Nothing tops experience as a means to learn. And the global financial challenges plaguing us for the last few years have certainly offered up lessons aplenty. None of them any more fundamental than the importance of an emergency fund. Setting aside cash is not a luxury, it's a necessity in today's economic environment.
And for our Military Fools, whose paychecks have been threatened twice this year so far, it's no less important. With a new fiscal year starting in October, another nail-biting battle over the budget may be right around the corner. If you had to go without a paycheck, would you be ready?
For many Americans, an emergency fund has made the difference between financially sinking and swimming. Many more have been caught short, unable to make ends meet, in part for lack of this critical component in their financial plan. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that half of Americans would struggle to come up with $2,000 for an unexpected expense.
Ordinarily, I recommend this stash should cover three to six months of living expenses. But if you plan to transition out of the military given today's job outlook, it probably makes sense to have nine to 12 months of living cash set aside.
I suspect many of you think the idea of nine to 12 months of cash in the bank seems like a bridge too far. Not so fast! It may not happen overnight, but it definitely isn't possible unless you get started. Below, I've mapped out some ideas on how I could scrape together $1,000 in 30 days -- and that's a good start:
Brown bag it: Eating lunch in our commissary typically runs about $8. If I take my lunch instead, I cut costs to about $2 per day. Savings = $180.
Brew my own joe: I grind my own organic coffee beans every morning and bring a cup to work. Costs $0.50 per day. Savings = $75.
Tap the tap: Bottled water runs anywhere between $5 and $1.50. I buy the lower-end variety since I'm a cheapskate. If I drink three bottles per day, savings = $135.
Goin' to the dog wash: I have two German shepherds and a border collie. They like my shower as much as I do. Clean dogs once a month, and savings = $200.
And skippin' the car wash: Once a month (whether it needs it not), I wash my car in the driveway. Turning off the water when not in use (kind of like taking a Navy shower), the most it costs is $5. Savings = $20.
Lose the landline: An average cost for a home phone is about $50. I dropped mine and use only my cell phone. Savings = $50.
Get my news online: Drop the local daily paper. Savings = $15.
DIY pedicure: Sure, you have to be a contortionist to do a decent job, but every time, I save at least $50.
In the weeds: The commercial company that sprays my lawn charges $75 per month. I can put up with a few weeds at that price! Savings = $75.
Ditch the satellite radio: The local DJs need love, too. Why not save $30 per month?
Streamline the cable package: Skip the premium channels and easily save $85. I don't miss them a bit.
Iron(ing) is good for you: If I iron four blouses per month, I save $20. (Curious question: Why does a woman's blouse cost so much more to iron than a man's shirt?)
Trim dining out: Imagine an enjoyable evening out with friends ... wine, an appetizer, and a nice dinner. That's about $75. If once a month I forgo that pleasure and cook instead, savings = $65.
Snap! I've saved $1,000. I've upped my to-do list, but a little yard work, nail painting and ironing never hurt anybody. To add to my savings, I ask for military discounts (Fools, don't be shy, they can be significant), and I might consider dropping my gym membership (I can do push-ups, sit-ups, run/power walk anywhere). Plus, about every two months, I highlight my own hair, saving another $100 to $125.
Your spending habits may be a bit different from mine, but everyone has room to save more! Here are just a few more ideas: grocery and back-to-school shop with a list, buy in bulk, use generic products, avoid paying ATM fees and bank charges, check out movies and books at the library, or set your thermostat higher. Where can you cut back? Start building your fallback fund today.
June Lantz Walbert is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER practitioner with USAA Financial Planning Services. She is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve with 20 years of service. Walbert's basic branch is Air Defense Artillery. She writes a weekly advice column, "Ask June" on military.com. Follow June @AskJune_usaa.
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