I used to save money for an emergency car repair or hospital visit, but COVID-19 completely changed my savings goals


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In more than a decade writing about emergency funds, my primary focus has been on how important emergency funds are for unexpected expenses. The average cost of a car repair, furnace fix or new refrigerator, or a surprise trip to the ER were the main things I covered. Saving up for a loss of income definitely took a backseat to unexpected emergency expenses.

COVID-19 has flipped that script. These days, with record job losses, small businesses shutting down around the country, and an atmosphere unlike anything seen since the 1918 flu epidemic and the Great Depression in the 1930s, the most important reason to have an emergency fund has changed. Now more than ever, we need our emergency funds to survive.

The COVID-19 crisis has led to record job losses

The weekly jobless claims report on May 21 told of a dire employment situation. In the previous week, 2.4 million people filed claims for unemployment benefits. The nine-week total is 39 million. That number is officially worse than the Great Recession.

The economic fallout from the virus is showing that "stable" jobs are often not as stable as we would like to believe. Virus-related layoffs reached nearly every corner of the economy.

The coronavirus has also reinforced the even greater income risk for independent business owners and others who fall outside of traditional employment. 

While having multiple income streams can lessen the risk of completely losing income, those without traditional full-time jobs need to take emergency savings even more seriously.

Self-employed people and independent contractors need more emergency savings

No matter where you get your income, it's a good idea to build up a stable emergency fund. Experts often suggest a goal of around three to six months of expenses saved up in an emergency fund. For people with stable work histories, that's a reasonable time period to get back on your feet with a new job under normal circumstances.

When you're self-employed or don't have full-time employment, it's a good idea to double your emergency savings goal. That means you should try to save at least six to 12 months of expenses.

While some areas of the economy are opening back up, there's a very good chance that we will see a second wave, third wave, or more of virus spread. If you're a freelancer, gig worker, or independent contractor, you could have a long while to wait before your business returns to normal.

Even if you have a stable job you still might want to increase your emergency savings goal. The virus event is proof that everyone needs to be prepared for a loss of income.

It only takes a modest weekly or monthly savings goal to build an emergency fund

A CareerBuilder study found that 78% of Americans lived paycheck-to-paycheck before the virus struck. According to the Federal Reserve, 40% of American households don't have $400 in savings.

A government report shows that the average household spends about $5,000 per month. That means typical households should have a minimum of $15,000 in savings, while self-employed workers should have up to $60,000 saved. That's a massive amount of money for most families. But that doesn't mean it's impossible for you to reach.

If you can start by saving $5, $10, or $20 per week, for example, you are taking small steps toward your savings goal. You can always increase your savings rate over time if you're able. But you can't go back and save more, even though many people wish they had.

By saving in a high-yield savings account, your money is safe and secure and will slowly grow with monthly interest payments from the bank.

One thing you know for sure: If you don't save, you won't have any savings. Do your best to save a sizable emergency fund in line with your needs. That's the only way to keep yourself and your loved ones safe and secure in the face of a loss of income.