Guest post: The Urgency of the Emergency (fund)

Today’s post is courtesy of Jacob, Ph.D. student in finance, frugal master, and one half of the Cash Cow Couple. Along with his wife, he enjoys living, laughing, and teaching others how to save and intelligently invest their money so that they can achieve financial freedom.

 In the blogosphere, it’s common to see recommendations for emergency funds. I’ve seen some who claim an emergency fund is unnecessary, and others who’d prefer if you kept one the size of Texas. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with either choice, but you should probably understand time constraints and liquidity before you decide on an emergency fund or any other short term investment need.

Let’s first define an emergency fund. It’s typically a highly accessible chunk of money stored in a checking, savings, or money market fund. It’s there for what? That’s right, emergencies.

But what does highly accessible mean, and why does it matter? Well, we’re speaking of liquidity here.

Liquidity is often defined as the ease with which a portfolio can satisfy an investor’s needs. Easy enough. But what comes next is frequently confused by investors, popular media, and everyone in between. Liquidity is comprised of two parts – marketability and price volatility.

  1. Marketability is an attribute that measures an investor’s ability to readily convert an investment to cash at prevailing market prices. This would be a function of fees, trading volume, and bid-ask spreads. In other words, the greater the cost of finding a willing buyer, the less marketable, and therefore less liquid an asset is.

  2. Price Volatility is very different. Even if you can sell an asset quickly at market price, you must still be concerned with the current market price. Stocks are a great example because they are volatile and therefore not liquid. Sure, you can easily sell a stock after it falls 50%, but you’ll be locking in huge losses.

A great example is a story I heard about a lady who was advised to put her million dollar portfolio in an easily accessible S&P 500 index fund. She was under the assumption that it was liquid. Sadly, one of her goals was to purchase a $500,000 boat in just over one year.  Of course, 100% equities is a terrible decision if you need half the principal in a year. The market fell nearly 40% and she was then in a terrible position deciding between the boat and almost no remaining savings.

The point of that story is simple. Don’t put your emergency fund or short term goal funds into the stock market. Doing so defeats the entire purpose of planning ahead. Keep the funds in a liquid account like the American Express high yield savings account that we use.

A matter of size

The next thing to consider is the size of your emergency funds. You’ve probably heard the rule of thumb that says 3-6 months of living expenses in your emergency fund. Maybe you heard 3-6 months of income. Whatever you heard may or may not be applicable to your financial situation. (Ed: No matter how much I have saved, it never feels like enough…)

There are several considerations here. First let’s consider employment and income fluctuations. If you are steadily employed, you probably need a smaller emergency fund than a traveling freelance writer with a variable income. Any variability requires an increased cushion.  The reason is simple; you must cover baseline expenses, and if your income doesn’t show up for 2 months, you’ll probably appreciate the protection that accompanies an emergency fund.

Likewise, if you spend far less than you earn each month, you’ll need less than someone who is living paycheck to paycheck. It’s just basic math. You have much more freedom and flexibility when you have excess funds coming in once or twice a month. You can quickly adapt to the situation at hand.

If you’re a young or old retiree, things are much different. Because you are living on your investment portfolio, you have much more concern with price volatility in the stock market (if you own equities).

Consider someone who must sell $20,000 in shares of stock each year to cover basic expenses. If the market falls 50%, they’ll be forced to sell twice as many shares to get the same dollar amount. This can destroy a portfolio.

Instead, consider holding several years of living expenses in a liquid account that can be accessed during bear markets. Additionally, keep the funds required for short term goals set aside in liquid funds to avoid a situation similar to the one I mentioned above. Ordinary bonds in a portfolio can provide an extended cushion if the market is still low when these funds are depleted.

What are your thoughts on emergency funds?


7 thoughts on “Guest post: The Urgency of the Emergency (fund)

  • Reply SavvyFinancialLatina February 4, 2014 at 10:25

    Great article! I think my biggest concern is how much we need in the emergency fund. If I lose my job, we could cover 2/3 of our expenses with my husband’s paycheck. In that situation we would probably cut back on a lot of things, and hopefully cover it without dipping into the emergency fund. This is why I need to concentrate on my side income. That way if I could generate the other 1/3 off side income, I would be less worried about covering our expenses if I lost my job.

    • Reply CashCowCouple.com February 5, 2014 at 07:46

      Thanks! We could likely live on either of our paychecks, which is nice. However, it would be really tight with just my university stipend!

  • Reply Tonya@Budget and the Beach February 4, 2014 at 11:59

    As a freelancer I’d like to have around 15k in mine. Way higher than most people’s I’d guess, but I never know when I may have a dry couple of months.

    • Reply CashCowCouple.com February 5, 2014 at 07:46

      That’s not bad at all. With variability, it’s likely necessary.

  • Reply Marissa@Thirtysixmonths February 7, 2014 at 01:22

    I really like your article. This can be a big help for those people seeking for idea in emergency fund. Well, for me, securing your finance status is a big concern! I also agree on how you define emergency fund. Great job!

  • Reply Deia @ Nomad Wallet February 11, 2014 at 10:21

    I think like everything else in personal finance, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. It’s all about your risk tolerance and how much of an emergency net you need to feel secure. It also depends on what you need the emergency fund for.

    We don’t have a home, a car, kids or pets. This dramatically reduces the number of things that could go wrong. Living in Canada, we don’t have to worry much about medical expenses either. We usually have a few thousand dollars in savings. It fluctuates, but I really can’t think of anything that would be so catastrophic that it wouldn’t be enough.

  • Reply Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life February 13, 2014 at 17:11

    Because I face a lot of income insecurity as an actress I like to keep my emergency well funded as much as I can.

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