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Three Questions to Ask Before Dipping Into Your Emergency Fund

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What we’ll cover:

  • An emergency fund can be used to help cover unexpected expenses, but everyone’s definition of an emergency can vary.
  • Here are three questions you could ask yourself to help determine whether it’s time to use your emergency savings: Is this an unexpected expense? Is it necessary? Is it urgent?
  • Some examples of when you might want to use your emergency fund include a job loss, an urgent medical procedure, major car repairs and certain home repairs.

Many of us are probably already familiar with the basics of an emergency fund – the who (everyone), what, why, where and how much (enough to cover at least 3-6 months of expenses). 

But what about the question of when

When would it be appropriate to actually use the money you’ve been putting away in the emergency fund? In other words, what counts as an emergency and what doesn’t?

Some common examples might include a job loss, an urgent medical procedure, a leaky roof or major car repairs. 

Here are three key questions that can help you determine whether it might be time to tap your emergency fund:

  • Is this an unexpected expense or event?
  • Is this expense necessary?
  • Is this something urgent that requires you to act immediately?

 

1. Is this expense or event unexpected?

Everyone’s definition of an emergency can vary, and when you’re in a bind, everything can seem like an emergency. 

For example, forgetting to buy a present for a friend’s baby shower you’re headed to might feel like an emergency when it’s simply something you forgot to do ahead of time.

But let’s say you accidentally tore off your car door because you forgot to close it before backing out of your garage. This would qualify as an emergency: It's unexpected and now you have to get the car repaired or else it would be difficult for you to get to work. (This example was inspired by real-life events.)

Other unexpected expenses can include things like: a job loss, urgent medical procedures and major home repairs (e.g., flooding, leaky roof, etc.). 

Generally speaking, you should avoid using your emergency fund for predictable or recurring expenses because they should already be a part of your budget. Without some ground rules like this, it might become tempting to raid your cash reserve whenever you need to pay for a last-minute expense.

2. Is this expense necessary?

Again, this question can be tricky. This is where it’s important to understand the distinction between wants and needs. 

You may want or feel like you need to upgrade your phone right away after admiring the latest model on display.

Now, we’re not saying you can’t buy a new phone, but you shouldn’t use your emergency fund to come up with the cash. It is not a necessary expense because life can still go as normal whether or not you have the new phone. 

Let’s consider an example of a necessary expense.

Remember that car door you accidently took out? Repairing that car door is necessary because otherwise it would impact your ability to get yourself to work.

Sure, if you lived in a big city, you could find alternative transportation. But if you normally need your car to get to work (say, you’re a long-distance commuter), not repairing your car would cause a significant disruption to your work life. 

So another way to think about whether an expense is necessary is to ask yourself if this situation needs to be addressed in order for you to carry on with your day-to-day.

3. Is this something urgent that requires you to act immediately?

If something requieres you to act immediately, then you’re most likely facing an emergency. 

Those common examples of an emergency we mentioned earlier – job loss, major car repairs and home repairs – all meet this urgency test. 

Certain travel arrangements may also qualify – for instance, if you need to book a last-minute plane ticket to go tend to a sick parent or friend.

Do you have to use your emergency fund to pay for emergencies?

While the whole purpose of an emergency fund is to help pay for unexpected expenses, you may not always have to dip into your fund to pay for them. There may be other ways you could cover such expenses. 

This might mean looking at your monthly budget to see if you could shift some money around to come up with the necessary funds. You could even take on a side project and earn extra income to help cover the cost.

When it comes to medical emergencies, see if you could use your Health Savings Account or Flexible Savings Account to help pay for any out-of-pocket costs.

You might also want to explore if there are other financial resources you could lean on for assistance during an emergency.

For instance, if you lost your job, you might be eligible for unemployment benefits. To be sure, an unemployment check won’t completely make up for your old paycheck, but the funds could help tide you over in the short term. 

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized professional advice. Articles on this site were commissioned and approved by Marcus by Goldman Sachs®, but may not reflect the institutional opinions of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., Goldman Sachs Bank USA or any of their affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions.