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Carla Fried: 4 steps to realizing your emergency savings goal

Without a plan to amass emergency savings, financial anxiety can be ever-present.  (Tribune News Service)
By Carla Fried

The out-of-the-blue economic jolt of the pandemic set off an urge among many households to double down on building emergency savings.

A T. Rowe Price survey of still-employed retirement savers last summer reported that 50% said saving for emergencies was a major financial objective, up from 38% the previous year.

Hearts & Wallets, a consumer research firm, reported that saving for an emergency was a universal goal across generations, clocking in as the No. 1 financial priority among millennials, Gen X, boomers and the silent generation.

But good intentions and goal setting do not guarantee success. Especially when the goal requires sacrifice and patience. Ideas on how to curb spending can help.

Setting aside money today as a self-insurance fund for whatever may land in your path months or years from now requires not spending those dollars right now. And building an emergency fund can take years, not days.

If you are truly serious about building long-term financial protection for your family that persists long after the pandemic is behind us, consider these key steps:

Set the right savings goal. The standard advice has long been to have an emergency fund that can cover at least three months of your family’s living costs (shelter, food, utilities). If you’ve got nothing saved right now, three months likely feels like some unattainable huge sum. Understood. But the focus should be on what can ultimately deliver what you deserve and crave: security.

If your ultimate goal is recession protection, a 12-week emergency fund isn’t going to cut it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in November, the median duration for someone who lost a job was nearly 19 weeks. People between the ages of 45 and 54 were finding it an even longer slog, with a median duration between jobs of nearly 26 weeks. The story was much the same in the recession during the financial crisis.

All that suggests setting an ultimate goal that is closer to six months (or more).

Segregate. The laws of human temptation make it risky to keep your emergency savings commingled with the cash in your regular checking account. It is far smarter to set up a separate savings account for your emergency savings fund. That reduces the risk of spending the money for wants.

You can open a savings account wherever you currently have a checking account in a matter of minutes online.

For an added extra layer of self-protection you might set up your savings account at a different bank or credit union than you currently use for checking. That way, when you log in to do some bill paying or basic banking, you won’t even see the savings account listed on your landing page. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind can be one of the best nudges to keep you from touching your emergency savings.

Online savings banks are the way to go. Right now, no one is paying much if any interest, but whenever the Federal Reserve does begin to nudge short-term interest rates higher, it is the online high-yield savings accounts that will pay a lot more interest than what a brick-and-mortar bank will pay on savings accounts.

Automate. Do not leave this goal to your good intentions. That typically means you will not stay committed to sending money from your checking account to your savings account each month. It is beyond easy – and 100% free – to set up automatic transfers from checking to saving. You can set things up to zap money into your emergency fund weekly, monthly or quarterly.

Earmark a set percentage of all cash bonanzas for your emergency fund. Throughout the year there are often times when you come into some extra money. A raise. A bonus. A tax refund. A debt payment you polish off. Challenge yourself right now to commit to sending a portion of that windfall into your emergency savings fund. How much depends on your other goals, such as saving for retirement, or paying off credit card debt.

The key is to set a plan long before the money lands in your checking account and gets spent on nonessentials. covers the worlds of personal finance and residential real estate.