The current government shut down highlights a significant problem in the United States. No, I’m not talking about the lack of political will in congress to tackle even the most mundane of tasks, though that certainly is a problem. I’m talking about the pervasive financial fragility of Americans.
Some 800,000 federal employees face at least a delay in getting paid, if not the full loss of at least one paycheck. Many will find it difficult to make ends meet and will struggle to catch up on their bills even after they start getting paid again. Social media posts under #shutdownstories are heartbreaking.
But financial insecurity goes beyond those impacted by the shut down. In a report released last May, the Federal Reserve found that even in our currently strong economy, four in ten Americans would have difficulty coming up with $400 to cover an unexpected expense without resorting to selling something or going into debt. The lack of savings cuts across income brackets.
Anyone who is working for pay is vulnerable to the loss of a paycheck. Even in a good economy, people get laid off, and there is a surprisingly high probability that you will not be able to work due to an injury or illness at some point during your career.
To avoid having one of these setbacks become a financial disaster, you need an emergency fund.
If you do not currently have at least three months of basic living expenses saved outside your retirement plan, building that level of savings needs to be your top priority. It is more important than saving for anything else.
- If you are currently saving in your retirement plan, but don’t have an emergency fund, stop your contributions now. Even if your employer matches, stop. Focus every extra dollar on building an emergency fund.
- If you are working on paying down your debt, stop all but the minimum payments. Yes, you will rack up extra interest charges, but once your emergency fund is in place, you will be far less likely to add to your debt in the future.
- Cut your spending to the bone, and/or consider selling something to get a jump start on your emergency fund. The foundation of your financial security is dependent on you being able to survive a short time out of work.
Once you’ve established a minimum emergency fund, you can resume your progress toward your other financial goals. Your emergency fund is a one and done kind of goal. Once it’s in place you don’t need to keep adding to it, unless you use it for the emergency it’s there for or your basic living expenses increase.
Too many Americans are just the loss of a paycheck away from financial disaster. The government’s shut down illustrates the vulnerability of even those with a supposedly good job. If you don’t have enough money saved to survive a few months without pay, your top priority is to establish an emergency fund.
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