COVID-19 has wreaked financial disaster on millions of Americans.
Already, 30% of Americans have tapped their emergency fund due to the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent NerdWallet survey conducted online by The Harris Poll from April 8-10.
And just as the coronavirus has affected people of all ages, it’s left people of all generations leaning on their savings. Some 45% of millennials have tapped their emergency fund because of the pandemic’s economic impact, along with 36% of Generation Z adults, 32% of Gen X and 16% of baby boomers, according to the survey.
The purpose of emergency funds
Emergency funds are designed to carry you through temporary financial hardships, like a job loss. That’s why experts often recommend filling your fund with enough money to cover three to six months’ worth of expenses (food, shelter, medications, utilities and such).
“The whole purpose for the emergency fund is to use it when there’s an emergency,” says Dana Menard, certified financial planner and founder of Twin Cities Wealth Strategies Inc. in Minnesota.
That means you shouldn’t be afraid to use it when you actually need it — which could be right now.
“It’s crazy to think of saving up for an emergency, and then not utilizing it at all, and going back to the old habits of pulling out the credit card or anything along those lines that could be more detrimental,” he says. “The whole purpose of building up that cash reserve is so you can cover all of your fixed monthly expenses when times get rough.”
When to use your emergency fund
Just the thought of tapping your rainy day savings can be frightening. But it’s often a better option than taking on debt, says Christopher Wells, CFP, founder of Flourish Financial Planning in Texas.
Still, you want to make the decision thoughtfully. So how can you really tell whether it’s time for you to use your emergency fund? It depends.
First, use the financial tools at your disposal. Recently laid off? File for unemployment benefits. Afraid of falling behind on your rent or mortgage? Menard says it’s crucial to be proactive. Reach out to your bank, lender or landlord and tell them about your situation instead of waiting for them to contact you. You may discover relief options you didn’t know about.
Next, make sure you’re living as simply as possible. If you’re in a region that’s under lockdown or stay-at-home restrictions, it’s relatively easy to stop spending on entertainment and meals out.
For all other purchases, ask yourself two questions before you buy, Wells advises. First, is the item a necessity? And second, can you delay the purchase? This should help reduce the amount you spend right now.
Be strategic with your necessities, too, suggests Maddi Napier, CFP, founder of Minerva Wealth Planning LLC in Ohio. For instance, Napier says to look for inexpensive food items that last. Focusing on pantry staples like rice and beans can save you money on groceries.
If, after taking all of these steps, you still can’t afford to pay for necessities, it’s probably time to use your emergency cash.
What to do if you don’t have an emergency fund
But emergency funds aren’t always an option for everyone. Nearly 1 in 5 (18%) Americans don’t have an emergency fund to begin with, according to the NerdWallet survey.
And sometimes, emergency funds aren’t even enough. For households with two people experiencing a loss of income, emergency funds might not be as much of a cushion as intended.
If you don’t have many or any available funds, you should still follow the checklist above — but you’ll probably want to do even more.
For example, if you’re expecting a tax refund this year, Menard says you might want to file your return early so you can get that money back sooner. Napier recommends picking up extra hours at work if you’re still employed, or looking for companies that are hiring during the pandemic.
Regardless of your specific financial situation, be prepared for COVID-19 and its financial implications to last for a while. Take as many of these steps as you can right now so you can safeguard your finances for the months to come.