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By Melissa Lambarena / NerdWallet
October 14, 2016

For many families, having an emergency fund sounds like wishful thinking.

One in three families — some with incomes of $100,000 or higher — say they don’t have one, according to a 2015 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

But if you don’t have at least a small emergency fund, you’ll be vulnerable to debt when you have an unexpected expense. And that makes these expenses even more costly. For example:

  • Charging a $400 car repair adds $37 to the cost, assuming it takes nine months to pay off and your credit card’s annual percentage rate is 21.99%.
  • Resorting to a payday loan to cover the same car repair could add $60 or even more if you can’t pay it off within the first 14-day cycle.

There are options when you think your income isn’t enough to open an emergency fund. Bonuses and rewards, rethinking your bills or maximizing your tax refund can all help you get started.

Read More: How to Invest $500

Set goals and a budget

According to the 2015 Pew report, the median cost of surveyed households’ highest unexpected expense within the past year varied from $1,000 for those with lower incomes to $3,000 for those with higher incomes.

The ideal emergency fund covers three to six months of living expenses in case of job loss. But $1,000 or even less can keep you out of debt by covering car or household repairs, medical bills or rent. Here’s how to build that cushion:


This applies to all households regardless of income, but if you receive public benefits, ask your case manager about the amount you can save without affecting your assistance.

Find out where your money is going. Review your current spending patterns by sorting through your statements or downloading a free budgeting app.

Set specific short-term and long-term goals. For example, you might try to save $84 per month so you’ll have $1,000 after one year.


Rethink your bills and your budget. The right adjustments can free up $50 or more per month to go toward savings:

  • Car insurance: Shop around for better deals. A 2015 NerdWallet study revealed that drivers can save an average of $859 per year by comparing rates at renewal time.
  • Utilities: If you qualify, sign up for low-income assistance programs for gas, electricity or water bills.
  • Home: Ask your landlord about renewing your rental agreement for six months or a year to lock in your current rent. If you’re a homeowner, consider refinancing your mortgage.
  • Phone: Get a cheaper cell phone plan or find out if killing your landline will save you money.
  • Transportation: Public transportation is usually cheaper than driving. If you need a car, though, mobile apps can help you avoid traffic — saving on gas and wear and tear — and locate cheap gas prices.
  • Cable: Ditch your cable bill and opt for a cheaper subscription service, such as Netflix or Hulu.
  • Gym or club membership: If you don’t use it, lose it.

Seize opportunities

Get creative about finding extra money, and then deposit it in your emergency fund.

Make your bank work for you. Switch to a low-fee checking account or ask if your bank or credit union waives monthly fees when you set up automatic transfers to savings. You might get a bonus of between $50 and $300 for switching banks, but read the fine print to make sure the new account’s ongoing fees won’t offset your bonus. Understand that bonuses are considered taxable income, as are debit cash-back rewards. You can also use credit card cash-back rewards to start a fund, but avoid cards with rewards unless you can skip the annual fee.

Read More: How to Build Credit

Know your tax credits. Tax preparation software, a tax professional or a tax-prep volunteer can help you check out available tax credits. Your refund can be an easy way to start saving for emergencies. Look into the earned income tax credit, a tax credit for low- and moderate-income earners, and find out whether you’re owed unclaimed money from recent tax years. The child tax credit can be worth as much as $1,000 per child depending on your income level.

Take advantage of rewards and coupons. To free up money to add to your emergency fund, sign up for loyalty programs at the stores you visit most. Browse the app store on your mobile device for apps that alert you to low prices or coupons. Use coupons only for things you need, or you might be tempted to spend more.

Read More: NerdWallet’s Compound Interest Calculator

Start small

Start wherever you can, even if all you have is loose change. If you can save even $1 a day, you’ll be on your way to $365 in a year.

As your emergency fund grows, keep it off limits. It’s tempting to pull out $100 when you’re low on cash, but it’ll cost you in the long run if you must borrow to cover emergencies.

When your emergency fund comes through for you, it will get easier to prioritize and rebuild it. After the first $1,000, you’ll be in the habit of saving and may even find a $2,000 goal doable.