Pretty much by definition, when it hits, you won't have seen it coming. We wince when disasters strike others, not fully appreciating how easily they could happen to us.
Brace yourself against life's calamities (job loss, medical expenses, surprise car repairs) by having an emergency fund of at least a few months' worth of your core living expenses (think: food, rent, insurance payments, utilities, gas money, etc.). If you're risk-averse, or in a field where it might take a long time for you to land another job, it can make sense to sock away as much as nine months' or a year's worth of living expenses.
Here are some tips to get your fund started and well under way:
1. Pick the right place to store your emergency stash. Don't save your money in a shoebox under your bed. Money that's too accessible can be too tempting spend. You don't want to buy a large-screen TV with those dollars right before you lose a job. Think twice before parking the money in the stock market, too, as it can plunge over the short term. A five-year CD might offer a better interest rate than a simple bank savings account or a shorter-term CD, but it will (usually) also sock you with penalties if you need to withdraw your money early. Savings accounts and short-term CDs are good choices for emergency funds, and you can find ones paying higher-than-average rates via Bankrate.com.
3. Strategically reduce your spending. Try replacing some expenses with lower-cost options instead of just eliminating them. For example, you might replace a your cable TV package with a far-less-expensive subscription to a video-streaming service, or swap your gym membership for a walking routine with neighbors. You might also socialize with friends by hosting game nights and potlucks instead of going out to bars and restaurants. Another very effective strategy is to earmark most or all of your tax refund this year and next for your emergency fund. You could even boost the size of your refund by tweaking the amount withheld from your paycheck for taxes.
4. Don't stop. Once you've got an emergency fund set up and fully funded, keep going. You've probably developed some good money-saving or money-generating habits, which can now be put to use plumping up retirement accounts. You may be in your 30s, but that's not a moment too soon to begin seriously saving and investing for retirement. In fact, it's a perfect time, because you have a lot of what many people don't -- time. If you're 35, you have a full 30 years until you hit 65. A mere $10,000 that's able to grow for 30 years at 8 percent annually will turn into about $100,000. Imagine how much more you can accumulate -- once you protect yourself with an emergency fund.
An emergency fund can keep you from financial ruin or disaster. It might help you sleep at night, too.
Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, holds shares of eBay. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of eBay.