CAN YOU EVER HAVE enough? Yes, I’m talking about money.
I thought I had enough a few months ago, but then life happened. Dental work. A blown clutch. More support for my son, who has a great job offer but won’t start work until later this year. Boom, a big chunk of my savings was gone and, for now, it’s not growing back.
Experts say you should keep between three and six months of living expenses in a safe place, free from the vagaries of the stock and bond markets. You can stash the cash in a savings account at a local bank (yielding little more than your mattress), certificates of deposit, saving bonds from the U.S. Treasury or in an online savings account that won’t yield much (but still many times more than your brick-and-mortar bank will pay you).
I can’t bring myself to tie up money in CDs and savings bonds, partly because I may need the money suddenly. Instead, I’m partial to the liquidity of my FDIC-insured online savings account. It’s with Ally Bank, yielding about 0.50%, but there are other providers. You can compare their rates here.
One thing I like about online savings accounts is that I can put my money in buckets—segregated pools that I can designate for certain purposes. I have one for my daughter’s wedding. It isn’t enough to cover a decent reception—yet. But that’s okay, because she’s not engaged and might not be for years. I don’t count that money as part of my emergency fund because I’m determined never to tap it except for her big occasion. But I haven’t been able to add to it lately.
I have another bucket dedicated to what I hope can be a hefty down payment on my next car. I do count this money as part of my emergency savings. But when I spend from this bucket, my rainy-day fund will be smaller and in need of even more rebuilding. My plan is to make a large down payment on my next car, thereby reducing my monthly car payments.
I’m hesitant, as an amateur, to say the experts are wrong about how much you need for emergencies. They typically suggest having three-to-six months’ worth of your fixed expenses saved up. But they’re wrong.
Three months’ worth of expenses is absolutely nowhere near enough. After I got laid off in 2009, it took me nine months to find a good job. Six months of savings is a better rule of thumb. Except that when unexpected expenses do occur, you might be right back to having just three months’ worth of savings left.
What if surprise expenses creep up on you—and shortly after that you lose your job? That kind of scenario may be unlikely, but it’s exactly what we should be prepared for. Nine months of expenses is my new savings target. I am only about halfway there. I had six months’ worth back in May, before the clutch, the dental work and the additional financial needs of my live-at-home college graduate. I just turned 60, so this would be a bad time to lose my job.
On top of that, when my son does begin office work, he’ll need a car. Car prices have lately gone pedal to the metal. I may give him my car, a 2014 Volkswagen Jetta, or sell it to him for a couple of thousand dollars. Either way, I’ll need another car for myself before long. I’ll probably have to tap that car savings bucket, leaving me with even less for an emergency.
At some point, I’d like to travel again. If my emergency funds were healthy, I’d be able to consider a nice trip. But a vacation involving airline tickets and hotel stays is out of the question for now.
A first-world problem? For sure. How can I complain when the stock funds in my IRA are up so much? But don’t forget, the market could turn on a dime and my account could lose value. That’s another good reason to stockpile cash.
Can I ever have enough?
William Ehart is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. In his spare time, he enjoys writing for beginning and intermediate investors on why they should invest and how simple it can be, despite all the financial noise. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillEhart and check out his earlier articles.