For many Americans, one painful lesson of 2020 has been a first-hand demonstration of the importance of having an emergency fund. Yet knowing such a reserve matters is a far cry from creating one. According to BankRate, 72% of Americans don’t have an emergency fund with enough money to fund six months of living expenses.
What most people think of as an emergency fund actually should include two types of savings accounts. One is the Big Expenses Fund. This is for expenses too large to cover out of monthly cash flow. We know they will happen; we just don’t always know when. These include costs like annual health insurance deductibles, vacations, gifts, home maintenance, and repairing or replacing vehicles.
The second savings reserve is the Emergency Fund. This covers just two categories of financial calamity: a job loss or large medical costs beyond insurance deductibles that are not covered by insurance.
Only about one in four or five Americans were able to rely on an emergency reserve to help them get through the pandemic. I suspect many of those without such a fund would agree that they “should” have one.
Why doesn’t that knowledge translate to action? Some workers, barely managing to cover essential expenses, likely don’t see any way to create an emergency fund. For those with higher incomes, I suspect the reasons are more complicated. I would suggest the problem is found in the “should.”
“Should” has a different meaning and set of behaviors than “will.” “Should” denotes a lack of sufficient confidence, importance, and readiness to go into action. “Should” in this context is fraught with obligation, correctness, criticism, and shame. These motivators rarely result in long-lasting success.
“Will” has a sense of inevitability. It carries a high degree of readiness, confidence, and importance. When these three components align on any contemplated change, action is soon to follow.
If “should” is the word you associate with creating an emergency fund, I suggest trying a different plan of attack. It involves declaring a truce between that part of yourself which is “shoulding” and shaming and those parts of you that have their reasons why the savings accounts are not happening.
Try this. On a blank sheet of paper write “Should” at the top. Then list all the reasons you can think of for creating emergency and big expenses funds: why they are important, why the timing is right, why you have the confidence, etc. Do not censor yourself. Write down every thought that comes up, logical or illogical.
Then take another sheet of paper and write “Should Not” at the top. List all the reasons against creating these savings accounts: why they are unimportant or unnecessary, why you don’t have the confidence to act, or all the reasons why you are not ready to do this. Again, no censoring.
Then review both lists. Do so from a place of non-judgement, recognizing that each reason has its point. See what answers are surprising or contain a viewpoint or some information that you have never consciously considered.
Look for a compromise, a way to craft a win/win course of action that will address the major concerns of each viewpoint. That may mean saving less per month than ideal, but something that’s significantly more than nothing. It could mean temporarily reducing contributions to a 401k plan and redirecting that money to an emergency fund. It could mean securing now a line of credit on your home that could be accessed immediately in the case of an emergency.
Whatever you do, no matter how small, any step you take toward starting to provide for yourself and your family is a big one.