Personal finance 101 – sinking funds

by Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

As you know, our money strategy is to follow Dave Ramsey’s baby steps, and in my recent post explaining Baby Step 3, I mentioned “sinking funds.” It’s a simple financial strategy, and it’s not new, but it has enormously helped our family’s finances. And I encourage you to start using sinking funds even while paying off debt via the debt snowball.


Photo by Ironic Tonic

Simply put, sinking funds are a reserve of money set aside for some purpose. It’s a commonly used business and government practice, and it should be part of a healthy personal budget as well. If you think of your family as a company that you’ve been assigned to manage, it would only make sense to make sure you have funds readily available for the many things that surface on any given year.

Think of all those non-monthly payments or purchases you face on a regular basis. For some people, auto insurance shows up once or twice a year. What about new school clothes for your kiddos? These aren’t things you spend money on each month, but you still need to pay for them when they show up.

Nothing can screw up a debt-free plan quite like these irregular expenses. In fact, I’ll bet that’s how many people find themselves in debt.

“What? Christmas is only three weeks away? There’s no money in the budget – I guess we’ll have to whip out the Master Card.”

“Why oh why did our insurance bill arrive just when we had to pay for Sally’s recital costume? Looks like it’s Visa to the rescue again.”

If you know these irregular expenses are headed your way, it would only make sense to set aside a small portion of each budget towards them. This, in a nutshell, is sinking funds.

Christmas is an easy example. Let’s say you calculate a need of $500 for your Christmas holiday (gifts, decorations, cards, extra food – the whole shebang). It’s now March 7, about nine months away until the next season. If you didn’t start saving for Christmas 08 in January 08, that means you have nine months to complete your Christmas 08 fund – and 500 divided by 9 is $55.56. That’s how much you should list in “Christmas” as part of your regular, monthly budget.

(A side note: some people prefer to budget according to their paycheck, not just by the month. If this is you, and if you get paid biweekly, then you’ll calculate how many paychecks you anticipate from now until Christmas, and divide into that number, not the months.)

Sinking funds is an easy enough concept. But like many things in life, it’s one thing to use this method on paper; it’s quite another to put your money where your… idea… is. Sinking funds can get really fuzzy and confusing when they’re all lumped together in one savings account. Even when you keep detailed monthly records of what dollar is assigned to what, all this can rapidly become overwhelming. At least it did for me.

That’s why sinking funds didn’t work for us… until recently. Thanks to Capital One 360, we can open as many savings accounts as we want, and it doesn’t cost us a dime. We can even customize each account with a different name, and we can seamlessly automate transfers from our checking account to our various savings accounts.

We currently have five savings accounts, respectively named “Emergency Fund,” “Giving,” “Holidays & Gifts,” “Vacation,” and “Work Expenses.” Each month when our paycheck arrives, we have Capital One 360 automatically transfer a set amount from our checking account into each of these accounts. Most of the money stays parked in these accounts for months at a time, until expenses arise that fit these categories.

When we need funds for these categories, we simply transfer the needed amount back into our checking account and use the amount for that expense. Very easy.

I should mention that during debt elimination, the type of sinking funds you have should be limited to the necessities. For the most part, you don’t need to focus on a family vacation or a new couch when your overarching financial goal is debt freedom. So limit sinking funds for things like quarterly and annual bills and necessities. When you’re debt-free, then you can start saving for the extra stuff.

And like I said, I think sinking funds are crucial especially during a season of debt reduction. The last thing you want to do is accrue more debt. With a Baby Emergency Fund of $1,000 and some basic sinking funds in place, it becomes so much easier to know exactly how much you can pile on your debt snowball.

Join the Conversation

Like This? Subscribe for free and have it delivered to your inbox.

Prefer to subscribe via RSS?


  1. You know I never knew that ING had checking accounts. We are moving this summer and the bank that we normally use does not have a branch where we are moving. This may be the perfect solution to our dilemma. How do you get cash out with ING? Or do you just use a debit card all the time?

    • My checking account is not with ING, but it’s linked to it. So when I need the money, I just transfer it from ING to my checking account. It takes a few days, but it’s super easy.

      This article has prompted me to set up a separate ING account for my car insurance. I used to do something similar with cash a loooong time ago. This is much simpler and I won’t be able to dip into it as quickly. I also set up my Emergency Fund account. I’d been planning to start some time next year, but I decided…why wait?

      Thanks for the great suggestions!

  2. avatar
    simplemom says:

    Yep, they do indeed. They’re called “Electric Orange,” oddly enough. We can either use our debit card or withdraw from ATMs, just like with any other local bank account. We even get a 2.23% interest rate with the checking. Not a lot, but most checking accounts get 0%.

  3. You know, I guess I’ve been doing this all along with my “Short Term Savings” fund without knowing there was a name for it! Thanks for a great post.

  4. I have funds like this, and I love how easy ING makes it! I love how using sinking funds gives me the peace of mind that financially I can handle most of what will come my way.

  5. thanks for the post. i hope to listen some more.
    Best regards from Sebbi

  6. I’ve named mine the Freedom Fund since it allows me to not think about those irregular expenses and frees my mind to think about other things.

    Andy @ Retire at 40’s last blog post…The Freedom Fund – How it Can Work for You

  7. You have just made my life so much easier! I’ve been frustrated by our finances because everything is lumped together in one checking and one savings account. DH is not very money savvy so it is hard for him to understand why “we don’t have any money to spend” when there’s $500 sitting in the account. Having the ability to label different accounts will put everything into perspective for him!! God Bless You!!

  8. We have an ING account as well and use it for saving in categories just like you suggested. Love it. I just thought I would mention that we tried to go light on Christmas this year, budgeting about $100 for myself and my husband to give gifts to each other ($50 each), and another $200 or so for family gifts (parents, siblings, etc.) and extras like a tree and decorations. We only spent a tiny amount on our 6 month old baby. We just added up the receipts, and we spent $575. On our budget Christmas! We felt like we were being so reasonable!

    Bonnie´s last blog post…Portrait Practice

  9. We’re just getting our financial act together so helpful explanations like yours are excellent. Thanks!

    the Dad´s last blog post…Batting One Hundred

  10. So I googled sinking fun and got to this post — so timely! I called ING Direct and set up m y accounts!

    I also chatted with and laughed with Vic in customer service who as it turns out works at the Chicago cafe location just on the other side of the Loop from me! He invited me to come to the cafe and say hi, coffee on him.

    Thanks for the idea!

  11. Thanks for this awesome post, TSH! I’m on the path to getting our family’s finances in order. DH just got a new job and I’m praying that what I’m learning here will help us get on the right track financially. Thanks again for the helpful tips! God bless you always.

Add Your Thoughts