Wondering how much you need in your emergency fund? Calculate a rough estimate of how much to stash away for a rainy day using this simple formula.
- New! I now have a free Excel spreadsheet that will run this formula for you. Download the spreadsheet.
An emergency fund, along with little debt and a sound investment strategy, is a critical component to financial stability. Basically, an emergency fund is just a savings account to help you weather one of life’s unpredictable events like the loss of your job, a medical emergency, or another unexpected expense.
But how much do you need to have in your emergency fund? Personal finance writers like offer vague guidelines ranging anywhere from one month’s living expenses to 6-12 months of income. You can calculate a more accurate picture of how much to have in emergency fund savings using these four factors:
- Minimum monthly expenses
- Income volatility
- Income commutability
- Existing liquid savings
Minimum Monthly Expenses
Determine your fixed expenses each month (such as your rent or mortgage payment; utilities; student, auto or other loan payments; minimum credit card payments; groceries; and medical expenses).
Next, calculate the absolute minimum amount you would be able to tolerate spending on discretionary expenses like dining out, shopping, and entertainment. (Hint: Be reasonable. If you suddenly find yourself unemployed, you may be able to cut back a bit, but don’t expect you’ll suddenly be able to go months without spending a red nickel in a restaurant or movie theater. Somewhere between 60% and 80% of your existing discretionary spending might be reasonable).
Do you have a full-time, permanent job that pays you the same salary month-after-month? If so, consider your income volatility score to be one and skip this part. If you are self-employed, work on a contract basis, or rely on bonuses and commissions for income, however, calculate a simple “income volatility score”.
If you receive bonuses or commissions, tally your income for the previous twelve months. What percentage of this figure was salary and what percentage was bonuses or commissions? If bonuses and commissions comprised 10% or less of your annual earnings, score a one; 15%, score a 1.5; 23%, score a 2.3; etc.
If you work freelance or contract jobs, write down how much you earned each month for the previous twelve months, then choose the months in which you made the most and the least. Next, subtract your lowest month’s income from your highest and divide that number by the lowest month’s income. Add one to that number. This is your income volatility score. For example:
$7,800 (high month earnings) - $2,200 (low month earnings) / $2,200 (Low month earnings) + 1 = 2.5 (income volatility score)
If you lost your job tomorrow, how long would it take you to find a new one? When you find that job, how likely is it to pay at least as much as you now earn? Your income commutability score is how many years you have been working multiplied by 0.5 plus 0.5 for every $10,000 you earn annually over $40,000. For example, if you have worked for five years and earn $60,000, your score is 3.5. Worked two years and earn less than $40,000? Score a one.
Existing Liquid Savings
Finally, determine whether you have any existing liquid savings that you could tap in an emergency. This cash might be in an account for a down payment or vacation. Do not include retirement accounts that contain tax penalties for early withdrawals.
Calculating Your Required Emergency Fund Amount
The formula to calculate how much you need in your emergency fund is:
Min. monthly expenses x Income volatility x Income commutability – Existing savings
For example, if your minimum expenses are $2,500 a month, you work a permanent, salaried job, have been working for five years, earn $50,000 annually, and have no prior savings; your ideal emergency fund is roughly $7,500.
I think this will give you a pretty good idea of where your emergency fund should be in an ideal world. For many—especially if you’ve been working a while—the results will seem high. Most of us might be a long way off from that mark, but the estimate is high because for ideal financial stability, you really might need all that money if you lose your job, expect to maintain your standard of living, and hope to land a similar position. Of course, there are a lot of variables that may come into play that this formula does not account for, but it’s a fun place to start.
Do you think this formula gives you a fair goal for your emergency fund?