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:
- Is something broken?
- Is someone broken?
- Can you fix it yourself?
- Will there be legal consequences if you do not fix it?
- Will you lose money, productivity, or your life if you don’t fix it?
- 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