EMERGENCY MONEY is dead money—and it’s rarely looked more dead.
Just as we shouldn’t carry more insurance coverage than we really need, we shouldn’t hold more emergency cash than necessary. Why not? Excessive money spent on insurance and kept in our emergency reserve will likely come with a hefty opportunity cost. Indeed, thanks to the double whammy of inflation and taxes, our cash reserve will slowly depreciate, and that’s especially true given today’s rock-bottom interest rates.
What to do? Conventional wisdom says you should have a cash reserve equal to three to six months of living expenses. My advice: Figure out if you can hold far less—by pondering both your living costs and alternative sources of cash. To that end, consider these eight steps:
1. Calculate your fixed costs. You might have to cut spending temporarily if, say, you need all available cash to pay for a new furnace, roof or car. More worrisome, you might find yourself without a paycheck because you get laid off or ill-health prevents you from working.
In these scenarios, you’ll likely want to cut out much or all discretionary spending, so your only expenses are your fixed living costs—things like mortgage or rent, car payments, utilities, groceries and insurance premiums. How much do these run each month and, in a financial pinch, are there any items you can eliminate? Figuring this out is a crucial first step in developing your emergency plan.
2. Recast your mortgage. For most folks, their biggest fixed living cost is housing. Is there any way to reduce this expense? I’m a fan of paying down mortgage debt as an alternative to buying bonds. Planning to make a large onetime extra-principal payment of perhaps $5,000 or $10,000 on a fixed-rate loan? Consider coupling it with a mortgage recasting.
Not all mortgages can be recast. But if your lender allows it, you’ll need to cough up not just a large extra-principal payment, but also a fee of up to $500. In return, the mortgage company will reduce your monthly payment to reflect your new lower principal balance, while keeping the loan’s term and interest rate the same. Result: Going forward, you’ll have lower fixed living costs—and more financial breathing room if you get hit with a financial emergency.
I wish I’d been aware of this option when I had a mortgage. I made regular extra-principal payments for many years. A recasting would have sharply reduced my required monthly mortgage payments, leaving me in much better financial shape if I’d lost my job.
3. Tap home equity. Some folks argue against making extra-principal payments on a mortgage, noting that—in a financial emergency—you’d be better off having the cash sitting in a savings account. It’s a reasonable argument. But you can sidestep the problem by setting up a home-equity line of credit, or HELOC, which would allow you to tap into your home’s value. Just be sure to set up the credit line while you’re still employed and hence still look attractive to lenders.
What if you’re already retired? Instead of a HELOC, you could arrange a standby reverse mortgage. The idea is to establish a credit line that grows over time, which you might then use later in retirement if you start to deplete your nest egg. You could also use the credit line to cover financial emergencies, especially if it seems like a bad time to cash in stocks and bonds. The strategy has been endorsed by experts, though—I must confess—I’m leery of the steep fees involved.
4. Stash money in a Roth IRA. If you want your dollars to do double duty, consider making regular annual contributions to a Roth IRA. Suppose you put $6,000 a year in a Roth for the next four years. Ideally, you’d leave the $24,000 to continue growing tax-free. But if calamity strikes, your retirement fund could become your emergency fund—and you could withdraw that $24,000. Provided you don’t touch your Roth IRA’s investment earnings, there’d be no taxes or penalties owed.
5. Fund a health savings account. Like a Roth IRA, a health savings account (HSA) can do double duty. The strategy: Buy a qualifying high-deductible health insurance policy and fund a companion HSA. Thereafter, when you incur medical expenses, pay the costs out of pocket but hang on to the receipts. If you’re hit with a financial emergency, you can use those old receipts to make tax-free withdrawals from your HSA. What if there’s no need to draw on the account? You might leave your HSA to grow tax-free and then use it to pay medical expenses in retirement.
6. Tap your 401(k). If you lose your job, a 401(k) loan wouldn’t be an option. In fact, if you leave your employer, these loans must typically be repaid right away, or you’ll face income taxes and penalties. Still, a 401(k) loan could be useful in other financial emergencies. Keep in mind that these loans aren’t really loans. Instead, the money you receive reduces your 401(k) account balance—and the true cost is the investment gains that the money no longer earns.
7. Borrow on margin. I’m not a fan of margin loans, which involve borrowing against the value of a taxable brokerage account. But if you restrict the loan to, say, 20% of your account’s balance, the risk involved is modest. Yes, if you take out a margin loan, you’ll have to pay interest. But that occasional cost could be a small price to pay if it allows you to sit on less cash.
8. Take out a life insurance loan. As with margin loans, I’m no fan of cash-value life insurance. But all too many folks end up with these policies when they’d be far better off with low-cost term insurance. In fact, cash-value life insurance accounted for 59% of the life insurance policies sold to individuals in 2019—a statistic I find shocking.
Got one of these turkeys? If you find yourself in a financial pinch, you might put it to good use by taking out a life insurance loan. But—as with 401(k) and margin loans—be sure to pay off any life insurance loans as quickly as possible.