It’s easy to fall into the habit of managing your money like things will always remain more or less the same. As a result, we tend to design our budgets to perfectly fit our current income levels and outgoing expenses.
However, the only constant in life is change, and sooner or later a fluctuation will likely occur. Emergencies can throw a serious wrench in even the best-laid budgets — layoffs, unexpected medical bills, car problems, a burst pipe, vet bills for Fido, you name it. The time to start anticipating these events is ideally before they occur, but it’s important to know what to do in the heat of the moment as well.
Here are six tips for handling a financial emergency, before, during and after it occurs.
What to Do Before a Money Emergency
- Automate deposits into an emergency fund: As it stands, only four in 10 Americans could feasibly cover a sudden $1,000 expense with savings — while 30 percent of respondents to the same survey said they or a family member had dealt with at least one surprise expense in the past year. The best way to get ready to cover an emergency without having to go into major debt is to automate contributions into a designated emergency fund you’ll only touch when an essential, unanticipated cost crops up. There’s no perfect number, but aim to stockpile between three and 12 months’ worth of living costs.
- Pay down debt as proactively as possible: Talk about getting kicked while you’re down, carrying debt can make it all the more difficult to handle a money emergency. Whether you’re in a period of relative financial stability or struggling to stay afloat, it’s smart to offload debt as proactively as possible. You may come up with a plan to pay down debt yourself, or you might find it helpful to explore debt consolidation, a debt relief program or debt management. The longer you carry debt, the more you tend to pay in interest — so the best time to get rid of it is now.
- Keep building your credit score: If you’re unable to cover emergency costs with savings alone, you may need to open a line of credit or take out a loan. Having a high credit score will help you qualify for these measures and earn you the most competitive interest rates.
What to Do During a Money Emergency
- “Triage” your financial situation: It can be difficult to think clearly in the midst of an emergency, but understanding your financial situation so you can make informed decisions will help. It’s time to triage your expenses, deciding which are immovable and which can go for the time being. Finding five ways to free up $20 — like canceling non-essential subscriptions — gives you an extra $100 with which to work, as The Balance points out. A little bit goes a long way here.
- Work with lenders if possible: Did you know many credit card issuers offer hardship measures for cardholders? These allowances may reduce interest, cancel late fees, put a temporary freeze on your account or even reduce how much you have to pay back. Explain your circumstances to your lenders and see what they can do to help.
What to Do After a Money Emergency
- Get ahead of the next financial hurdle: When it rains, it pours. There’s a very good chance another financial hurdle is approaching, so you’ll want to prepare as best you can. This often takes the form of adjusting your insurance protection, rebuilding your emergency fund and/or optimizing your budget.
Getting through a financial emergency is rarely easy, but taking these tips into account can help you minimize the damage and get back on track.