Calculating your emergency fund amountA very common question when providing fee-only financial planning to clients is:

How large should our fully-funded emergency fund be?

First Things First

Why should you even have an emergency fund? Because “life happens”.

There are times that unexpected expenses occur that need to be dealt with. Since they are unexpected, you don’t have them in your budget – but they still need to be paid.

Rather than getting behind on payments, or borrowing money to make the payments, having cash sitting in an account for just this type of situation allows you to easily pay the expense and continue with your normal household finances.

This is a type of self-funded insurance against unexpected costs that might otherwise throw you off-track.

But how much of an emergency fund should you have?

Like many things in financial planning, there isn’t always a quick-and-easy answer to this. When developing your personal financial plan you need to analyze your (very personal) specific situation.

In general, how big should an emergency fund be?

Financial experts agree that a fully-funded emergency fund should be between three and six months of living expenses.

But what does that really mean?

Notice that the suggestion is based on “living expenses” – not “income”. This is often a confusing point for people who are new to the topic.

The reason we recommend basing the number on living expenses is that if you need to use this money – in a true emergency – then you’re mainly worried about covering the basics. In an emergency, you can easily knock-out eating meals out and going to the movies, and those new shoes (deferred of course, not skipped forever). What you do need to care about though are what is often known as the Four Walls.

The Four Walls

The four walls are comprised of:

  1. Essentials for emergency fund coverageHousing expenses. This, of course, includes your rent or mortgage payment, but it also includes utilities, homeowner’s association fees, and anything else required to keep the roof over your head and the lights on.
  2. Food. Yeah, you’re going to need to eat. So whatever you need to spend each month to feed your household needs to be considered for sure. You might be able to cut back on a few things in a true emergency but unless you are buying premiums brands of everything, trying to figure out a lower amount here based on being thrifty isn’t worth the effort. Just calculate your normal grocery budget amount.
  3. Transportation. If you have a car payment, you need to cover that. You also need to include fuel costs and a reasonable amount for ongoing maintenance that may be required. In an emergency, you don’t want to get into a situation where a minor repair throws off your plan and makes a challenging situation even worse.
  4. Clothing. This is a bit more flexible of a category, especially for adults. But for households with kids who seem to outgrow their clothes on a weekly basis, you definitely need to consider this. There are a lot of things that can be deferred while you are in the middle of an emergency, but sometimes there are also things that are needed sooner rather than later. So make sure this fourth wall is considered.

Now if you want to include other categories you most certainly can do that. In fact, over-estimating can sometimes be a good thing. I like to over-estimate things to avoid surprises down the road. But if your cash-flow is tight right now, or reaching a fully-funded emergency fund is a challenge for you, just include those basics. With those four walls covered you can survive for a certain period of time while you deal with the emergency.

How do you figure out these amounts?

You know it’s coming if you read any of our posts: You need to budget.

When you are telling your money where to go, you can easily just refer to the household budget and take note of the amounts linked to each of these categories mentioned above.

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