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The shutdown’s lesson: You need an emergency fund

Updated at: 10/23/2013 5:36 PM
By JOSEPH PISANI

(AP) NEW YORK - Let the government shutdown serve as a wake-up call: You need an emergency fund.

Thousands of government workers were out of work for more than two weeks, causing many of them to fall behind on their bills. Although they will receive back pay, the event highlights how quickly, and unexpectedly, financial situations can change.

The shutdown also showed that no jobs are safe, even government positions which are normally thought of as the safest.

Most financial advisers say that you should be prepared to go without a paycheck for several months, not weeks. Here’s what you need to know about building that safety fund:

FIGURE OUT EXPENSES

Start by adding up your expenses for necessities, such as rent, health insurance, groceries and utilities, says Mackey McNeill, a certified public accountant and president of Mackey Advisors in Bellevue, Ky. It wouldn’t hurt to also add in discretionary spending, too, like going out to the movies or eating out. "Should you cut out Starbucks? Probably," says McNeill, "but a lot of people don’t change their behavior."

DETERMINE HOW MUCH YOU NEED

You need to have at least three months in expenses saved up, says Anna Behnam, a financial adviser at Ameriprise in Rockville, Md. But if you’re nervous about the security of your job, you should save more. Think at least six months, especially if you’ve been laid off or furloughed before. "There’s a chance it might happen again," says Behnam.

If you’ve never saved for an emergency fund before, start small. "Try saving $100 a month," McNeill says. "Don’t overreach." It may take longer to save up, but putting away more than you can afford can lead to failure, and you may just quit. And don’t ever take the money out.

MAKE SURE IT’S ACCESSIBLE

Always keep your emergency fund in a bank account that’s easily accessible. The stock market’s recent record highs may be hard to resist, but you always want to keep the fund out of stocks and in cash. "It should be in the most boring account you can find," says McNeill. That means savings accounts, even though most banks offer interest rates that are close to zero.

Behnam says that if interest rates on your bank’s certificate of deposits, or CDs, are more attractive, she recommends leaving one month’s worth of expenses in a savings account and the rest in a no-penalty CD. That means that you can withdraw money from it at any time, without paying a fee.

The account should be separate from your checking account and the accounts you are using to save up to purchase a home or vacation. If you decide to go with an online savings account, make sure it is linked to your primary checking account so that you can make easier transfers, says Behnam.

ASK FOR HELP

If you lose your job, or find yourself furloughed for a short period time and don’t have enough in an emergency fund, call the companies that you owe payments to. "Most creditors want to hear from you if you’re not paying bills on time," says Hugh Anderson a Las Vegas-based managing director at financial services company HighTower. Call landlords, mortgage providers, credit cards, student loan companies and anyone you may owe money too.

"I think most creditors are willing to help," says Anderson.

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(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)