Easy Steps To Building an Emergency Fund on a Tight Budget

by Andrea Norris-McKnight

Easy Ways to Build Emergency Fund on Tight Budget photo

Creating an emergency fund is one of the smartest financial gifts you can give yourself. Start with these easy ways to save up an emergency fund, even on an already tight budget, and get started saving today!

How do you create an emergency fund when there’s no money left at the end of the month?

Have you ever asked yourself this question? Saving money can be a challenge no matter how much money you make. There will always be one more unexpected bill, one more item to buy, or one more payment to make.

Yet, creating a cushion, or an emergency fund, is one of the smartest financial gifts you can give yourself. Here are some tools to get you started.

1. Change your mindset.

You’ll likely need to cut back on some spending to build your emergency fund. That thought alone is one of the reasons many of us do not have an emergency fund.

So don’t equate saving with deprivation or you’ll never reach your savings goals. You won’t have to penny-pinch forever if you can gradually build savings and get control of your finances.

If you’re having trouble with a mindset shift, try this advice for developing a frugal attitude.

2. Pay yourself first…

If you wait until everything else is paid, your money will be gone at the end of the month and you’ll never build your emergency fund.

Designate a percentage of your first paycheck of each month, or a set dollar amount, as emergency fund savings. Try for 10%, but even a little adds up over the long haul.

This payment to yourself is as much a part of your budget as your electric bill. Treat it that way.

3. …and use automatic deposit to transfer that monthly savings into a special emergency fund account.

Out of sight means out of mind. Using direct deposit you probably won’t even miss it. But your emergency fund will grow every paycheck. It’s like putting pay yourself first on autopilot!

Not sure you can pay yourself first on your tight budget? Find out how to make “pay yourself first” work for you.

And consider keeping your savings in a special account dedicated to your emergency fund. Co-mingled funds in one account often get spent on non-emergencies.

4. Have a clear understanding of what constitutes a financial emergency.

One reason some people aren’t successful in building up an emergency fund is that they “borrow” from it every time they are short on cash.

One simple rule for protecting your emergency fund is to never use your emergency funds for “wants.” And if you’re going to use your funds for a “need,” try to only use it for immediate needs. (See The Difference Between Wants and Needs.)

For instance, if your only transportation to work is your own vehicle, a car repair would be considered an emergency expense if it means keeping your job. However, if you can catch a ride with a co-worker or ride the city bus to work for a few pay cycles, you might consider putting the car repair on hold for a few paychecks until you have most or all of the cash for the repair.

5. Set up a sinking fund to protect your emergency fund.

Another category of expenses that should not be paid with your emergency fund is known future expenses.

Let’s say you pay your auto insurance premium in full every six months. When your bill comes due, you should not be pulling that money from your emergency fund. You know it’s coming, so you should be saving for it over those six months.

If your premium is $400, stash $67 in a separate account (often referred to as a sinking fund) or even in an envelope, and you’ll have the $400 by the due date and you’ll keep your emergency fund intact.

6. Don’t trade debt repayment for saving.

Trying to balance debt repayment and saving can be tough on a tight budget, especially when it comes to credit card debt.

But while building your emergency fund, you probably still want to pay more than your credit card minimum payments to reduce the time it takes you to get out of debt and the amount of interest you pay. (If you want to crunch the numbers to determine the best use of your extra money, we walk you through the math in Build Emergency Fund or Repay Debt First?.)

Chances are, that debt is why your budget is so tight right now. So don’t neglect your debt. No debt means peace of mind and more money to save toward a fun goal, such as a vacation.

And an emergency fund will go a long way in keeping you from getting back into debt.

These tips for finding money for savings while paying down debt can help help you balance the two.

Get proactive about tackling your debt.

Get the book How to Conquer Your Debt No Matter How Much You Have and begin the journey to financial freedom today!

7. Have a plan for unexpected extra cash.

Just like you’ll have unexpected expenses, occasionally you’ll find yourself with unexpected extra cash.

Create some rules around how you’ll use unexpected windfalls. Perhaps half will go into your emergency fund and half will be for fun money. Or if you’re carrying debt, do a three-way split between debt repayment, your emergency fund, and fun money.

8. Set mini-goals and reward yourself when you reach them.

Start by aiming to save $200. When you reach that, make $500 your next goal. Then $1,000.

It is much easier to work toward a goal than the vague notion of “saving more money.”

When you reward yourself, your determination grows to reach the next goal.

9. Once your emergency fund starts growing, recognize its value.

You know that life is full of unexpected financial challenges. Car repairs, home repairs, unplanned medical bills. You know your emergency fund will be there for you when you need it.

Don’t overuse it or treat it carelessly.

10. Enjoy compounding interest.

You might not need your emergency funds right now, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be working hard for you until you do.

Put your emergency fund to work earning interest on your savings. Your fund will grow that much faster.

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But I Don’t Know Where to Find Extra Cash

Maybe your budget is so tight that you couldn’t squeeze an extra nickel out of it no matter how hard you tried. So where will you find extra cash for an emergency fund?

Let’s explore some of the opportunities that could work for you.

Cut food costs

Perhaps you’ve cut your grocery budget to the bone. But have you really? We offer a very affordable ebook filled with 300+ tips that can help you cut the food budget even further.

Tips Food eBook Ad photo

Use a cash back credit card

Are you sure that you’re using the right credit card? If you’re not getting cash back, you’re giving away free money that could be going to your emergency fund.

Most of us use our credit cards almost every day. Buying everything from snacks to 70″ TVs. Why not get a free discount when you do?

The best way to find the best cashback card for you is to compare offers. You could be creating a monthly source of income and never do another thing to earn it!

Or get a credit card with a lower interest rate

Sometimes you can’t help it. You have to pay the credit card minimum. If so, you could save money by reducing your interest rate. Especially if your credit score is above 650.

Create a second income stream

Maybe you really want to give that emergency fund a boost! A little here and there isn’t enough for you. Then you might want to start a side gig. Here are some side gigs to consider that can earn you extra cash.

Creating an emergency fund is possible at any income level. As the fund grows, your peace of mind will, also.

We all know that emergencies do happen, and being prepared for it can make all the difference between weathering the storm and being overwhelmed. If you don’t have an emergency fund yet, today is the day to begin building one.

Reviewed January 2022

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Subscribe to get a daily dose of money-saving content aimed at helping you get better with money, fix your finances, and live better for less.

Since one of the biggest hurdles to achieving financial independence is debt, subscribers get a copy of Do You Have Too Much Debt? A Checklist and Solutions for FREE!

We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at any time.

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