This recent emergency prompted me to remind people of the need to have a “life happens” fund, which is meant to stabilize you when there is an expense outside of your regular budget. Without it, many folks fall behind on their bills and can’t catch their financial breath.
We are a country divided by extreme wealth and poverty. At one end of the economic spectrum, people can easily afford an emergency. At the other end, there are those whose income covers only the bare necessities of life. A $200 emergency can set them back. This economic divide is very troubling and one that we as a society need to fix.
There’s also a swath of middle-class Americans who can save but don’t. They have more than enough to live comfortably with extra cash left over. In a recent column, I encouraged this group to examine their spending and make saving a priority.
To my disappointment, this plea was met with quite a bit of criticism.
One reader wrote: “Was this column really necessary?”
Some argued that to even say folks should save is pointless. “With everything we have to pay for, we just don’t need to be condescended to,” another reader wrote. “People do their best.”
Many people who are capable of saving are not doing their best. This is not a statement meant to shame or humiliate. I understand stating the obvious can make people feel bad about their choices, but that doesn’t negate the need for the advice.
Not that I should have to explain, but the constant drumbeat to save is not unlike the need for a fire drill.
Why do we need to practice for a fire?
Because during a crisis, we often can’t think straight. We panic, and that can lead to devastating consequences. Yet, as adults, we sometimes resist this safety precaution. How do you feel when you hear the siren blaring during a fire drill on your job?
You probably see it as an annoyance. Or, you don’t take it seriously, perhaps taking your sweet time to evacuate.
The same can be said for the practice of saving. People get annoyed when told they need an emergency fund. But when a financial fire breaks out, they panic, because they ignored advice to prepare for when life happens.
A new survey from AARP found that nearly one-half of adults 30 and older have experienced an unexpected financial challenge in the past year. The most common emergency was a medical expense, loss of income or a necessary repair. The median cost ranged between $3,000 and $4,000.
Over 60 percent of Americans who had an emergency expense said they delayed paying household bills, and over half used a credit card.
AARP points out in its report that a growing body of research shows how common and destabilizing unexpected financial challenges can be for all income levels, racial/ethnic backgrounds, genders and age groups.
“When a financial emergency happens, families are under stress, and the natural instinct is often to take the quickest step to solve the problem,” said Gary Koenig, vice president for financial security at the AARP Public Policy Institute. “But this can lead to a decision that makes a difficult situation financially worse in the long run.”
To help plan for the unexpected, AARP has launched a free “Money Map” online tool.
“We know that money is inevitably emotional,” Koenig said. “Stress limits our ability to make well-informed decisions.”
With Money Map, consumers answer a few questions and are given general guidance on how to handle a number of possible hardships. Consider the exercise a financial fire drill.
“Your [column] actually jolted some sense into me,” one reader admitted. “Thankfully, all my loved ones are in the same city as me, but I don’t have anything for a rainy day and [I have] a ton of debt. I get my nails done, eat out, yadda, yadda. It is the ‘I deserve this,’ ‘live for today,’ ‘it’s my money, I’ll treat myself’ trap. Thank you for the bucket of cold water in the kisser I needed!”
A fire drill, a splash of cold water — whatever it takes to get you to prepare for the unexpected. Because it will happen.