If you’re not sure what financial goals you might want to set as a graduate student, look first at how your finances would handle an emergency. An emergency fund is a vital component of financial health; being a graduate student, whether funded or unfunded, does not exempt you from this basic requirement. If you don’t yet have an emergency fund, set a goal to save $1,000.
What is an emergency fund?
An emergency fund is a designated sum of money that has been set aside for use in emergencies only. The vast majority of the time, the emergency fund will appear to do nothing, but its only job is to be available to you. When an emergency occurs, you draw upon the money to pay for it. After the emergency ends, you rebuild your fund to its original level.
Emergencies are any necessary expenses that you have not anticipated in your planned spending. Depending on your insurance coverage and the level of your planning with your targeted savings accounts, an emergency might be a medical incident, a leave of absence from school, damage to your home or possessions, a theft, a car accident, etc.
Why have an emergency fund?
When an emergency occurs in your life, the last thing you want to have on your mind are your finances. It is an amazing stress-reliever to have a sum of money set aside for just these circumstances. You will actually have the ability to pay for emergencies that fall within the amount you have saved, which can help you mitigate the potential financial damage. You won’t have to weigh different pots of money or credit against one another in the midst of your trying situation.
Where should you keep an emergency fund?
Emergency funds should stay in cash-equivalents such as a checking, savings, or money market account.
According to Murphy’s Law, if you invest your emergency fund, the very moment you need to access it will be the moment that your investment drops like a rock. Similarly, you shouldn’t compound your emergency by using a line of credit as your emergency fund; this strategy will cost you stress and interest at the most inconvenient time.
You might keep your emergency fund in your checking account with your regular monthly income, in a designated savings account at the same bank as your checking account, or in a savings or money market account at another financial institution.
Funded and unfunded grad students
If you are living on your grad student stipend, you have a very limited amount of income each month. It can be quite difficult to cash flow larger expenses on your available discretionary income. Having an emergency can compound the problem of trying to cash flow the main expense as you may have no time or energy to devote to being frugal with your existing income – or you may lose the income itself. Although it is challenging, it is preferable to have the money for the emergency saved ahead of time in a designated fund.
Unfunded graduate students who are taking out student loans should also set aside a small emergency fund. It is a bit counter-intuitive to take out additional loan money, which is accumulating interest, just to set it aside, seeming to be doing nothing. But how would your finances play out in an emergency if you didn’t have some money set aside? Would you turn to a credit card, ultimately paying a much higher rate of interest on the balance? If your plan is to access additional student loans, what about the time it takes to be approved and for the paperwork to be processed? It’s preferable to keep that small cash emergency fund available.
Why is $1,000 the key number?
One thousand dollars is a fantastic initial emergency fund goal. If you haven’t yet put aside $1,000 in your emergency fund, make achieving that a top financial priority.
One thousand dollars is first and foremost a nice round number. It’s difficult to be specific about the ideal emergency fund size across a population, so a round number is as good as any to start with. It’s a great accomplishment to set aside a four-figure number in your savings.
One thousand dollars will also take care of a large percentage of emergencies. Big, catastrophic events are rare, but if you haven’t set aside $1,000 your budget can be busted just as easily by a small emergency as by a large one. One thousand dollars will cover a large array of low-level emergencies – the kind that are likely to occur over the period in which you’re in training.
What do you do after you reach $1,000?
After you’ve set aside $1,000 in your emergency fund, it’s time to turn your attention to other financial goals.
Certainly you can keep building your emergency fund above this starter level. The general advice for a full emergency fund size is 3-6 months of expenses. If that number seems daunting, work on saving $1,000 first, and then perhaps another $1,000. Working out that saving muscle means that you will achieve the next goal even faster.
But there are other worthwhile financial goals that may take precedence over bulking up your emergency fund. If you are in debt, especially moderate- or high-interest-rate debt, start whittling that down. It’s incredibly valuable as well to start investing at a young age to allow compound interest ample time to work. You could even turn your focus to building up short-term savings to handle your irregular expenses to take that burden off your emergency fund.
If you are a graduate student who does not have $1,000 in a designated emergency fund, make saving that up your top financial goal! Not only will you have peace of mind that your finances can handle a low-level emergency, but you will also put yourself on a path to financial health. The strategies you implement to save up your first $1,000 can then be applied to your next financial goal.
Do you have a $1,000 or larger emergency fund? How did/will you save up your first $1,000? Have you had any emergencies occur that $1,000 could have handled?