Is There Such A Thing As An Emergency?

Financial writers (myself included) often talk about the “emergency fund.” This is money you set aside so that you can pay for things like medical expenses, car repairs, home repairs, or some other sudden, necessary expense. Having extra money set aside means (ideally) that you don’t have to pull out the credit card to pay for these expenses.

But is there really such a thing as an “emergency” when it comes to financial matters? I’m not so sure there is. My dictionary defines “Emergency” as: “A serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action.” “Unexpected” is the word that hangs me up. Most of the things that we encourage people to save up for are not unexpected. They may happen at an inconvenient time or on a day you wish they wouldn’t, but most, if not all, financial emergencies are expected and can be prepared for.

I think that when we call them “emergencies” we’re letting people off the hook. It’s like saying, “It’s okay that you had to go into debt for that because it was an emergency. How could you have known?” The thing is, you can know and you can prepare. You may not know the exact date or time that the problem will occur, but you can be sure that a car will break down or wear out, that a storm may damage your house, that you might get sick, or you might die. You can know these things because they happen in life. You hope they don’t, but they do. Sooner or later these problems happen to everyone because it’s just the nature of life. Here are some examples:

Car Problems / New Car

Cars, by their very nature, are breakable. They either wear out or get into accidents. You know that at some point you’re going to need a car repair or a new one, so you should always be saving for the repair/replacement. The death of a car should never be considered “unexpected.”

Medical Expenses

You may not know exactly what will go wrong with your body, but human bodies are breakable and prone to illness. Something is likely to happen to all of us at one point or another. We may get into an accident, fall down the stairs, catch a disease, or get cancer. At the very least (and if we’re lucky) we will get old and there will be health problems that come along with that. You should always be putting money aside to cover the health issues that you will surely face.


It happens to everyone. You may not think that you, your spouse, or your kids will die tomorrow, but it’s possible. You should have life insurance, a will, and be prepared to deal with the financial aspects of death. No want wants to think about death, but it’s a fact of life and not “unexpected.” As they say, no one gets out alive.

Appliance Breakdown

Like cars, appliances will break and need repair or replacement. And you can be pretty sure that it will happen at the last convenient time. You should always be saving for replacements and repairs.

Natural Disaster

If your house is leveled by a tornado or a hurricane and you live in areas prone to those events, it’s not unexpected. You have to know what sort of weather your area receives and prepare for natural disasters accordingly with insurance and savings.

What you have to do is stop thinking of everything as an emergency and instead start thinking of it as something that you can prepare for. That puts the control back on your side. You can save money, get good insurance, keep your disaster kit handy, and take what steps you can to protect your health and property. If something unfortunate happens you’ll be prepared, not running around in a stressed, emergency state of mind.

What you’re really setting money aside for in your “emergency fund” are expenses that come up at unknown times. You know you’re going to need a new car, but you don’t know if you’ll need it tomorrow (because of an accident) or three years from now (because it wears out). You know your home will need a new roof, but you don’t know if it will be because of the storm that hits next week or because it wears out after twenty years of use. You know you’ll probably have some sort of medical issue but you don’t know if it will be because you fall down the stairs next week and break your arm or because you get into a car accident two years from now. Or, because you simply get old and need care.

The point is that, while you cannot know the exact date and time that financial events will occur, you can know that they may happen at any time and you can prepare and save accordingly. You can set money aside, insure yourself properly, keep disaster kits on hand, and have a plan in place to deal with these things. Instead of feeling out of control and at the mercy of emergencies, you can plan, prepare, and face life confidently.

(Photo courtesy of davidsonscott15)

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6 Responses to Is There Such A Thing As An Emergency?

  1. Jay says:

    Well said!
    Another point, in distinguishing “emergencies” is the difference between wants and needs. Maybe you want a new dishwasher, should it break, but do you need it?
    A determining question could be “Can you wait until there’s money, or not?”
    Medical issues, don’t wait! New car, appliance, maybe you can wait for the cash versus charging (if nothing in savings).
    Based on this, one would set aside -for sure- enough to cover medical co-pays, insurance deductibles, and whatever else falls under “must haves”.

  2. Alex says:

    This article seems like it should be advocating insurance more than an emergency fund, but I wholeheartedly agree with everything mentioned in it.

  3. carnette says:

    Many of your articles are overly simplistic and critical. To say “put enough money aside for health issues” is absurd. Here is why I say that. Ideally sure, but life isn’t ideal. I was 27, my husband 29, we were both working, I was setting aside 5% into savings,and had about $2,000 in my emergency fund, we had good health insurance. Then the unideal happened all in one day, I came back from maternity leave to find out they had replaced me with a full time person and my husband was diagnosed with cancer. You can’t tell me this wasn’t a “serious, unexpected, dangerous situation that required immediate action.” Just because a situation can happen, doesn’t mean it’s expected. There was no way I could have been prepared financially, or emotionally for a blow like that. I have other hard blows I could mention in my life that beat me up financially and emotionally. Sometimes there isn’t enough time between blows to recover financially before another “Unexpected” comes. Please add some compassion to your writting. Everything isn’t as cut and dry as you write it to be.

  4. Jacqueline says:

    Well said! I agree 100% that’s the same point I tried making earlier this year on my blog and I got some very hateful and not so nice comments as well! Keep up the great work don’t change yourself because others don’t share your same views to heck with them! Everyone is entitled to their own opinion whether liked or not like-minded individuals always think alike! 😉

  5. Gail says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Carnette. I left work one day years ago at 11AM due to extreme pain. I never could have thought then that I would never be back. I had been saving and planning to care for myself in my later years, but those later years came much sooner than anticipated. Suddenly I was on disability bringing in 1/3 of what I had before and trying to get any savings out of what we have coming in is slim to impossible, but we try. But that does mean that at times we have to revert to the credit cards and it sure isn’t for mindless wants. We live a simple frugal life because that is all we can do.

  6. Roberto says:

    My wife is very diligent about us saing for a financial emergency. Our definition of a financial emeregency is when a large unexpected expense comes our way. Example: car breaks down and we need to shell out $2,000. We have the funds to pay cash and not have to charge it on a credit card and end up paying more because we have to pay interest on top of that.

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