It’s a commonly accepted rule of personal finance that one should save 3 to 6 month’s worth of expenses in an emergency fund. Reserved for true emergencies, the conventional wisdom dictates that you stash your cash in a high rate savings account or maybe a short-term high yield CD. The key is to have ready access to the cash in a true emergency.
Confession time. I’ve never kept 3 to 6 months worth of cash sitting in a bank account and don’t plan to. In an emergency, I can tap investment accounts, a home equity line of credit, or yes, even the dreaded credit card. The question for today is whether it’s a smart money move to rely on credit cards as your financial backstop.
As reported by Frank over at Bad Money Advice a few months ago, Suze Orman recommends the exact opposite:
If you have an unpaid credit card balance and not much saved up in emergency savings I need you to listen up. My advice has changed.
I want you to only pay the minimum due on your credit card balance and instead make it your top priority to build as much of an emergency cash fund as you can.
Her rationale, which you can read for yourself, is that the credit card companies may reduce your credit, raise your interest rates, or even close your account. True enough. I know one person who had their credit limit reduced dollar-for-dollar as they paid down the balance. And we hear about this a lot in the news because reporters find the folks (few as they may be) who have been unfortunate enough to find themselves in these circumstances. (Reporters don’t track down the folks who have had no change to their credit cards, but if a reporter is out there looking for such a person, feel free to contact me.) Whatever the numbers, there is always a risk that credit you have today could be gone tomorrow.
On the flip side of this issue we find Liz Pulliam Weston. In an article entitled, The 0-dollar emergency fund, Liz argues that for some a credit card or line of credit is a perfectly viable emergency fund. Why hold money in a savings account paying 1% or 2% while your credit card debt is costing you 10%, 15%, or even 20% interest?
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of using a credit card for an emergency fund? We’ve touched on both above, but let’s list them out here:
Disadvantages of a Credit Card Emergency Fund
- Availability of Credit: As noted above, there is no guarantee that the credit you have available today will be there for you tomorrow. Lose a job and fall behind on some payments, and the credit card company could close your account. I suspect that each individual has a pretty good idea of how real this risk is, and knowing your credit score can help better evaluate this risk.
- Cost of Credit: Credit card debt rolled over from month to month can become very expensive. There are ways to mitigate this risk, including using low interest cards, but it’s still a risk to consider.
- Lack of Discipline: If you are unable to control your use of credit cards, relying on a card for emergencies may be a recipe for disaster. Either learn to control your spending habits or get rid of the credit cards.
Advantages of a Credit Card Emergency Fund
- Puts Cash to Best Use: The absolute most significant advantage to relying on a credit card for emergencies is the ability to put your available cash to its highest and best use. Rather than putting cash in a savings account paying 1% interest, you can apply the cash to high interest credit card debit, a car loan, or perhaps line of credit.
While I only list one advantage to using a card in emergencies, it’s a significant advantage. In fact, it is similar to the approach recommended by Dave Ramsey. He hates credit cards, of course, but he recommends saving just $1,000 as an emergency fund and then applying all available cash to non-mortgage debt. In a true emergency that exceeds $1,000, you’d be left relying on credit. And this is roughly the approach I take. The only non-mortgage debt we have is a home equity line of credit, and we put all available cash to pay it down.
Tips on Using a Credit Card for Emergencies
If you do decide to rely on a credit card as an emergency fund, here are some tips to consider.
- Make Sure to Pay Down Your Debt: Make sure that the money you would have saved for emergencies is used to actually lower your debt. Sometimes the extra cash can make us spend more. Your total debt should be going down every month.
- Consider Getting a Separate Card: If you already have credit cards with balances, it may be helpful to get a separate card just for emergencies. This is particularly important if your current card(s) is near its credit limit. With a separate card, you can file it away and use it only in true emergencies.
- Charge Card vs. Credit Card: A charge card, unlike a credit card, must be paid in full each month. The advantage is that it imposes discipline on your spending habits and money management skills. And because it must be paid off in full each month, there are no interest charges. The downside is that you may need to borrow the money for longer than a month. But for short-term emergencies, an American Express charge card may be ideal.
- Use a No Fee Credit Card: One disadvantage of a charge card is that they typically charge an annual fee. With a traditional credit card, you can get a no fee card. If I had to pick one card for emergencies, it would be the Citi Platinum Select MasterCard. The Platinum Select does not charge an annual fee, currently offers a regular APR of 11.99% – 20.99%, and offers 0% APR on balance transfers and purchases for 21 months.
- Avoid a Cash Advance: With a cash advance, you typically pay a percentage of the amount borrowed and a high interest rate with no grace period. It’s one thing to use a card to pay for an emergency car repair or hospital visit, but avoid a cash advance at all costs.
So what’s your take? Is relying on a credit card in case of an emergency a good or bad idea?
Published or updated April 6, 2013.