How (Not) to Fund an Emergency

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No one likes to think about it, but emergencies are a part of life. But just because we don’t know exactly what will happen and when, that doesn’t mean we can’t help ourselves be more prepared for them financially. That’s why establishing an emergency fund with three months of expenses is considered a foundational component for any sound financial plan. Having the dedicated fund set aside in a safe, highly liquid account can help you weather the storms that life may occasionally bring your way.

If you don’t have adequate monies in reserve, you may be forced to resort to some of the following ways of managing a crisis, which you will see are less than optimal:

Credit Cards. Using credit cards to fund a crisis is a particularly bad idea, especially if you pay high interest rates on your balances. Also, when your life is in upheaval, it can be easier to miss payment deadlines. Should this occur, you may face steep late payment fees in addition to high interest rate charges. And making late payments or utilizing more of your available credit can also hurt your FICO (Fair Isaac Corporation) score that indicates your creditworthiness, potentially making it even more difficult to borrow in the future.

Payday Loans. These are typically among the most expensive types of loans consumers can take out. They’re intended for short-term needs (payday to payday) and are not intended for sustained borrowing. People who use them routinely can fall into the trap of deeper debt fueled by ever-accumulating interest charges. And the cycle can become very difficult to break over time. Avoid this type of predatory lending whenever possible.

Raiding Your 401k. While you can borrow from your 401k and repay yourself with interest, you will face stiff penalties if you’re younger than 59½ years old and for whatever reason are unable to repay the loan, in which case you can suffer a hefty 10% penalty. There can also be an opportunity cost in terms of the time that you’re divested. You can miss out on opportunities for your retirement funds to grow that can take months or even years to recoup.

Borrowing from Family. Asking your relatives for money is never easy. It can strain relationships, especially should you have difficulty repaying the loan on time. And that can be the last thing you need when you’re facing a crisis and in need of emotional support from your family. It could also put you in an uncomfortable position should your relative face a financial crisis of his or her own and expect you to return the favor. If you do go down this route, it’s a good idea to specifically spell out the terms and conditions of the loan and its repayment in writing so there are no misunderstandings.

Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC). If you have a HELOC, you may be tempted to utilize this to deal with a financial emergency. And while this is an option that’s open to you, there are some things you should keep in mind before doing so. First, the interest rate on these instruments is usually variable, which can make your loan payments unpredictable and more difficult to budget for. Additionally, since a HELOC is backed by the equity in your home, it’s possible to become “underwater” on your home, a state where you owe more on the house than what’s it’s worth. Finally, if you were considering taking out a HELOC, be sure to ask about all of the associated fees and closing costs that you may also face.

When it comes to a financial crisis, the best defense is a dedicated emergency fund. If you don’t currently have one, add regular contributions to your monthly budget. Once you have that money in the bank, it can greatly reduce stress about the “what ifs” we all tend to worry about.


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