Emergency Funds Are The First Building Block For Retirement

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The Blackrock article Emergency Savings = Better Retirement? comes from Blackrock’s department that helps companies manage their retirement plans. They propose the idea of creating a separate “sidecar savings account” in order to prevent early withdrawals via 401k loans (and often defaults):

A “sidecar savings” account may help build short-term stability, giving participants the confidence to commit to long-term retirement goals. […] Plan sponsors could help participants meet short-term financial needs by taking steps to help reduce [401k loan] defaults.

In other words, they want to give employees an emergency fund! Not exactly a new idea, but it supports the idea that the highest priority should be a short-term emergency fund, even if the real goal is higher retirement savings balances.

At the recent BlackRock Retirement Summit, Rachel Schneider of the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program explained that if participants have confidence about near-term stability through access to emergency cash, it may improve long-term behavior. “If they have more security today,” she said, “It should translate into more long-term savings.”

Build up your financial fortress in stages:

  • Looking past the next payday. Going from paycheck-to-paycheck to having $1,500 in the bank lets many things become minor speed-bumps instead of derailing your life. Do whatever you can to create this fund. For example, I’d even deliver Uber Eats/Doordash/Instacart in my open hours.
  • Looking past your current job. Going from having a minimal emergency fund to ~$10,000 gives you the ability to take career risks and thus the opportunity to turbo-boost your income. You might deliver on Uber Eats to build up this fund, but Uber Eats won’t take to you financial freedom. You need to build up valuable skills and/or business equity.
  • Reaching the point of inevitable financial freedom. Finally, going from $10,000 to $100,000 is amazing because that’s when you realize that reaching financial independence is a matter of WHEN, not IF. It’s a sign that you’ve put in the dirty work and developed the habits and structure required. The only remaining component is time, so now you can make some more minor adjustments to make that time more enjoyable. Similar job with more flexible hours? Less hours? Less politics? Better boss? “The first $100,000 is a b****.”

I prefer the comfort of cash in the bank, but you just need something that you know will float you in the short-term, be it cash or a stock portfolio or whatever else you’re willing to sell. I’ve heard various things like “I can just use my credit cards” or “I can just take a home-equity loan”. Unfortunately, 2020 has shown us that long-term unemployment and long-term depressed wages can happen out of nowhere. Taking on debt when you don’t even have enough income to make the payments can quickly spiral out of control.

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  1. Over the years I’ve become of the opinion that the conventional wisdom to have 3-6 months living expenses stashed away is just a start. I’ve seen situations — both my own and among people I know — that a storm of bad times is going to hit at some point in life. Both members of a working couple will get laid off at the same time. This will also be the same time that unexpected home repairs, automobile breakdowns, or medical needs occur. Then your insurance premiums or some other recurring expense for a necessity increases. So basically I’ve come to believe you can’t have too much cash. I think I would even advise a young person, that after putting enough in your 401-K or other retirement plan to get the match (if there is one), focus on building up cash reserves before other long-term investments.

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