Psychologists say that when really bad things are happening, you usually go through a five-step process to deal with it: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Building up an emergency fund is freaking hard. It’s often something people start working on pretty early as they climb their personal finance mountain.
It’s one of the first places where we learn how to really squeeze a few pennies from our budget so we can squirrel them away. It might’ve been the catalyst to get you side hustling to build it up faster. Maybe when you look at that checking balance, you think back on the process of building it with a mixture of pride and happiness that the sacrifice of working a bunch of shifts waitressing or getting up super early to freelance write is over.
I know for my emergency fund, I built up the majority of it the first time I lived in New York City by super carefully sticking to my budget and dumping any extra “wins” in there – birthday money, dividend payouts. A lot of it also came from brokeGIRLrich income.
I fought hard for about three years to get $10,000 in there. $10,000 is my happy number. On a really tight budget, it’s three months of bills if I’m living somewhere I have to pay rent plus my car insurance and health care deductible.
Most of all, it’s the number that psychologically makes me feel secure.
So when I had to raid the heck out of it this spring while I was unemployed (something that already feels pretty crappy) and had a bunch of health issues, it felt like really bad things were happening.
So I present to you the five stage of grief as you watch your emergency fund balance drop.
This phase was kind of fun. I kept living like I was still employed. I went on a trip with my cousin to Nashville. I took a road trip to meet an old friend halfway between our homes. I shopped at Whole Foods once in a while.
Essentially, I just ignored the fact that my checking account was dwindling and I now had a credit card balance higher than it.
I would think, “Mel, where is the money going to come from to pay off this credit card balance?”
And then I would squash that thought and go to Panera with my best friend. After all, how often am I in New Jersey for long stretches of time?
A tiny voice would pipe up, “You’re going to have to pay off your card from your savings…”
And I would shush it and hit up Starbucks.
Now, don’t get me wrong, if you go back and check out some of my posts during this time, I pointed out that if you’re already depressed about being unemployed, trying not to be an anti-social hermit does help. And that’s true. I also pointed out that I got a lot more freelance writing work done at Starbucks during that time too. Some of these trips were legit. But in the beginning of siphoning off my emergency savings, they definitely more a total denial of my change in income rather than a carefully planned splurge.
Then weekly, because I hadn’t changed any of my habits, I’d check out my credit card balance, and pay it down however I could. Some weeks I’d hustle enough to cover it from my checking account. Other weeks…
Everything was fine.
Everything was NOT fine.
The moment that ignited my anger at the situation was the first medical bill that arrived. That took a big chunk out my emergency fund and for the first time, I really felt my financial security start to slip away.
And I got pissed.
Do you know how hard I worked to build up that stupid fund? (I mean, if you have or are working on your own, you totally know.) WTF, universe! Why are you throwing me so many curveballs at once?
I’m sure I was a joy to live with at this time.
On the plus side, since I’d moved out of denial, I was now angrily turning down all offers to do anything that cost money, brewing my own coffee at home and generally being an all around grump.
Especially when I cut down my spending and I was still not making enough to cover my needs.
The season of anger was just delightful.
As it became apparent that this anger was doing nothing to make things better, I upped my prayer life. I mean, you do you, but when the going gets tough, God and I talk a lot more.
Maybe you meditate. Maybe you journal. I don’t know. But what I do know is that it seemed like somewhere in all this money sucking badness, there must be a reason, right?
My bargaining included things like, “If you send me the right job (cough, cough, Cirque du Soleil, Jesus), I’ll make really good money and can like donate to missionaries and stuff.”
“If you can just fix this problem with my stomach without me having to go to another doctor, I will never procrastinate on getting something checked when I don’t feel well again.”
I also got a little trapped in the past. I would check out the previous month’s spending breakdown and obsess over spending $15 on entertainment. I went to the movies!?! Once!?! In 30 days. How dare I! How will I ever achieve any of my savings goals for the year? How will I ever refill my emergency savings if I spend any money on fun?
I spent a lot of time trying to strike deals with my higher power (seminarian pro tip: I am well aware He doesn’t generally negotiate) – and kicking myself.
It was great. It was a really fun time.
I did not get out of my pajamas for five days at one point.
I’m not proud of it.
But for real, when life makes you use your emergency account, especially when you’re not in a financial position to make a plan to refill it ASAP (or maybe even when you are), it’s legit depressing to watch that target number you worked so hard to achieve slide lower and lower.
Here’s the thing though. I weathered being totally unemployed for two months and then another month and a half of being wildly underemployed (thanks entertainment industry and your stupid low paychecks for some shows) and about $2,500 in medical bills all at the same time.
Do you know how many people that would utterly destroy? There’s some study we all quote in the personal finance blogosphere that most people couldn’t handle a $400 emergency.
Emergencies happen. Tires explode. Teeth rot. Kids swallow quarters. Well meaning relatives drop your baby. Jobs get lost. People you love die and you just have to get to the funeral.
I was at my Girl Scout best this spring, guys. I was so prepared.
And through the first steps of the whole debacle, all I could concentrate on was the bad. But seriously, it’s kind of amazing that all my hard work a few years earlier actually did work and I had everything I needed in a long emergency.
You know what else? I did learn a lot about a lot during this period and some of it was of the big life lesson types, not necessarily related to personal finance:
- I have some amazing friends who adapted to my new super tight budget because they just wanted to spend time together.
- I have an amazing network of friends and former colleagues who all passed along every job offering they heard of for months!
- My family is endlessly patient with me – especially since they endured the brunt of the anger and depression stages.
- If you make a good plan, when you need to execute it, you’ll probably be fine.
- There are good things even in bad seasons of life. I watched a weird amount of baseball with my dad at night once everyone else was asleep. I was able to be around to help my mom while she was sick for a few months.
- Don’t ignore medical issues while you’re gainfully employed.
I also remind myself that when I was first building up that account, I was new to the personal finance game and trying to figure out everything out. I’m a little older and wiser now, so while it’s a hassle to have to build it up again, I know that if I just make a plan and keep moving forward, I can rebuild that emergency savings account before too long.