Conventional wisdom says to keep three to six months of expenses in your emergency fund, with expenses being the things you must pay each month. (As opposed to things you’d like to keep being able to pay for: cable TV, dinners out, trips to the movies, new clothes, fun money, etc.)
By following conventional wisdom, if you normally spend $2000 per month but your bare-minimum expenses are $1200 per month, you would keep between $3600 and $7200 in your emergency fund. In theory this would give you a three to six month cushion in case of job loss.
But as someone who has been laid off in the past, and who has lived for four years on just income from micro businesses and odd jobs, I can tell you that reality is different.
For me at least, when I first got laid off I was excited. I thought it was going to give me lots of time to really get the small business I had started going while I also looked for a little job to tide me over. How hard could it be, I thought, to go down to one of the hundreds of small businesses that surround my neighborhood and get a job? So I didn’t worry too much, and I didn’t really cut back much on my spending. I applied regularly to various places while working on the business. And didn’t get hired.
I keep thinking that more income was right around the corner, but it wasn’t. I knew intellectually that I should cut back to the bare minimum, but knowing something intellectually and actually doing it are two completely different things. We know we should floss daily and never exceed the speed limit, right? It’s even harder to do what’s right intellectually when you FEEL differently than you think. (That more income is right around the corner.)
It’s just not realistic to think that if you lose your job, you’re going to instantly cancel your cable & cell phone, stop eating out entirely, quit driving places so that you use less gas, tell your kid no they can’t have money for pizza or the field trip at school, deny yourself an ice cream cone when you’re sitting at home going stir crazy, etc. It’s also not realistic to think that Murphy will kindly stay away from you because you’re unemployed and/or because your business isn’t bringing in much money. And as we all know, Murphy usually wants a bunch of money. (I had to have surgery during the time period in question, pay unexpected legal fees & go to court, and spend a lot of gas driving 20-60 miles round trip multiple times a day to help take care of my mom, take her to doctors & hospitals for tests & surgeries, etc.)
Realistic is thinking that it’ll take you a while to realize that you should cut back more, that things may go wrong unexpectedly, or that it may take you longer than you wish to find a new job or to get going on alternative income sources. Realistic is realizing that once you’re in an emergency and living on your emergency fund for your daily expenses, you no longer have an emergency fund.
So personally I threw conventional wisdom out the window. I keep nearly a year of my full normal spending in my emergency fund, and I have a minuscule list of what would constitute an emergency. (Job loss and bleeding of the hospitalization type.) I don’t think a full year is enough really, but it’s what I’m ok with for now while I work on other goals.