Why you should set up an emergency savings fund

William Jolly By on December 19, 2018
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Emergency savings

Do you have a stash of emergency savings? If not, you should…

Things might be going swimmingly you for you right now. You might have a great house, great car, great family, and some cash left over for some of those fun things you like to do. But no matter how good things are, they can always go bad. To quote Murphy’s Law:

“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”

And by anything, that means anything. It could be a car crash, a medical emergency, a relationship ending, family troubles and even financial abuse. It could also be minor things like needing a new phone or having to book a flight on short notice for a distant cousin’s wedding you don’t want to go to.

These types of situations have broken many people before, but with an emergency savings fund, you could weather the storm.

What is an emergency fund?

An emergency fund is money you’ve set aside – either in one lump sum or slowly over time – to help you in a situation where you need immediate access to money you might not have had otherwise. Say you needed to get your wisdom teeth pulled and found out it was going to cost you $3,000 since you don’t have health insurance. Building up an emergency savings fund can help offset some or all of this cost, so you don’t have to wallow in pain for all eternity (this may or may not have happened to a certain Savings.com.au journalist).

Yet there are too many people in Australia who have no savings at all, let alone an emergency fund. According to a BT Financial Group’s consumer index. 21% of people have no savings to fall back on. A similar study by Citi found that 36% of people had less than $1,000 in savings for emergencies, with one in 10 immediately facing the prospect of going into debt to pay for things.

There is good news though: BT found that 56% of people have enough for more than one month’s expenses in savings, while 23% have at least one month’s worth.

But is this enough?

How much should you have in emergency savings?

Don’t think about your emergency savings fund having a particular dollar amount in it: think of it as covering an amount of time. Your situation might vary, but you’d generally want to save up between three and six months’ worth of expenses. Why? Because according to Seek, this is roughly how long it takes for people to find a new job, which is a common reason for people dipping into savings. Over a quarter of people seeking a new job have been searching for this long. If you to lose your job for any reason (or you left willingly), it would be wise to have some cash stored away to help pay for:

Using a budget planner, calculate how much you spend on essential goods and services in a three to six month period: this is how much you should set aside and then some, unless you want to live so frugally you start recycling paper towels. Budgeting and savings apps such as Pocketbook track your spending for you so you can allocate it into categories.

How to start an emergency fund

Hopefully you’ve already done step one: work out up to six months’ worth of expenses and create a budget of how much you need to save. You can then move onto the next steps:

  1. Find a high-interest savings account
  2. Set up automatic transfers
  3. Create a cash buffer (optional)

Find a high-interest savings account

Ideally, you’d want a savings account with a ‘high’ interest rate. High-interest savings accounts are one of the best places to put your emergency fund.

We say high, but high in today’s climate is around 3.00% p.a. in interest, but even these small interest rates can make a big difference to your funds over time. Look for a savings account with a combination of a good interest rate, low or non-existent fees and manageable bonus conditions – see our article on bonus interest rates for more information on how this works.

You’d also want this high-interest account to be accessible, yet separate. It’s generally a good idea to have this account be separate from your main bank account to eliminate the temptation to spend the money – when the time comes you should be able to open a transaction account online with little fuss. Don’t do this if one of the bonus interest rate conditions on the account is to have a linked transaction account.

You don’t have to use a savings account either. You can also use a home loan offset account or even your investment portfolio, if you have one. Savings accounts just represent an easier, quicker way to access your money.

Set up automatic transfers

Once you’ve set up your separate bank account, you can either deposit a lump sum that represents months’ worth of living expenses or slowly build up to this amount over time through automatic transfers. Or you can do a combination of the two and deposit a smaller lump sum (say $1,000 or so) to give your emergency savings a headstart. After all, you could need that emergency cash sooner than you think.

How much you choose to transfer is up to you. Personally, I choose to transfer roughly 10% of every paycheck into a separate savings account, but you might need to do more or less than this depending on what your safety target is.

Some bank accounts also come with a ’roundup’ feature now: every purchase you make on your transaction account rounds up to the nearest dollar, sending the difference to a linked savings account. These small transfers can make a big difference over time, so you might choose to prioritise savings accounts that offer this feature. 

Create a cash buffer

This is an optional step you can take, but can be a good little buffer for smaller emergencies, like having to replace a fridge. Putting even the smallest amounts of cash in a jar or an envelope – like $5 a week – could be a lifesaver, especially if you’re ever in a situation where you can’t access the money in your bank account (technical errors do happen).

Isn’t insurance enough?

Being properly insured can provide a safety buffer in itself, and we’re not going to tell you to not have insurance. Ideally, you’d have both insurance and an emergency savings account.

The problem is being underinsured – either not being covered at all, or not being covered for enough. According to a 2018 report by AMP, four out of every five homes are underinsured when it comes to home insurance, potentially leaving owners tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket.

When it comes to life insurance, Rice Warner’s Underinsurance report in 2017 found that only a third of the population even has income protection insurance.

When you add together the premiums for health, home, life and car insurance, you’re looking at some serious out of pocket costs, and we haven’t even talked about the fact that you will probably have to pay an excess of several hundred dollars, as well as some out-of-pocket costs.

So if something goes wrong, a good insurance policy will hopefully cover you for most of bills, but there’s still a high chance you’ll have to pay something. Your emergency savings fund can help you here. Just make sure you always have a good read of your policy’s PDS (product disclosure statement) to know what you’re covered for and what your out-of-pocket expenses will be.

Savings.com.au’s two cents

Emergency savings funds are important, but not essential. You can get by without one as long as you’re still disciplined with your savings and don’t spend beyond your means, but you’ll thank future you for starting one if you ever happen to need it in the future.

Just remember why you started your emergency fund in the first place – for emergencies. It’s not to be used because you feel like buying some new clothes that weekend, or even if you just want to top up your main bank account. There’s no real point to having one if you’re just going to withdraw from it all the time, and doing so can potentially cancel out your bonus interest rate.

William Jolly
William Jolly joined Savings.com.au as a Financial Journalist in 2018, after spending two years at financial research and comparison website Canstar. In William's articles, you're likely to find complex financial topics and products broken down into everyday language. He is deeply passionate about improving the financial literacy of Australians and providing them with resources on how to save money in their everyday lives.

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