Litmus Test for Emergencies

Can you sleep on it? A litmus test for minor emergencies.

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by Kara Fleck

Kara lives in a small town in Indiana. She is the editor of Simple Kids. You can also find her writing about creative living at K.Elizabeth Fleck.

Last October, I shared this status update on Facebook:

“We’ve been without a fridge for over a month now. That ends today. There was a time we’d just have put a new fridge on the credit card or even declared it an emergency and used our savings. But we made do with coolers and the chest freezer in the garage for a month, saved up, and paid cash today. I’m really proud of us!”

Yes, our family of six went without a fridge for over a month.  When the old fridge quit working, in order to pay cash for a replacement we squeezed an already tight budget and put other financial plans on hold to take care of our immediate situation instead of tapping into the emergency fund.

I was really proud of us because saying “no” still takes discipline for us, despite the progress we’ve made the past few years.  Most of our friends and family were proud of us as well.

I did get a concerned phone call from a relative wondering if we were living on peanut butter and crackers (we weren’t) and more than one person asked how on earth we managed (it was a combination of freezer cooking and eating lots of fresh fruits and veggies that didn’t need refrigeration. In some ways it was like camping but with a stove. I would NOT want to do it again.)

But, what most folks commented on was the fact that our decision not to immediately purchase a new fridge on credit or with our emergency fund savings gave them a new perspective on what constituted an “emergency.”

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Photo by Dreamstime

The Litmus Test for an Emergency

Now, aside from a job loss, a medical emergency, or catastrophic event where an emergency is readily apparent, there are more mundane, minor issues that must be dealt with because they affect daily life:  things break, plans go awry, mistakes are made.

The takeaway for us in our refrigerator situation is that we learned how to evaluate our situation and refine our definition of “emergency.”

So, how did we decide what makes an event a true emergency, something that we would dip into the emergency fund for?  We needed a litmus test.

From dictionary.com:

litmus test noun 1.Chemistry. the use of litmus paper or solution to test the acidity or alkalinity of a solution.
2.a crucial and revealing test in which there is one decisive factor.

Our litmus test is simple:  what would cause us to lose sleep at night from worry?  Draining our emergency fund and living without that security until we could build it back up?  Or, going without repairing or replacing the item in question?

In this case, while going without a fridge was a huge inconvenience, when compared to the idea of depleting the emergency fund we decided to pick inconvenience over worry.  We held on to our savings and went without for the time it took us to save up to pay cash for a replacement.

It took us about six weeks, and the fridge we got is just a basic no-frills model from a big warehouse store.  We paid cash, our emergency fund stayed put, and we slept well at night.

Now, if our circumstances were different, we might have done things differently. For example, if we had a newborn in the house (a time when families don’t need any extra complications) or if someone needed medication that has to be kept at a certain temperature, or if we didn’t already own a chest freezer, then we would have made the decision to use a portion of our emergency fund to purchase a replacement refrigerator.  If it were our vehicle, necessary for my husband’s job, we’d probably have used the emergency fund, too.

Deciding if something is an emergency is a decision influenced by personal circumstances.

Thinking about emergencies this way means we have to weigh convenience versus necessity, wants versus true needs.  It also means that we both have to be on the same page about our finances and the lines of communication have to be open.

Our emergency fund is really our only savings at this point, as all other money goes toward paying down our debt as quickly as possible or into designated sinking funds with a specific assigned purpose.  It took us a long time to save that money and it hasn’t been easy.  You can bet we think long and hard when and if we decide to use that money.

In a home full of hand-me-down appliances, Christopher and I have had the chance to put our circumstances to this financial litmus test time and time again:  what will cause us to lose the most sleep?  Which circumstance puts us at the most risk?  And then we plan our next financial move from there.

Another lesson learned

Here’s a second takeaway from our fridge situation last fall:  in our pride, something we should be over by now given our financial history, Christopher and I didn’t tell anyone else our circumstances.  We kept our fridge problem to ourselves and just quietly took care of things.  But, within minutes of my facebook status posting, a friend replied, “why didn’t you tell me?  We had an extra fridge we just got rid of, we could have given it to you.”

Whoops.

So, friends, learn from us and, if you find yourself in a bind, don’t be afraid to put the call out for help.  Someone may have something extra in their lives taking up space that just might be the solution to your problem.

What weighs into your decision on what you tap into your emergency fund for? Have you ever decided to do without while saving up for a replacement or repair?

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Comments

  1. wow…talk about discipline. My husband and I decided to get rid of an extra credit card that we have relied on for far too long….We’re paying it off this month and then canceling it!

  2. Kara, this is an eye-opening and refreshing perspective.

    Right now our family is doing without new dining room chairs while we save. They’ve needed to be replaced a long time, but have been pre-empted by other “emergencies.” It’s at the point where I’m almost embarrassed for guests to sit in them! Your post reminds me that they are only an inconvenience right now, better than the worry caused by buying them on credit! We never buy anything we can’t pay off at the end of the month.

  3. I have so much respect for you and the discipline you have used to set up an emergency funds and sinking funds. Budgeting and money management is not my strong point, but we are now a one income family as I am staying home with my baby girl, so I better make it my priority. We really should set up an emergency fund, but I feel daunted by the amount of time it will take. We actually need to change bank so I think this will be a great time to start afresh, open up accounts for various savings and sinking funds and just start slow.

  4. i sure admire this post. you really made me think. thanks so much for sharing this!!

  5. We once went an entire year without a oven when we were first married. We used a toaster oven we got as a wedding gift. It was just big enough for 2 pork chops or chicken breasts. I used the crock pot a lot and the stove top still worked (just not the oven part). I even had a small muffin pan and casserole dish that fit it so really it wasn’t that hard to make do. Much easier than going without a fridge I would think.

  6. Wow. Our fridge and freezer were out for four days as we waited for a replacement part. And I thought we went through a lot of dry ice! :)

  7. Our air conditioner broke this summer, and was not covered under our 10-year warranty, which we didn’t find out without a $400 service call. We ended up having it fixed, but not without waiting for awhile first, shopping around and finding someone who would do the warranty work at a lower cost (and with less dishonesty) than than the company who had originally installed it.

    For several days it was miserable – even the crockpot made the house hotter. But then someone in our church found out we’d been living without air conditioning and loaned us a window unit his family kept for emergencies. Such a blessing!

  8. Kara, I always love when you share stories from your journey. I especially loved the ending on this one and the reminder to reach out and not let shame or pride keep us isolated from those who *want* to be there.

    Friends of ours with 5 kids recently went without a working oven for several months for the same reason. They were able to make do with a crock pot and the stove top and I never knew until right before it was fixed. I was amazed by their story because previously I would have seen that as a “necessity” to fix right away. Such a great reminder that inconvenience does not automatically equal “emergency”.

  9. Wow! Good for you!!

    I’m spending all month talking about Cheap Tricks and Living for Less. I’ve already taken some flack for my ideas on “Making Do”. I think we ALL need to read this!

    ~FringeGirl

  10. Thank you for the inspiring, thoughtful post! Many of us North Americans have a very loose idea of what is and is not a necessity–and it makes us very vulnerable to the advertisements that bombard us each day. But as you say, peace of mind is worth so much more than a little inconvenience. Or sometimes even a big inconvenience as it was in your case. :)

  11. Kara,

    About a year ago we too went without a refrigerator for a period of time. As a family of five, we do a lot of cooking. I had no idea how inconvenient life would be without something we used many times every day. We had two regular coolers and one HUGE one and twice a day we rotated through iceblocks from our chest freezer. It was a pain and when we finally got a fridge (also simple, no frills) it was amazing how little space all of those coolers full of stuff took up. Since that time, I have been so thankful for my refrigerator every day!

    Your point that inconvenience is not an emergency is such a good one. It’s hard to remember that sometimes, but so important. Thanks for the post!

  12. Our A/C pretty much conked out this summer, but we never found the time to try and get it fixed or replaced. Turns out we did without it, and were even able to get a refund for a defunct product!

    I have an emergency fund that I suppose I’m pretty open about. I will pull money from there for anything that comes up unexpectedly, including replacing appliances or paying for a surprise bill. I won’t use it for extra unnecessary expenses or splurges or anything that was expected. And I always contribute to my emergency fund; it’s not like I max it out at a certain number. I think if it were to fall below several months’ worth of expenses, then I would be tighter, but for now it serves its purpose!

  13. Your strength and wisdom always amaze me. You’ve known for a while how inspiring this story was to me (or at least I hope you knew). Tim and I have talked about what constitutes an emergency, but this is a good reminder to revisit that. It’s also a good reminder to revisit our spending to make sure we’re saving for potential “emergencies” like this with sinking funds instead of tapping in to our security. Thanks for continuing to inspire us and others!

  14. I gotta show this post to some of my kids who have extreme confusion between needs and wants

  15. Thank you for a great post!! I’ve been concerned lately that our van is going to conk out soon (it has 208,000 miles) and how we are going to handle it when it does. We’re on DR’s baby step #3 and I HATE the idea of draining the emergency fund we’ve worked so hard on so far just to get another ride. The litmus test is a great one, and your story inspires me so much. Thanks for being open about it.

  16. Not only did I go without an oven for over a year, I also ran a catering business out of my house at the same time. Talk about getting creative with menus and cooking options! I’m all for waiting, saving and looking for bargains if you can deal with the inconvenience of the situation.

    I just wanted to add that I use a version of the “can you sleep on it” method with my son – if he asks to do/get something and I’m unsure or just can’t think about it at that moment, I will tell him I need to sleep on it. If he absolutely must have an answer right then and there, then the answer is “no.” I’ve found that this tactic helps me make better parenting decisions and has taught him patience and planning ahead.

  17. A very good choice! After all, how could being ‘fridgeless’ really be an emergency, considering the fact that so many people around the world have never owned one? It’s often only our western perspective that makes things seem so important, isn’t it?

  18. We actually had our A/C go out in April and were coming up on the hot months. Instead of using credit, or depleting our emergency fund (which would have been a bigger stressor!), we put the word out that we were looking for window units to get us through the summer while we saved for the big purchase.

    We were loaned 6 units for the summer, saved money, got a tax refund and had a group of church friends gather about $900 to donate to the fund! Amazing testimony of how being honest about where you are and your needs and see what God can pull together.

    We are going to buy the A/C next month (November!) cause it may be cheaper during this time of the year and we want to use the money wisely. Plus the bonus is that the cost of running the window units was actually CHEAPER than cooling the house all at once. It’s tempting to keep it this way, but we need to return them to their generous owners.

    I loved hearing your story as well!

    Lana

  19. I’m glad you also reminded us about being open about our needs, because there are often people who have what we need (or we have what they do!) collecting dust and are looking for someone to share it with. Within our small group at church, we try to make known different tools, etc. (especially those rarely used ones!) so that we can loan/share with one another and save money.

  20. I so admire you for doing that! What a great lesson to teach your children, especially in a world full of instant gratification.

    My family and I just did a “spending freeze” an idea I got from livingwellspendingless.com. We saved $1400.00 in one month by only spending on the essentials, food, gas, bills etc…. It was a little difficult but so worth it! We all gained a lot from the experience.

  21. we used to jump at the chance to use our emergency fund, to be independent and self sufficient. but once we learned to slow down and give ourselves several days or a week before purchasing, we realized how many blessings are waiting for us if we’re just patient. sometimes its find exactly what we need on a super sale, sometimes it’s borrowing from a friend, sometimes someone else steps in of their own accord to help us out.

    we strive to live in community, to be part of a group that supports each other in the good and bad. sometimes keeping things to ourselves denies other people the opportunity to bless and be blessed. it was a long time learning that lesson, but it has been invaluable since!

  22. I put things on facebook constantly: things I am getting rid of (bag of 3T boys’ clothes! New Balance sneakers in excellent condition!) and things I am looking for (bike for my daughter! crib mattress!). 9 times out of 10, someone has that thing I am about to buy, sitting in their spare room or basement. And we all know the good feeling of finding someone who can use what we have- I love that feeling.

    So, I sort of use facebook as my own personal Craigslist. I have felt a little embarrassed at times because I feel like I’m the only one who does this…but I get over it when I am able to get that item for free, or pass on my own stuff to someone else who can use it!

  23. Great post! Thanks for sharing! We lived with out heat for a month and a half (in December in the North East) we used out fire place in the evenings to warm the house and used extra blankets and jammies after the fire went out wen we went to bed. While no one had an extra HVAC lying around we did have friends donate fire wood!! We also went with out our clothes dryer for 6 months. It was over the warmer months and the clothes line was there….so it was a built in blessing! So many things we think of as “must haves” really aren’t. They’re luxuries. I just thing….What Would Caroline Ingalls Do?? :)

  24. The inspiration and leadership is welcomed. We are plodding along, still don’t have that emergency fund built up. But we’re nearing better times. I just got a work car, I finally was able to convince dear hubby to keep our ugly but paid for car and sell the non-pd-for car. This week we fell short – again. Hate it. Shame spiral…… But I kept repeating to myself “it’s okay to make mistakes, we’ll do better next time.” After about 20x I actually started to feel better. The light is at the end of the tunnel…. We just need to stay on the straight and narrow.

  25. I will never forget the winter we lived 4 doors down from my best friend and her husband… our dryer broke, so I lugged heavy baskets of wet clothes down the street to be dried at her place. The following week her washer broke, so she started lugging her clothes over to our place to wash. Back and forth we went. It is funny and nostalgic now, but was definitely inconvenient at the time! :) Eventually we each saved money to repair our machines, but it went on like that for a good month or two!

    We also had a period when my husband’s junker of a car was breaking down every month all winter long. Then someone hit the car while it was parked on our street, just enough to prevent the driver’s side door from opening. So he crawled in each day through the passenger side to get to work and back! :) Funny stories now, but the progress we made on our debt during those years was huge. We definitely were joyous about replacing that car and sending it to the junk yard… :)

  26. Very impressive! I can’t imagine saving up enough money in six weeks to buy a refrigerator! Our budget is so tight that we don’t have enough to save up for these types of things. And I can’t imagine getting to that point. Maybe someday.

    • Mary, I bet you’ll get there sooner than you think. Once upon a time I NEVER thought we could either, so I understand. I do.

      The fridge? It is totally a no frills, no ice maker, nothing fancy, not too big appliance. I think we saved around $50 a week for it. Difficult? Yes. But not impossible given where we were. A few years earlier in this journey for us? Well, it would have taken us longer to get the money saved for sure.

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