Being prepared for financial emergencies is a primary step on the path to creating and maintaining solid footing, but as with other good things, too much of a positive can be negative. Every individual’s or family’s situation is unique, so it’s difficult to prescribe a hard and fast rule about the right size of an emergency fund that applies to everyone. Having three to six months’ worth of expensive in accessible cash is a good start, but many people will find that this will be too much or not enough.
I’ve suggested taking a holistic view by breaking your emergency fund into five (six) levels including cash on hand, a high-yield savings account, sellable investments, available credit, friends and family, and possibly readiness to reduce expenses. These options range from stagnant to flexible in terms of what they allow you to do with your money. For example, if you keep a small amount of cash ready under your mattress to use if you can’t access your bank accounts, that money loses purchasing power due to inflation the longer it stays outside the financial system. High-yield savings account may match or exceed inflation and investments may beat inflation over time. Access to credit allows you to invest more while still providing an option to help during an emergency, and friends and family can occasionally be tapped if necessary without risking your credit (just your reputation).
As we travel further down the list, more of your money is freed to work for you, invested for the future. If you are comfortable with the latter options, and if you are experienced with credit and not in danger of falling into debt, it’s better to tilt your emergency plan in that direction. I wouldn’t recommend keeping more than one year’s worth of expenses in a savings account narrowly beating inflation if at all, and the more other options are available, like credit and other somewhat liquid investments, a tiered approach will allow you to have your assets work for you.
Published or updated March 17, 2009.