Wiping out Emergency Savings to Pay off Debt

In the personal finance blogging world, when you bring up the question of whether your primary focus should be on building an emergency fund or paying off your debt first, you will likely get a very strong passionate response supporting one or the other. Those belonging to the emergency fund first camp argue that without an emergency fund, it is easy to slip into the murky world of more debt when unexpected circumstances strike. On the other hand, those belonging to the pay debt first camp argue that to get the best mileage out of your money, use it to pay off high interest debt, instead of letting it sit around in a low interest savings account (and compared to the hay days, even the best online savings accounts look like low interest savings accounts these days!). We definitely belong to the latter camp. For us, debt feels like a constantly nagging thorn on our side and during the past couple of months we pretty much wiped out our emergency funds to pay off our debt. While there were heavy psychological and emotional overtones to this decision, it was not made lightly. I would like to lay out our reasoning here, in case someone else is in a similar boat and finds it interesting.

The psychological and emotional reasons

Before going into the logical reasoning, let me first provide an overview of our situation so it may help you understand why we were so itching to pay off the debt. During our years in grad school, which were our first few years in the US, we had amassed a whopping $42,500 in debt! Coming to the realization of how deep a hole we were in and pulling ourselves out of it bit by bit was a experience that left a permanent distaste for debt. For around 4-5 years after that we were clean. During those years we have been saving and investing aggressively. Last year however, when our trusted 14 year old 150K mile car died, we gave in to our whims and ended up buying our dream car. It was a pre-owned vehicle but way too expensive and not having the liquid cash in hand we ended up financing it. (If interested, you can read my confessions and justifications regrading that decision). While we have no regrets about the car, the decision to finance it has been sticking out like a sore thumb to us.

What makes matters worse is that during the past few months there have been rumors, which are turning to be less of rumors and more of a certainty as the months pass, that our company could soon be bought over, and I will likely lose my job. Being pregnant, it is not going to be easy for me to go find another job immediately. While I think we can handle the dramatic change from double-income-no-kids to single-income-new-baby without going financially downhill again, I would feel a lot more comfortable if we can do it without the added stress of carrying debt. So a couple of months back, when I received the stocks for the past 6 months of investment into the employee stock purchase plan, I sold them for an immediate 15% profit, withdrew almost all the money from our emergency savings and plonked all that money on the cashiers desk to payoff our car loan. Even though depleting the cash reserves was scary, the thrill of being debt-free again (apart from mortgage, which we are continuing to pay off aggressively) is exhilarating!

The plan for surviving emergencies

We did not take the decision to wipe out our emergency savings lightly (nor do I think anyone should, no matter how much of a staunch supporter of the pay debt first ideology they are). Here is our reasoning which is very specific to our situation.

Daily expenses on job loss

Fortunately, since both of us work, this case is not as severe a threat to us as it is to single income families. Even though there is a possibility that both of us could lose our jobs within a span of few weeks from each other, I doubt that it is likely to happen (in the inadvertent case that it does happen, one of the cases listed below should cover us at least for a few weeks, and hopefully one of us can find a job by then?). Currently, we pay twice the amount to the mortgage, max out both our 401Ks, invest in one employee stock purchase plan and could pay our car loan. In case of one job lost, we can cut down the aggressive mortgage payments and possibly reduce the contribution to the 401K just enough to get the employer match. Also, with the car loan gone, that is some more money freed up. With a slightly more frugal lifestyle, I think we can get on by fine for our daily expenses and possibly manage to save a little each month to rebuild our emergency account.

Additional unexpected expenses up to $1000

While we were students, both of us used credit unions. When we started working we started using a regular bank. But since our credit union was our oldest standing account, in the interest of maintaining a better credit history, we decided to leave our credit union accounts open. And in order to keep it in good standing we each have a direct deposit of $50 or so into that account each paycheck. Since we have been doing this siphoning right from our first paycheck, we do not really miss that $50 each paycheck. And since this account grows oh-so-slowly, we do not consider it a part of any of our accounting. Over a period of time we have each had a few hundred to sometimes a cushy $1000 accumulated in that account unnoticed. And it has been a good source to tap into when we have small emergencies but do not want to dip into our real emergency savings. Currently, we probably have low hundreds in each of our accounts, but with monies from both our accounts pooled, we should be able to handle small unexpected expenses up to $1000 or so.

Additional unexpected expenses up to $6000

We are not really into stock market investing (other than our 401Ks). But last year when I had an additional $5K, I had opened a Vangaurd account and had setup an auto deduction of $100 per month to go to this account. With the stock market slump, this account barely stands at $6000+, in spite of a year passing by with money being pumped into it on a regular monthly basis! While I would love to keep this around for a long time and see where it goes, I will not be terribly upset if I have to sell the index funds to pay for an emergency. Sure, I will incur some taxes and possibly lose some money, but frankly I have not been making any money on that account since I got it and the rate of returns is probably at 0% or slightly negative. So, using it up for paying for an emergency will not bother me at all!

Additional unexpected expenses up to $15,000

When the interest rates on savings accounts were high, I used to play the 0% APR balance transfer game quite heavily. With the slump in interest rates the credit cards charging fees for balance transfers, I don't play this game any longer. But between the two of us, we have access to around $80K - $100K in credit and I am assuming that with the car loan paid off and no outstanding debt, we should be able to have access to at least $15K at low interest rates. For instance, currently, I have an outstanding offer from one of my cards for a 0% balance transfer for one year, with 3% fees capped at $199. I have a $17K credit limit on that card (if necessary, by transferring credit lines, I should be able to increase that to $42K). I know this is not something I can rely on, since the offers change from time to time, but it makes it easier to justify against letting money sit in an emergency account earning next to nothing in interest.

Additional unexpected expenses up to $30,000

As listed early in the history of this blog, our financial goals and the approach to realizing them is to rely primarily on our 401K contributions, and owning our house outright as soon as possible. In addition to that, our outside investments (as and when we can) have been mostly into the real estate back in home country. During the past few months, with the car loan, medical expenses etc, we have not been able to do much towards the overseas investments. But during the golden 4-5 years in the middle when we were debt-free and saving like squirrels, we did manage to stash away a little in these investments. In the worst case, for largish emergencies we should be able to liquidate some of our holdings and pay for it. This will likely cause a lot of stress and heart ache and may even cause us to lose some money, but if it an emergency that large, I doubt we will really care! What's money good for if you cant use it when you need it? Besides, we will never stash away $30K in a liquid emergency fund, so this would probably be inevitable in case of large emergencies anyway!

Additional unexpected expenses > $30,000

Finally, for those super large blows (which I hope we will not have to face in this lifetime!!!) I think we can dip into our last resort - a 401K loan, or a home equity loan etc. This one will likely impact our ability to retire on our own terms, but if we are faced with super large emergencies, and live to tell the tale, then that will likely be a small price to pay. Besides, we are still young and we should be able to rebuild from scratch....

Since this analysis was specific to our situation, I don't know if it will help anyone make their own decisions. But it sure was helpful to me in ensuring my peace of mind that in spite of depleting our emergency fund, an emergency in the near future (until we plump up our emergency funds again) will not throw us over the edge into the debt hole again. Irrespective of whether you have a blog or not, I encourage you to do this analysis with your own situation. If you are in the same boat as us (early stages of financial life) or much ahead, it will help offer the peace of mind that you can possibly survive many of life's curve balls. If you are where we were 5 years back (just paid off all debt, but don't have much in savings yet), I am sure an analysis like this will motivate you to stay frugal and save as much as you can. And if you are where we were 7-8 years back (with a pile of debt in front of us, and no savings whatsoever to speak of), then I am sure an analysis like this will push you into digging out of that debt hole much faster. Either ways, feel free to share your thoughts!

*Image Credit: Photograph by 24thcentury (via Flickr Creative Commons)

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lulugal11 said...

Hey there is nothing wrong with using the EF to pay off a debt. I did this one time and got a lot of flak for doing it...but then I also got some support from some PF bloggers.

I needed to get rid of that particular debt quickly because it was a reminder of something VERY stupid I did a long time ago.

The interest I was getting on the emergency fund was a lot less than the interest I was paying on that one debt and it was just depressing me.

Yes it was hard to have no savings at all but then it was uplifting not to have a constant reminder of how stupid I had been. I had enough money to cover all my daily bills etc. so it was not a total loss.

ispf said...

lulugal11: Thanks for your support! I understand *exactly* what you mean! Knowing that we don't have to worry about debt if I lose my job, is so much more uplifting than constantly worrying about how to pay all the bills while having to pay a chunk of the reduced income towards debt! I think every time we would have to dip into our emergency funds to pay daily bills, it would cause a lot of stress. Instead, now with the debt gone, and some money freed up we are filling back into the emergency funds with renewed vigor :) Even if I lose the job, I think we will continue to chip in a little bit to the emergency fund. Overall, that's a much more positive feeling!

Anonymous said...

I don't blame you. Every time I saved some money in an ef fund I had an overwhelming need to use it to pay off debt:)

Anonymous said...

I'm down near payoff on my debt and it's killing me to be so close and yet not be able to pay it off. I'm to the point where I'm throwing like $5 at it at a time. I could clear out my emergency fund to pay it, but I'm a little scared to.

The problem, I think, is because I now have a budget. A certain amount goes into the savings account with a certain goal in mind a few months from now. Digging into it to pay off debt would derail that plan. Dilemmas!

I think for me the smart thing to do is pay off the debt the agonizingly slow way. It's sitting at 0%, while my savings earns like 3 something %. But it's so frustrating!

The Finance Section said...

It can be a difficult balancing act but I'd opt for having an emergency savings fund equal to 3 months salary before wiping off the debt. It'll take longer to pay the debt off but you'll feel more financially secure using this approach.