Last week I linked
to an article in the Arizona Republic, where I and several others
offered tips and opinions regarding how to control spending. A twist
on that original article ran last Friday in the Money section of the Republic.
In both cases, one of the basic points is that simply controlling
spending can have a significant impact on your financial well-being.
This is something I will come back to time and time again, but we’ve
arrived at a point where the world of finance has become so complex
that it feels to many people like it has simply moved beyond them. In
some cases, there may be some truth to that. For most people, though,
it still pays to keep things simple. That may sound obvious, but our collective behavior over the last few years suggests that we have not been practicing it.
There are many areas of personal finance where embracing simplicity
is beneficial, and I’ll explore others in future posts. Today I want
to emphasize the importance of the Emergency fund. An emergency fund
will allow you to cover significant unexpected expenses without
disrupting your financial plan. For instance, if you’re suddenly
facing a $3,000 car repair that you hadn’t anticipated, instead of
raiding your retirement savings, an emergency fund would be a more
comfortable source. In a more extreme but increasingly common case,
such a fund can help you ride out a period of unemployment.
How do I build a fund?
Until recently, it had become relatively common for people to rely
on a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) to serve as an emergency fund.
The logic behind this was pretty solid, if implemented correctly. It
freed up cash to be utilized in a longer term, higher yielding manner.
The line could remain dormant and thus inexpensive as long as it wasn’t
needed. With the skyrocketing real estate market, the equity in the
average person’s home was substantial. Furthermore, if it did become
necessary to tap the line, rates were typically pretty favorable.
Drawing on this resource would allow these individuals time to unwind
other investments in an orderly manner to eventually pay down the home
equity line. It wasn’t the best scenario for everybody, but it was not
a universally terrible idea, either.
All of that has changed. Many homeowners have seen their HELOCs
closed as the equity in their homes evaporated. Others have maintained
equity, but have had their lines closed, anyway. Still others continue
to have an accessible line, but should not have confidence that it will
be there in an emergency.
That brings us back to the simple approach: set aside some cash for
use in an emergency. How much? The most common suggestion is 3-6
months of day to day spending, but it really depends on your individual
situation. I certainly think 6 months is better than 3, and I think in
uncertain times like these it pays to increase that if it’s possible.
Just know that the cash you have set aside is, by definition, sitting
in a low risk, low return account.
Where should I put my cash?
In this environment of low interest rates, it is very difficult to
find a place to stash cash and feel good about it. It may sound
painful, but I think the easiest thing to do right now is to set aside
these funds in a simple savings account. There are several websites
that allow you to compare rates among various financial institutions
and find the best yield. Perhaps the most well-known comparison tool
on the web is Bankrate.com. The
two banks that I use for mortgages as well as my checking accounts are
both household names. I’m a pretty demanding banking customer, but I’m
actually satisfied with both banks, and they have probably been the two
that have stood the tallest through the recent crisis, at least among
big banks. However, their standard money market accounts are currently
yielding .01% and .05% for Arizona residents, according to
Bankrate.com. In contrast, the site shows that HSBCDirect is offering an account that yields over 2.4% with a $1 minimum deposit. Although I have not found it on Bankrate.com, Dollar Savings Direct
offers an account that requires a $1000 minimum that it claims is the
highest-yielding in the nation. These are legitmate banks and the
accounts are fully covered by the FDIC. Note that Dollar Savings
Direct is a division of Emigrant Bank,
which itself has been known for a while as a leader in high-yield
accounts. Others that typically offer high rates via the Internet are E*Trade Bank and INGDirect.