March 16, 2020
The recent spread of a new coronavirus has brought attention to emergency planning as people have been stocking up on supplies in case they need to stay in their homes to avoid getting and spreading the disease. In many ways, emergency planning is the Rodney Dangerfield of financial planning. It gets no respect. The typical advice is to simply stash away enough cash savings to cover 3-6 months of income and then move on to more exciting topics like investing and retirement planning.
However, this type of event has shown that merely having emergency savings is not enough. Just like an investment portfolio, a properly diversified “emergency portfolio” requires more than just savings in the bank. Here are the elements you’re going to want to make sure you have before the next big disaster:
1) An emergency kit
No, you don’t need to become a full-on “doomsday prepper.” You just need some basic tools, first aid supplies, and enough food and water to last at least 3 days. You can get checklists from the Department of Homeland Security, the Center for Disease Control, and the American Red Cross (which also sells their own pre-made kits). You can then supplement it with supplies for those types of disasters that are most common for your area.
2) Food reserves
If the emergency lasts more than 3 days, you’ll still want to be able to eat. Rather than purchasing specialized “emergency rations,” you can simply bulk up on long-lasting food that you already eat. At the very least, it’s something you know you’ll need and can benefit from even if no emergency ever happens. In fact, you’re likely to save money this way. Simply replace the items as you use them and perhaps add items when they’re on sale.
A food reserve can also be part of your regular emergency fund, thus reducing the amount of savings you need. After all, you can eat it when you’re unemployed too. Sure, you would miss out on the less than 1/10 th of a percent (minus taxes) you’d otherwise be earning with that money in the average savings account. But according to the most recent CPI release, the inflation rate of food at home over the last 12 months ending in January was about 0.7%, so you’d actually be saving a little more than what you likely would have earned keeping that money in the bank.
3) Physical cash
No matter how adequate your emergency supplies are, you never know what you may need to purchase from someone else in an emergency. That’s why they say “cash is king.” Although the financial world refers to bank deposits and money market funds as “cash,” in a true crisis, banks may be closed, ATMs may not be working, and money market funds may not be available if the stock market is suspended (as it was after 9/11). Some preppers like to keep gold coins for this reason, but people may not know how to judge their value in a crisis. Instead, consider keeping at least a few hundred dollars in physical cash (even if it’s under the proverbial mattress).
4) Emergency savings
None of this means you won’t still need some savings in the bank. You can’t exactly use food to replace items damaged in a storm or fire. Nor is credit a good substitute for savings since lines of credit can always be cancelled, which is all the more likely during tough economic times or when you’re unemployed—the two times you’re most likely to need it. For this reason, you may want to use any low-interest (below 4-6%) credit available to you before your cash reserves so you can preserve them as long as possible.
How much do you need in savings? Even so-called “financial gurus” don’t agree. Dave Ramsey suggests a starter emergency fund of about $1k until you’ve paid off all your high-interest debt. Suze Orman recommends having 8 to 12 months’ worth of expenses in savings before paying off debt. What you decide to do may depend on your personal comfort level, the availability of other sources of financial support, and how risky your income is. You can use this calculator to get an idea based on your expenses and how difficult it would be to replace your income.
These savings should be somewhere safe and accessible like an insured bank or credit union account. If you want to maximize your interest, consider a rewards checking account. They can pay over 5% in interest, and many will reimburse your ATM fees as long as you’re willing to bank remotely, use direct deposit and electronic statements, and use your debit card 10-15 times a month.
Another option is a Roth IRA. While not traditionally thought of as a place for emergency savings, you can withdraw the sum of your Roth contributions at any time without tax or penalty, so it’s very accessible. The advantage is that anything you don’t withdraw can grow to be tax-free after age 59 1/2. Just be sure to keep the Roth IRA invested somewhere safe like a money market fund until you have enough emergency savings outside the Roth IRA. At that point, you can invest it more aggressively for retirement.
5) Adequate insurance
No matter how much savings you have, it probably won’t be enough to cover some of life’s biggest financial disasters. That’s why you need adequate health, auto, renter’s or homeowner’s, disability, and life insurance. If you’ve accumulated a lot of assets, you may also want to consider enough umbrella liability and long-term care insurance to “CYA”: cover your assets.
Whether it’s the current threat of a possible pandemic or potential terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or financial crises, many experts fear that our world is only getting more dangerous. No one knows when the next disaster will be. The only question is whether you’ll be ready.
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