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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Total Money Makeover: Finish the Emergency Fund

This is the seventh of twelve parts of a “book club” reading and discussion of Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover, where this book on debt reduction is teased apart and looked at in detail. This entry covers the eighth chapter, finishing on page 150. The next entry, covering the ninth chapter, will appear on Thursday.

I’m a big believer in the unpredictability of life (in fact, this unpredictability is a major theme in my upcoming book). Life deals you things you don’t expect all the time, from small (like an unexpected wet diaper on your way out the door) to big (a sudden death of a close relative) and from good (finding a $100 bill in a parking lot) to bad (breaking your big toe after dropping something heavy on it).

Yet, even given that hugely unpredictable nature in life, most people do not have an emergency fund. Many of those who do only have a tiny fund. What happens to them if they lose their job and can’t get another one for a year? What happens if their child is invited to go to a very prestigious music school? What happens if one of them falls down a flight of stairs and has to spend six months in a wheelchair?

The solution to all of these things is a big, fat emergency fund. A big healthy wad of cash in the bank makes all of these problems easily bearable. For Ramsey, this is the next step after your debt snowball is done and all you’re left with is a mortgage – get a big chunk of change in the bank for those rainy days.

How Big?

One big point of contention about emergency funds is how big they should be. Dave offers his opinion on page 133:
A fully funded emergency fund covers three to six months of expense. What would it take for you to live three to six months if you lost your income?
I think it’s key here to point out that by “you,” the quote most likely refers to the full spending of a household – if it doesn’t, then you might be building an emergency fund that’s too small.

Three to six months? Think about how much you spend each month, then multiply that by, say, five. That’s quite a serious chunk of change. For us, it would probably be somewhere in the ballpark of $20,000, with almost half of that being our mortgage and homeowners’ insurance.

Is it enough? I think you have to look at it from the perspective that no amount will cover every possibility that could happen. Instead, you should be seeking an amount that’s large enough to cover every doomsday scenario you can reasonably think of. Consider the people around you and their most desperate moments.

How much would they have needed in those situations?

Easy to Access

Dave basically argues for a savings account on page 137:
Keep your emergency fund in something that is liquid. Liquid is a money term that means easy to get into with no penalties. If you would hesitate to use the fund because of the penalties you’ll incur to get it, you have it in the wrong place.
That basically means a savings account. It’s accessible at any time without penalty and it doesn’t fluctuate in value.

Obviously, you want it to be as safe as possible. This eliminates stocks – they’re inherently risky and fluctuate too much. The value of bonds can fluctuate, too, though not nearly as strongly. You don’t want to lose your balance once it’s invested.

At the same time, you want to be able to get at it without a penalty of any kind. Dave argues that this is a black mark against certificates of deposits. I disagree with that. With some careful planning, you can use certificates of deposit in a “ladder” system and never have to crack one. I like this idea because it helps you get a better rate of return and it’s a psychological barrier that keeps you from digging into it.

Dave points towards money market accounts, another little hint that this book was written prior to 2008.

Money market accounts might have great returns sometimes, but they’re not as safe as FDIC-insured savings account. Even better, if you hunt around, you can find FDIC-insured savings accounts that have a nicer return than pretty much any money market account and come with the insurance.

Three Months? Six Months? In the Middle?

The entire point of an emergency fund is to absorb risk, and some families are simply more at risk than others. On page 139:
For example, if you earn straight commission or are self-employed, you should use the six months rule. If you are single or you are a one-income married household, you should use the six-month rule because a job loss in your situation is a 100 percent cut in household income. If your job situation is unstable or there are chronic medical problems in the family, you, too, should lean toward the six month rule.
Personally, I feel as though children are a significant risk addition to one’s life. An adult can go out there and get a job. A three year old can’t do the same – they’re wholly dependent on the adult. Thus, if you have kids, I’d lean strongly towards a bigger fund.

I also think that six months isn’t necessarily the maximum. If all of your household income comes from freelancing, you have three kids, and there may be health issues in your future, six months probably isn’t enough. I’d have more than that – a year’s worth, perhaps?

 Financial Peace Jr.: Teaching Kids About Money! : "Cool Tools" for Training Tomorrow's Millionaires!

Is Everybody on Board?

One issue I see readers writing to me about time and time again is the question of what to do when their partner isn’t on board with the financial changes they want to make. Dave hits on this a bit on page 142:
I don’t suggest you clean out your savings [down to $1,000 in order to pay off debt] if everyone isn’t having a Total Money Makeover.
I go further than that: if you’re in a relationship and your partner is not on board with making financial change, you’re wasting your time with it. Their actions will undermine everything you do and you’ll find yourself constantly at odds and angry with each other without making a drop of additional progress. That’s a dangerous recipe, right there.

If your partner is not on board with making some real financial changes, your focus shouldn’t be on charging full steam ahead without your partner. Instead, your focus should be on talking through your situation with your partner. You’ve got to understand where they’re coming from. Just pushing what you want won’t cut the mustard here – they’ll just see you as pushy and you’ll make negative progress, or you’ll get an act that makes it look like they’re on board when they’re really not.

Talk about your money. You’ve got to, or none of this will work.

Women and Men?

Are women more suited to have emergency funds than men? On page 144:
God wired ladies better on this subject than He did us. Their nature causes them to gravitate toward the emergency fund. Somewhere down inside the typical lady is a “security gland,” and when financial stress enters the scene, that gland will spasm.
The argument here is that by their very nature, women are more likely to see the value in an emergency fund than men. Men tend to be task-oriented, while women tend to be process- and security-oriented.
I think there’s actually something to this. I’m all in favor of gender equality, but different does not mean unequal. Different means that each side has traits that are beneficial. Guys are better at focusing in, at breaking down barriers. Women are better at planning and cooperation, at building fortresses of safety. Different attitudes are useful in different situations.

Why Do All This?

If the future is so unpredictable, why waste our lives right now putting so much effort into scrimping and saving and planning for that future? On page 146:
What used to be a huge, life-altering event will become a mere inconvenience. When you are debt-free and aggressively investing to become wealthy, taking a few months off from investing will put a new engine in a car. When I say the emergency fund is Murphy-repellent, that is only partially correct. The reality is that Murphy doesn’t visit as much, but when he does we hardly notice his presence.
A big emergency fund means that the bad events in that unpredictable future don’t wipe away all of the good things you have in your life.
 Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University: 91 Days to Beat Debt and Build Wealth!

Without an emergency fund, a job loss means panic. It means scrambling madly for work – any work. It means you might lose your home or your car. It’s scary.

With an emergency fund, you can roll with the punches. You can patiently dig for the right job. You can even give your dreams of freelancing a shot right now – after all, you’ve got time.

Without an emergency fund, a dead car means panic. It means you have to throw yourself further in debt, with even more monthly payments than before.

With an emergency fund, you just make the call and fix the problem. No big debts. No monthly payments. Just smooth sailing.

You’re left with unexpected events – but only the good kind.
 Create a Six-Month Emergency Fund

Do you have any other thoughts on this chapter of The Total Money Makeover? Please share them in the comments – and feel free to respond to any of my impressions as well. After all, a good book club is all about discussion!

On Thursday, we’ll tackle the ninth chapter – Maximize Retirement Investing.

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