How To Conduct A Financial Fire Drill

Do you know how long you could survive if you or a spouse lost your job? What if you are like me and are the lone income provider – how long could your family live on savings alone? If you are not sure about the answers to these questions it is probably a good idea to conduct a financial fire drill.

The concept of a financial fire drill is based on the idea behind a real fire drill. It allows you to run through a real emergency before you have to act with smoke and flames. In the case of a financial fire drill, this means you will simulate a “what if” scenario so you’ll know what to do, and what things need to improve, before a real life financial emergency strikes.

Steps to Planning a Financial “Fire Drill”

1. Include the entire family. My family has a pretty good emergency plan. We all know where to meet in case a fire separates us in the middle of the night. We have a rendezvous point established for larger-scale emergencies, and even the kids are aware of actions to take based on various types of disasters. Similarly, the entire family should also be involved with a financial fire drill.

2. Gather a list of necessary expenses. These expenses are absolute necessities, so things like mortgage payments or rent, basic utilities like water, power, etc. (cable and¬†Netflix¬†memberships don’t count), and other basic expenses related to food, shelter, prescriptions, etc. Nothing else matters at this point.

3. Determine how much is in your “extended emergency fund.” A basic emergency fund is a pile of cash stored in an online savings account or local credit union. A typical goal for emergency funds is to save six months of household expenses just for emergencies. However, in a large emergency such as a job layoff or medical disability, you could likely tap other resources. Be sure to include any stocks or mutual funds not held in retirement, CDs (even if you had to pay a penalty), bonds and any other assets that could be converted to cash quickly. This total amount will represent your “extended emergency fund.”

4. Determine your maximum survivability (in months). Divide the amount of your extended emergency fund by the total expenses identified in step 2. This number represents the months you could survive without an income. For instance, let’s assume an average family of four needs about $2,000 a month to cover their mortgage, basic utility payments and food. If the same family has a $17,000 extended emergency fund, they could expect to make it about 8.5 months on savings.

5. Adjust for increased expenses. Unfortunately, expenses don’t always go down in an emergency. In fact, they rarely do go down, despite your best efforts to cut expenses to the bone. Things like continued health insurance premiums under COBRA, or other medical expenses, can cause spikes in spending categories otherwise in check. Make adjustments to your prediction based on these estimates. To show how much impact these “surprise expenses” can have, in our example above the same family could only survive five months or so with a $1,000 COBRA premium added to their $2,000 in household expenses.

6. Conduct a financial fire drill regularly. Armed with all the facts and figures required, it’s time to pull the alarm and practice getting out safely. Since laying yourself off is not exactly a smart idea, it is sufficient to simply pretend you just received your last paycheck. What expenses would you immediately target to be cut? Write them down, along with customer service phone numbers and terms. Repeat this exercise once a quarter or so and update your list accordingly.

The day you are laid off you may grab your list and make phone calls to the newspaper subscription department, your gym, your lawn service guy, Netflix, and the cable company. These moves alone could save you a couple hundred dollars a month in expenses not necessary to your survival, preserving precious emergency funds. Keep this list handy, and only break it in an emergency.

None of these steps will happen on their own. You must be proactive. Force yourself to sit down and run the numbers. If you don’t know how much COBRA might cost, find out. If you don’t know how much your health insurance plan’s deductible is under a major medical event, find out. Don’t wait until your exit interview to discover these new costs. Doing so would be like waiting until smelling smoke to map out an escape route.

This article appeared in the Frugal Living Blog Carnival on 9/4/2009

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