On Emergency Fund Remorse… and Bacon Emergencies

It was an expensive day in my household.

The kitchen sink had been backed up for more than a week. I’d disassembled and reassembled it twice and couldn’t fix the problem myself, so I knew it was time to call in the professionals. Clearly the damn thing needed to be snaked, and I had neither the tools nor the know-how to handle that myself. So I called a plumber.

On top of that, my dog was experiencing… butt problems. Of the totally non-life-threatening but definitely requiring-immediate-medical-care variety. (He had an anal gland abscess, ok? It was both gross and fascinating and it completely reaffirmed my conviction that dogs are strange and magical creatures.) I have no medical training, and I would move heaven and earth for this goddamn mutt, so I called the vet.

And thus began my winter of discontent.

Agony! Guilt! Remorse! Emergencies!

I agonized over these decisions. A visit from the plumber and the vet in the same day? It was going to cost so much money! $200 for the plumber and $400 for the vet, to be precise. That’s more money than I had planned on spending this month, let alone in a single day.

I literally felt queasy. I didn’t want to let go of that money! The guilt consumed me.

Even though I have a nice fat emergency fund filled with four years’ worth of tax returns, I imagined that draining it even a little bit meant that I was somehow delegitimizing all the fiscally savvy decisions I’d made over the last decade or so. I’ve been so frugal! I’ve hustled and saved! Like a sober alcoholic falling off the wagon, I worried that one withdrawal for these emergencies would lead to an uncontrolled spending binge.

I asked my husband twice if he thought it was really ok to take $600 out of our emergency fund. To which he replied, “Babe.* That’s what that money is for.”

The purpose of an emergency fund

Your emergency fund is for emergencies. So you shouldn’t feel bad about using it accordingly. And yet poke around the personal finance blogosphere long enough and you’ll see I’m not alone in feeling wracked with guilt whenever I break my frugal marathon by dipping into my emergency fund.

It’s an absurd fallacy: the emergency fund exists to financially prepare you for emergencies, yet even in the face of emergencies, some of us feel like we should… save it for more important emergencies, I guess? And yet the preparation is the point. It’s supposed to preemptively alleviate financial remorse.

I think we all get ourselves so firmly in the mindset of being responsible with money that any large expenditure—even in the face of an emergency!—feels… a bit like cheating.

But that’s irrational and ridiculous. Stop thinking of your emergency fund as money you should never ever touch except in the event of a big emergency. Think of it as money you’re saving up for a future surprise. Because emergencies are, by their very nature, surprising.


Beware bacon emergencies

The next logical step in letting go of emergency fund anxiety is deciding what counts as a legit use of your emergency fund.

When my husband Bear and I were dating, we went on a week long sea kayaking trip with friends. An expedition of this kind requires careful budgeting, packing, and meal planning. I distinctly remember standing in the grocery store with our merry band of kayakers wondering whether or not we needed to bring bacon. Clearly, we all wanted bacon. We’re red-blooded ‘Muricans! We believe in the pursuit of happiness, which naturally stems from the consumption of bacon and if you disagree with me you’re just wrong. But did we really need it?

Someone broke the tension: “What if we have a bacon emergency?”

Permission granted. We bought pounds and pounds of bacon for our sea kayaking trip, because clearly the bacon was an emergency precaution against hunger, ennui, and failing morale.

Friends, I’m going to admit something I’ve never told anyone before: there is no such thing as a bacon emergency. We just wanted the fucking bacon and needed an excuse to work it into our budget for the trip.

Real emergencies… don’t involve bacon

This story is all about recognizing what actually constitutes an emergency. You will never have a bacon emergency (because bacon should be its own line item in your budget, duh). Likewise, you will never have a spa day emergency, a boat emergency, a concert ticket emergency, a vacation emergency. You will never have a the-new-version-of-the-iThing-is-out-and-my-iThing-is-still-perfectly-good-but-no-longer-brand-new emergency.

You might have a cheese emergency at some point, but that’s between you and your god.

Do not be tempted to fudge the meaning of “emergency” to suit your anti-frugal desires in the moment. Don’t try to convince yourself that a “want” is truly a “need.” Emergencies are things that disrupt your long-term financial goals through no fault of your own. Emergencies are unavoidable by definition. They demand your attention and cash right away.

And unlike new iThings and boats and concert tickets, you don’t have a choice about them.

The wisdom to know the difference

At some point in your life, you’re going to have an emergency to pay for. Your kitchen sink is going to clog, or your dog’s butt will spring a new and exciting pus leak, or your husband will need to be tested for MS, ALS, and Parkinson’s before he’s diagnosed with Lyme Disease.**

And when that time comes, you’ll know it’s the surprise you’ve been saving for. You’ll know that this—this!—is the moment your emergency fund gets a whole lot smaller.

Here are your criteria for determining a real emergency:

  1. Is something broken?
  2. Is someone broken?
  3. Can you fix it yourself?
  4. Will there be legal consequences if you do not fix it?
  5. Will you lose money, productivity, or your life if you don’t fix it?
  6. Does it need to be fixed right the fuck now?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, then congratulations! You’ve got a genuine emergency on your hands and not a fake but entirely tempting bacon emergency. Proceed by draining your emergency fund without remorse because baby, that’s what it’s there for.

*See the resemblance?

**$3,000 out of pocket in hospital bills before he even got a diagnosis and treatment. #healthcarereform

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20 thoughts to “On Emergency Fund Remorse… and Bacon Emergencies”

  1. I feel you on the emergency vet stinging.

    Fluffster ate an entire mango pit last week, more or less whole, and the vet said on the phone that it would be a good idea to try to get it out the way it came. $220 and several days later, it’s still not out T_T. Oh, and one of these days I’ll have to write a full-fledged post on the time he got bloat. Good lord did that suck.

    1. Nooooo poor Fluffster!

      Man, I am so here for detailed stories about gross/expensive vet visits. My pup had abdominal surgery once to remove a sock that had impacted in his lower intestine.

  2. I completely enjoyed this article. Oh the different faces I made reading it. From gross pus leak face to my cheese emergencies I pray about. One of the best articles I have read on emergency fund spending. Thanks for sharing!

    I have to tell my wife all the time that we can pay down debt quicker or fix a part of our falling down foreclosure house instead of putting more money in our emergency fund. I asked her how many times she had to write a check for over 15K right that day or else something terrible would happen. We decided that really we could cover most of our emergencies with our current fund. We can easily cover our out of pocket max if one of us was seriously injured, and have insurance for other possible issues.

    I met a crazy old Southern lady once that always said, if it doesn’t bleed or breed, then we can replace it. This helps ease the pain for my wife when we needed a dishwasher, AC unit, and new back doors for our home. We have the bleeding and breeding things in our life covered with an emergency fund, so let’s replace the other things and not agonize over it.

    Great post!

    1. Cameron, your comments are always so nice! Thank you! And I’m totally stealing your crazy Southern lady’s saying. That takes a lot of the stress out of a broken water heater/oven/etc.

      Have you written anything yet on the “right amount” for an emergency fund? I feel like there’s got to be some kind of formula that takes into account things like property, debt, number of dependents, preexisting health conditions. But that’s my next puzzler: once I stop feeling guilt about using it, when can I decide that the fund is the “right amount”?

      1. Piggy, you are two are both super entertaining I love smiling(giggling) and enjoying reading about finance.

        I have a pretty lengthy draft about emergency funds but it has gone two ways. I either cop out and say it is a personal choice and it is what you are comfortable with and some examples etc. (lame)

        Or, I take a harder view on why I think the fund should be less than what other people say. 6 months living expenses is silly to me. It is hard enough for people to pay bills and save $500. I think if everyone just had $1000 in an account they would be able to avoid a lot of CC debt.

        In the end I think it is a combination of what types of emergencies you may have (medical, home repair, auto). Again, I have never had to write a $15,000 check immediately or else they would take my home or put me in jail. Even if you have a medical emergency hospitals and E.R. visits will take a payment plan. I even had to use one when our boy had 3 visits in 2 months (luckily nothing major). We budgeted the extra $200 a month to pay off the bill. I realize not everyone has that option, but the point is, people tend to be pretty resilient and able to adapt to terrible situations. It is never as bad as it seems, and never as good as it seems.

        Last point and I will stop the ramble, but if I lost my job (emergency) and couldn’t find work in 6 months then I wouldn’t need to worry about 6 months expenses, I would need to find a place to live after my wife kicked me out. I am not above any job in that situation. One of the main reasons I don’t subscribe to that 6 month rule of thumb.

        Sorry for the long bumbling comment, but thanks for posting your views on the topic!

  3. Just wanted to drop a comment to say this is an awesome site. Stumbled across y’all from The Financial Diet, and you guys speak to my soul. There is a major lack of no-bullshit financial advice out there and your gif game is killing it, so thank you for your service 🙂

    1. A compliment on our gif usage! Girl, you know how to flatter a bitch. 😉

      Thank you so much for reading our work–both here and at TFD!

  4. Wow with an unexpected dental filling and a new car battery last week I can really get this article! I felt guilty about spending the money but in all reality this is why I save money, so I can have it for situations like this.

    1. Oh no your poor teeth! Feel no guilt, my friend. You used that emergency fund money exactly as it was meant to be used. Thanks for reading!

  5. So when you invite friends over for brunch, but 6 more friends than expected show up, do you have a bacon emergency on your hands? Only asking because that just happened yesterday. We ended up spending about $30 on what we called an emergency grocery run that included bacon.

  6. I just call mine savings. Because I will have car insurance payments every 6 months, and some kind of dental bill is typical. These are foreseen, but unknown total amount expenses.
    The last time I was unemployed the unemployment check covered rent. Electric, food, cobra, gas, etc was all out of pocket, aka out of savings account. I am building my accounts to be more flexible than in the past. I now have a taxable account that I will put money into that is above $× in said savings account. But I can take that money back out if I really need it.

  7. “You might have a cheese emergency at some point, but that’s between you and your god.” Lol I used have lots of cheese emergencies. I mean i was for my bones…you know…calcium! 🙂 I think people will come up with lots of good excuses to dip into their emergency funds!

  8. This just came across my tumblr dash and I wanted to moan and groan because I *FINALLY* hit my EF goal of $3,000 with this week’s paycheck and guess what happened this morning? My “Service Engine Soon” light came on.

    1. Oh noooooo! That’s what ALWAYS happens. But also, in a weird coincidence, I’m writing a new article on emergency funds RIGHT NOW. Can I use your tragic yet kinda funny anecdote?

  9. Had to come back and re-read this for some validation. My refrigerator went kaput Friday night, so I had to go appliance shopping for a new one first thing Saturday morning. I know I didn’t get the cheapest option, but the fridge I did buy has a lot more room for food than the previous one, so I’ll say it was worth the expense. Plus, I shouldn’t have to replace it for several years at least, so I’m trying to make peace with the money I spent, even though it almost physically hurt to spend that much.

    Since it was the weekend, I couldn’t call my bank for a temporary increase on my debit card. So my workaround was to pay using my credit card, then turn around and use the money in my savings to pay the amount I spent to avoid interest racking up. (I’m still working on paying that card off, but at least that won’t set me back.)

  10. Ooof. I *needed* to read this. (And re-read it.) After a few years of financial precarity, I have no debt, and I live well below my means. Increasing my my E-Fund to 10 months of expenses from 5 felt “smart” and I thought it would alleviate my anxiety and make me feel accomplished. I reached my 10 month E Fund last week, and that impressive number felt good for about half an hour, and then the doubt and anxiety crept back in. I started to think “well, maybe I need a full year before I can relax? After all, what if [insert catastrophizing].”

    This article has convinced me to start thinking of some of that money as a down payment on a house instead—- as a ticket to something better, rather than a life preserver from something worse.

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