest iPhone or technology gadget
- Last-minute vacation opportunity
If your car goes kaput, you need transportation—so use your emergency fund to buy something affordable and reliable you can pay cash for. But don’t dip into the emergency fund just to upgrade your decent car for one with a million bells and whistles. That’s not necessary.
3. Is it urgent?
Ever had an employer who said everything on your to do-list was urgent? Or been around a kid who needed everything right now? It’s exhausting. And if you live with that attitude in spending, you’ll soon exhaust your emergency fund.
Don’t. Do. That. Instead, practice the art of patience whenever possible. Here’s some examples of urgent vs. not:
- Broken AC in the middle of summer
- Sudden, out-of-state move
- The sale of the century at your favorite store
- A good deal at a bad time for your budget
Remember—your emergency fund is all about long-term security, not instant gratification. Don’t use it on a whim. But also don’t be afraid to use it when you really need to. Just be wise and ask those three questions to check yourself so you don’t wreck yourself (or your budget).
Is it unexpected?
Is it absolutely necessary?
Is it urgent?
Hey, if you’re facing a real emergency, don’t freak out if you have to use your emergency fund. That’s what it’s there for! You worked hard to save up this protection. Let it protect you.
Take a deep breath. Ask yourself those questions. Talk it through with your accountability partner. And move forward in confidence. Because the sun will come back up and dry up all that rain. Soon you’ll be back in your EveryDollar budget rebuilding that emergency fund. But for right now, take care of you and yours.