Emergency Funds: How to Build and Use Them

Ways to plan, start and maintain your emergency fund

Even in the best of times, it might make sense to have a little extra money put aside for emergencies. A financial buffer can help if, for example, your car breaks down, your bathroom floods or you’re hit with a big medical bill. And having an emergency fund might also help you avoid tapping into long-term savings—like a retirement or college fund—when an unexpected cost pops up. 

If you don’t have an emergency fund, you’re not alone. A 2019 Federal Reserve report found that 27% of Americans in 2018 would have a hard time covering an unexpected $400 expense. And 12% wouldn’t be able to pay for it at all.

Even if you do have some money saved up, you might not know exactly when you should dip into it. So here are some ideas for how to build and use an emergency fund.

How to Build an Emergency Fund

You might think that emergency funds are only for people who can set aside lots of extra cash each month. But even if money is tight, an emergency fund could help you feel more secure. Here are a few suggestions for building yours.

  • Keep it separate. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recommends setting up a separate savings account for your emergency fund. This makes it accessible, but not so accessible that you’ll be tempted to dip into it. 
  • Start small if you need to. The Federal Trade Commission recommends saving even if you can only manage $10 each week or month. You might find it useful to set a regular schedule for your contributions and stick to it. It can be motivating and satisfying to watch the deposits add up, however small they start off.
  • Pay yourself first. If you can, you might want to consider setting aside some of your income for savings before you spend it on anything else. You could even automatically transfer your chosen amount into a savings account each payday.
  • Bank any extras. A tax refund, cash gift or raise at work could provide a good opportunity to kick-start an emergency fund or give it a big boost. Immediately setting that money aside can be a great way to grow your savings without dipping into your wallet.

When to Use an Emergency Fund

Now that you know how to build an emergency fund, how do you know when you should use it?

Here are a few common situations when you might need to tap into your emergency savings.

  • To protect your income. A financial buffer could help if anything threatens your ability to do your job—for example, if your car breaks down and you can’t get to work any other way, or you need a new piece of equipment.
  • To replace your income. If your job is downsized or cut, your emergency fund could help you pay rent, buy food and cover other necessary expenses until you can find another source of income.
  • To cover medical expenses. Using your emergency fund is a no-brainer if your doctor recommends treatment or medication for a health issue.  
  • To maintain a habitable living environment. Damage to your home, like a leaky roof, could cause more costly issues down the line if it’s not taken care of as soon as possible.

Remember, everyone’s situation is different, and you might have multiple ways to respond to a financial emergency. If you’ve been laid off and you’re struggling to pay bills, the CFPB recommends reaching out to your lenders directly. And it might be a good idea to seek the advice of a qualified financial adviser. Some organizations might even offer free advice for people affected by COVID-19.

Learn more about Capital One’s response to COVID-19 and resources available to customers. For information about COVID-19, head over to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

We hope you found this helpful. Our content is not intended to provide legal, investment or financial advice or to indicate that a particular Capital One product or service is available or right for you. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, consider talking with a qualified professional.

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