Part of our build your own financial plan series

Photo of a dog whose owner could afford to pay for their surgery because they had an emergency fund.

Why you need an emergency fund (and how much you need)

You have a financial plan and a budget. You’ve set goals and reviewed tax strategies to potentially keep more of what you earn.

And then life throws you a curveball and you’re not prepared financially.

Do you need to build up an emergency fund? A few questions may help with this decision:

  • Would a $500 expense throw off your budget in a big way?
  • Would losing your job force you to withdraw your 401(k) savings to pay the bills until you find employment?
  • Would the expense of an unexpected surgery for your dog (poor buddy!) land on your credit card? How about if you blow the engine in your car?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you need an emergency fund.

How to know if it’s an emergency expense

What does an “emergency” mean to you? It can vary by person. Here’s a measure: Is this expense unexpected, unavoidable, or urgent?

  • Unexpected: You’ve lost your job and need to pay the bills.
  • Unavoidable: It costs more to fix your broken refrigerator than to buy a new one.
  • Urgent: Your dentist just recommended you get two new crowns (not the kind that goes on your head).

What it’s not for—well, that includes stuff like a new sofa. Or membership in a tennis club. Or a new motorcycle. Those aren’t emergencies.

How much do I need in my emergency fund?

Set mini-goals. Start by aiming to save $1,000. Don’t get hung up on the big number; the important thing is to just get started. Then continue to add until you have one month of expenses.

Your end goal is to set aside three to six months of your expenses. Use our emergency fund calculator below to estimate how much that will be for you. You may want to save more than six months’ worth if you’re the sole breadwinner or have an unpredictable income.

Where should I put the money?

Keep your emergency fund in a bank account that’s liquid and accessible—but not too accessible. Meaning, put the money in a separate savings account that you can access online, but not from an ATM, where you may be tempted to withdraw it. (You know—out of sight, out of mind.)

Look for a high yield savings account with minimum balance requirements. (Though high yield isn’t as high these days.) You can compare online bank savings and money market rates.

Graphic of a thumbtack. Tip: Using your emergency fund versus a credit card or a loan

Unless you have a zero balance on your credit cards, it may not be best not to “finance” your emergency by adding to your debt. (And even if you have a zero balance, read a card’s fine print before you go this route to cover an emergency.)

If you take out a loan, you’ll likely pay interest, fees, and maybe even penalties, which is a drain on your money.

And remember, if you use your emergency fund, start building it back up right away so you’re ready the next time you need it.

How do I start an emergency fund?

Here are two options to pad your new emergency fund.

  • Automate it. Have money direct-deposited from each paycheck into a savings account. If you set aside $25 a week, at the end of two years you could have $2,600 saved.
  • To build it faster, transfer money from a bonus or tax refund. If you have a surplus of cash at the end of a month, add that, too. (Those dollars are meant for goals like this.)

Having funds for an emergency can take a huge weight off your shoulders when you have a surprise expense, making it more of an inconvenience to deal with than a financial hardship.

Next steps

The subject matter in this communication is educational only and provided with the understanding that Principal® is not rendering legal, accounting, or tax advice. You should consult with appropriate counsel or other advisors on all matters pertaining to legal, tax, or accounting obligations and requirements.

Insurance products and plan administrative services are provided by Principal Life Insurance Company. Principal Funds, Inc. is distributed by Principal Funds Distributor, Inc. Securities are offered through Principal Securities, Inc., 800-547-7754, member SIPC. Principal Funds Distributor, Principal Securities and Principal Life are members of the Principal Financial Group®, Des Moines, Iowa, 50392.