8 Critical Steps Every Family Should Be Taking to Prepare for the Next Financial Crisis

It remains to be seen whether or not the worst has passed, or if we are merely enjoying the relative calm during the eye of the latest financial storm. I personally believe we are in for more tough times in the near term.

A variety of stimulus programs have conspired to create an “artificial demand” that has produced seemingly positive results. However, I believe it only served to delay the inevitable. In fact, I’ll go a step further. I believe it made the inevitable even worse. Would the economy have been worse without the stimulus? Probably. Would we have survived and saved a couple trillion dollars in new debt? Probably. But who knows. I’m not an economist, and I certainly don’t play one on TV.

In the Frugal household we are hunkering down, financially. The 2008 recession caught us off guard. We were still in debt, had little savings, and were just beginning to deal with what would become a year-long medical and financial crisis with my mom, who suffered an aneurysm and subsequent stroke at 53 years young. She passed away in September of 2009. Fortunately, we were able to ride the storm out, but I made it a goal to be better prepared next time. And next time may be closer than any of us think.

What if I’m wrong? Well, I hope I am. You can say I told you so. But even if I am wrong about another economic downturn in the next year, at least your family will have improved its finances between now and then.

#1 Get Your Financial Documents in Order

The time to organize financial documents is before a crisis hits. Buy a file cabinet to store things like financial statements, and a fire-proof box to store more important documents, such as life insurance policy statements, deeds and titles, etc.

Action Item: Spend Saturday morning getting organized. Shred all but the last two monthly statements from banks, brokerages and credit cards (unless you need them for tax purposes). Start a “2010 Taxes” file to collect receipts and tax documents for this year. Work up a document with account numbers, rough balances, contact information and save both a digital copy and hard copy in your fire-proof box. Be sure your will and advanced directive for health care is up to date.

#2 Reduce Your Monthly Bills

Who wouldn’t like to save money every month? In many cases the only thing stopping us is ourselves. We get complacent. We don’t like change. But in some cases, you must endure changes to save money in the long run.

Take a look at your recurring monthly expenses and find ways to slash costs. Shop for cheaper car insurance. Ask your cable provider if they offer a basic package. Using just a fraction of your cell phone minutes? Move to a cheaper plan, or consider going pre-paid. Ask your credit card company for a lower interest rate. Even if you strike out at all of these, it doesn’t hurt to ask, and you could easily find ways to shave $50-$100 a month off your regular expenses.

Action Item: OK, so you spent Saturday morning getting organized. Spend Saturday afternoon shopping for better deals. If you find customer service departments closed for the weekend, make a note and call back Monday morning.

#3 Save Three Months of “Living Expenses”

This is essentially a bare-minimum household emergency fund. It won’t last long in a real crisis, but if you have debt, you need to get on with the next step, so avoid saving more than a few months.

Action item: Open a savings account at a top online bank and save three months worth of housing payments, plus enough for food and lights. That’s it.

#4 Get Out of Debt

With a small household emergency fund in place, turn your attention to getting out of debt. Household debt adds considerable risk to a family’s finances. It puts you so close to the edge, financially, that it doesn’t take much to push you over the cliff. Distance yourself from the edge by getting radical in your approach to paying off debt.

Action Item: Pay off 100% of your household debt, beginning with credit cards and any other unsecured debt. Sell stuff, donate plasma, get two part-time jobs – get radical and get out now! Your family’s financial future depends on it. More on how to get out of debt.

#5 Pile Up a One-Year Household Safety Net in Cash

Now that you are debt free, return your focus to emergency savings, but continue to work on items 5-8 concurrently, allocating a bit of your income to each step. How much? Do what you are comfortable with, but make reaching milestone a priority.

Over the years, I’ve waffled a bit on how much should be in a fully-funded emergency fund. Experts recommend 3-6 months of expenses. Some personal finance bloggers recommend establishing an emergency fund based on the number of dependents, or the number of people working in the household. Both are good ideas.

However, from this point forward, I’ve decided to offer the following advice to keep things simple: save one year of basic household expenses as an ultimate family safety net. Considering the recent recession (and the chance of a double-dip recession around the corner), the old advice of 3-6 months being sufficient to cover a period of unemployment or serious illness is, frankly, a joke.

Action Item: Save one year of basic household expenses in a highly-liquid emergency fund. Note, this should only cover basic household expenses. Luxuries such as cable, Netflix, XM radio, and gym memberships should not be included. Things like mortgage payments, food, the power bill, and transportation costs should be included.

#6 Build a Second Income

I can think of no greater hedge against unemployment than developing a second income stream. Even if your second income is a fraction of your full-time income, it may be enough to keep your house current and food on the table in a financial crisis. Part time gigs are a fine way to boost cash flow in the near term (a great way to get out of debt, for example), but I encourage you to look for opportunities to cultivate self employment income. Mow yards in your neighborhood. Learn to build fences and decks on the weekends. Start a blog or chase down freelance writing opportunities. Get creative.

Action Item: Start a side hustle at nights and on the weekends.

#7 Keep a Modest Stockpile of Food and Household Goods

I have known some people to fill entire rooms with stockpiles of food, and load up basements and storage buildings or garages with paper products and cleaning supplies. I have known others who have no more than tomorrow night’s dinner scattered about bare refrigerators and pantries. Like everything else, you have to find a balance that works for you.

We don’t like to shop, and have found that the more often we are in the store the more money we spend. So, we try to keep a small stockpile of food at home and only restock a couple times a month. In a real crisis, we could probably go a month or two without having to leave the house for food. Of course, we’d sure miss fresh fruits and vegetables, so we try to grow a few of those on our own using square foot gardening methods in our backyard.

Action Item: Clear a few shelves and stock with non-perishable (or long shelf-life) foods like rice, beans, canned vegetables, plus a small surplus of paper and cleaning supplies, toiletries, etc. Keep your freezer well-stocked with a variety of meats purchased on sale.

#8 Pay Off Your Mortgage Early

For us, the ultimate in financial freedom begins with having a paid-for home. Imagine not making payments to anyone for living space (well, except the local tax commissioner). No monthly mortgage or rent payments buys two very important things: You can build wealth much faster without house payments, and you can survive on much less income without a mortgage.

Action Item: Get busy paying off your mortgage early. Contact your mortgage company and ask about making biweekly payments. If they offer a biweekly plan, but charge a fee, pass and simply send in one extra payment a year (the math is virtually the same). If you are in relatively good shape, financially, have plenty of emergency cash saved, and are saving for retirement and kid’s college, consider throwing extra savings at the mortgage each month. Contact your mortgage provider and ask for instructions on making extra principal payments.


  1. Pray harder.

    I’m not entirely joking around.

    My take is that our political system is going through growing pains. The crisis will get worse because we need to pay attention to problems we have been ignoring for too long. When our pride is finally broken dow to the point where we pay attention, we will enter a period of great growth and wealth. But our pride has grown awfully large. And so it is going to take some very rough stuff to get us to that point.

    It is going to take courage to get to the other side of the river. Prayer can bring confidence in a loving God and confidence in a loving God can bring courage. Prayer is a money-maker in today’s circumstances, in my assessment.


  2. I’m not an economist either, but I do like to pretend to be one. I would put the chance of a double-dip at only 5-15%. I believe the reason for the severity of this recession was a MONUMENTAL failure by the Fed to loosen monetary policy quick enough and large enough in October 2008 (around the time of Lehman’s collapse). This was a once-in-a-century failure by the Fed, so I don’t think it will happen again so soon.

    As for your tips, they were excellent. If people had been saving more over the past few decades, I think a lot of our current problems could have been avoided. Borrowing too much feels good in the short-run, but as we have seen, it can hurt bad when the party ends.

  3. I agree with you that it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. Our family has spent the past two years doing all the things on your list. We moved to a less expensive area and closer to family, we dramatically cut our expenses (ironically in part by me quitting my job and staying home), we’ve put every extra dime into clearing debt (one more loan and we’re done) or building savings and my Grandma and aunts are teaching me gardening and canning. What a resource our older ladies are!

    Being a Mom, it scares the daylights out of me that less than 10% of our population could feed themselves without grocery stores and money for groceries. Very few people know how to be self-sufficient anymore. We’ve given far too much of our personal power over to corporate interests – and we’ll pay for it.

    Thanks for this list. It is a very much needed resource. Families would do well to heed your advice.

  4. We were without power for a bit more than a week with an ice storm. Here are some things you might want to think about.

    #3 keep your three months in a local credit union. Hard to deal with a bank that only has ATM’s for your money. Consider a US or Canadian bank for your money. You may love ING or HSBC- but they are foreign banks. Ally is GMAC finance remade!

    #7 Freezer well stocked with meat spoils quickly. Although there were some fantastic bbques at the local church with donated meat, learn to use some canned meat. My daughter got $250. back from the insurance company for her food stocked freezer. Nice- but in a crisis have something you like ready.

    Have a good first aide kit in your house.
    Get some good board games!
    Even in the city- get a clothes line. You can put it in your bathroom and pretend you are back in a dorm again.

  5. I have to agree with you that I think that things will get worse before they get much better. We’ve been propping up all the markets with artificial stimulus for home buying, car purchases, green prodcuts and a variety of other things. It’s just simply unsustainable – and things will get worse – although you can bet all the media will say that it is “unexpected”.

    Getting your own financial house in order is a great idea that everyone should follow. Great post!

  6. Great article, I think these are items families should take to build more financial security. It’s time to make a paradigm shift away from the Now (Buy Now Pay Later) society mentality. Organization, discipline and taking the steps you’ve set forth move us in the right direction. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Great list. This is an excellent plan and should have been started years ago. The difficult part is getting started and remaining motivated when faced with massive debts and a long way from having any savings.

    The federal government doesn’t help, as they continue to encourage consumer spending, creating a culture of spending. The only way to implement this plan is the counter the culture and that has social consequences. This is very difficult for the majority of the public that are very much imfluenced by the culture and their surrounding environment.

  8. Great advice!

    My sympathies for your loss! My family is dealing with a similar medical emergency – my Dad had an aneurysm burst in January at age 52. He’s still healing, and we’re continuing to marvel at the power of prayer! I’ll keep your family in my prayers.

    We were caught off guard because my Dad deals with all of the finances, and though we’re in good financial shape, if my parents didn’t have a medical power of attorney we wouldn’t be able to access half of our savings.

    For all the readers of this blog, get your financial ducks in order and be prepared for any emergency!

    • Thanks, Nick. Sorry to hear about your dad. Aneurysms are a frightening condition, even more so when one ruptures, as happened with your dad’s. God willing, he will be able to make a full recovery. Thoughts and prayers to your family as well.

  9. These should be done whether or not you are worried about any financial crisis…. These are just everyday common sense do it to get ahead items 🙂

    If you have all these things done well, then the crisis will NOT be yours 🙂

  10. Well, don’t know whether I agree with you or not but LOTS of other people don’t. Like all those that waited in line yesterday because they HAD TO HAVE the new IPhone. Same deal a few months ago with the IPad. Guess in a perverse way we should thank them because if everyone behaved like most of the readers of this blog, we’d be a lot worse off.

    • If the majority of those people were spending cash (meaning money they had), and not increasing their personal debt, I would agree with you. To me, an increase in consumer spending is only positive when it is an outflow of increased personal incomes, increased employment, and decreased taxation. Otherwise, the chances are high that consumers are only adding to their debt. I refuse to believe that is a good thing, despite what we are told by the government.

      • FD,
        You’re right on. Sometimes I feel like we’re a bunch of lemmings being led over the cliff by a government that has become blind to reality. Heading in the opposite direction of the herd is the way to light & freedom.

      • Exactly, just because there is increased consumer spending for a short time doesn’t mean they’re spending with cash. I’ll be a good portion of those people are not in a posiition to buy the phone – even though they are. Most are probably just adding to their own personal debt crisis – making their situations worse. For the others – enjoy your iphone!

  11. I LOVE this list!!! We are currently working on getting out of debt (in the next 2-3 weeks, we pay off our last ever car loan), building up a 6 month emergency fund right after (our jobs are super safe), and paying off our mortgage early (10 years total in 6 1/2 more years). We have small side hustles right now, but they are bringing in about $6000 a year, which is 1/4 of what we need to survive, lol. Great list!

  12. Very Sounds advice!

    Ironically, I’ve been thinking a lot about this myself lately. I’m thinking of broader asset diversification, by investing a little in gold, a little more in overseas markets, and maybe some additional side incomes. It couldn’t hurt…

    • Agreed, and I’ve been thinking more about what some refer to as “alternative investments.” One of these days I hope to buy a little land with cash with the idea of having it as a potential bug-out location if something happens to our primary home (financial crisis, natural disaster, etc.). If all goes well, I’ll at least be holding an investment that they can’t print more of – land.

      • I really like your posts, and there very common sense approach. I never did jump into having to have all the new gadgets as they came out. I have never owned a new car, and never will. I find that I can purchase a used one, and not worry about high payments & all that insurance you have to pay. I buy alot of things used. My home is an older home with 2 acres of hillside, thankfully it is paid for, has been for about 10 years now. My home is in the country, so therefore I also raise a garden and raise a few animals. I have learned how to butcher myself, and to preserve what I grow. For 18 years I have worked 2 jobs. Which ends up being working 7 days per week. When I have the day off from 1 job, I still normally work the other job. I still use dial-up internet service, I feel its better to pay $6.95 per month than paying $59 per month for Frontier DSL. I have co-workers complaining because their DSL has been turned off because they could not afford to pay it, so instead of adding to the bills, I try to limit my bills. I have never had any interest for a credit card. I have always been taught that if you can’t pay for it when you get it, you really don’t need it. I have stuck to that philosphy my enitre adult life.

  13. Thanks for saying exactly what I have been thinking and feeling. Your advice is wise and much appreciated.

  14. We have gotten to the debt free stage over the past 10 years. We buy our cars used, and for cash. I was laid off and retired in 1995…at 50. My wife worked until a couple years ago, and she never found another job.

    Between the two of us, we have enough money to live comfortably for the rest of our lives. We saved a lot over the years. I am 66, on SS, and a savvy investor, so we will do fine.

    We are also stocked up on rice, wheat, corn, oats, beans and pearled barley since before 2000. With desiccant and oxy-zorb packs in food grade pails, they will be good indefinitely. We keep a stock of protein add ins in canned form. Only good for a few years. They all have “use by” dates so keep track and rotate. We also have 3 months worth of MREs. Not real delicious, but good for short term sustenance.

    We are for the most part Propane powered, including Generators, so other than perhaps being stingy with the AC, we can ride out an emergency with minimal inconvenience.

    If anyone wants I can post some survival links that provide more info.


    • Marc, yours is a great story and sums up exactly where my wife and I’d like to be in a few years. Where can we learn more about food storage using the “desiccant and oxy-zorb packs” you refer to?

      I grew up snacking on MREs my grandfather had stored after his time in the Marines, and a few he still bought on base (we took them camping for quick meals on the go). I recall the chocolate bars being tasty, but things like beef stroganoff, not so much!

  15. This is great advice! I think getting out of debt is the best way to be prepared. As of August 4, if all goes as planned, I will have NO credit card debt! I have the date circled on the calendar with a smiley face. Since I don’t have a mortgage, the next step is to pay off the HELOC, about $1300.00. I’m following the debt snowball method and it’s exciting to knock these debts off one at a time. It’s like a weight lifts each time the final payment is made!!

    I’m also putting back household items, like toilet paper, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, laundry detergent, soap, etc plus rice, beans, flour, sugar, and other basics. I call it my “year’s worth project”, and I’m careful to rotate the items based on any expiration dates they carry.

    I hope to get some venison this fall and put it up in jars – it’s easy to do, and you can make so many different meals with the meat. I even make “cheese steak” sandwiches with it.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • I love the idea of a “Year’s Worth Project,” whether it be cash, household products, etc. We’d like to do something similar in our household. If you follow The Grocery Game, they essentially suggest buying in 12-week cycles because that’s the cycle coupons and grocers tend to have sales.

      So this week’s sales may be on paper products – stock up on toilet paper, paper towel (if you use it), kitchen bags, Ziplocs, etc, and then don’t buy those for another 12 weeks, when they on sale and/or have available coupons.

      It’s an interesting strategy and one I’ve yet to perfect. Ultimately, I’d love to be in the position to stock up on 6-month, or even “a year’s worth” for dried goods with a long shelf life, paper products, etc.

  16. We were thankfully lucky enough to discover some excellent financial education and it has helped us enormously – if only we had been given this at school! Our finances are now in great health despite the economy and downturn and they continue to get better and better.

  17. I think the can has just been kicked further down the financial crisis road. We are in for a long hard time. It could be five years before pre 2008 levels of employment are reached. I’m hunkering down, have no debt and operate on a cash basis. I would suggest some cash on hand if an attack of the financial electronic system cripples ATM’s.

  18. One thing to consider is to move to a low cost country where food is aplenty.
    Google ” living abroad” for information.
    We are thinking about this; leaving for a exploratory trip to S. America very soon. If, say, after ten years, the USA is back to normal, we would move back. Meanwhile, we have fun learning a new language and new ideas on life.

  19. I’m not sure “another downturn” is the operative term. From where I’m lookin’, it doesn’t appear that we’re experiencing a real recovery. Unemployment is still astronomical–de facto unemployment and underemployment rates are much higher than the 10% or so that the government acknowledges. The market is extremely volatile–I lost 25 grand of conservatively invested money just last month.

    If you enjoy the feeling the whim-whams gives you, there’s a really hair-raising article in the March issue of The Atlantic. You can see it online by googling Don Peck “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America.” Work up your nerve before reading it, though.

    How can we prepare for such a dim future? You are sooo right about getting out of debt! Include car & mortgage debt in that, too. I’d add that one ought to be looking for relatively safe places to invest savings. Where those might be, I can’t even begin to imagine.

  20. If you are going to use plastic pails, get the screw off lids(Gamma Seal). They are worth the price.

    Desiccant packs will remove the 20% Oxygen in a container. That pulls a partial vacuum and will buckle the sides of a 5 or 6 gallon pail. Use large Ziplock freezer bags with a small pack in each one. Leave some air in each one, otherwise they will compress into bricks and be hard to pack in the bucket.Then, I tossed in a packet before screwing the lid in. I loosely started the lid on, and let the thing leak for a week before final tightening. No buckets collapsed.

    A word on tightening; don’t overdo it The lids have an O ring seal that seals to the inside of the bucket lip.

  21. I do think there are still going to be hard times ahead, we must not be too hasty to start spending more again. There will always be small financial crises that we have to save for so it is good to always prudent with our money. I’ve cut my cell phone costs dramatically by switching from contract to prepaid, I bought a $9.99 Tracfone and use their prepaid phone card $9.99 for 50 minutes a month. I now have total control over my costs, I don’t get surprise bills, no hidden costs, great reception and I have peace of mind.

  22. Hmmmm, I forget where you live Frugal Dad, but it sure feels like a really healthy economy out here in San Francisco. Restaurants are packed, traffic is busy, and Facebook is going public for $20 billion bucks!

    Also, everybody seems to be giving us money buying Apple products and such.

    Could it be, we live in parallel universes? Seriously, I think the economy is recovery GREAT!


    • @FInancial – I think the great recovery you are seeing is an artificial recovery… – It’s also localized and NOT widespread and therefore does not cover the entire nation, and it is the ENTIRE nation that has to come out of this, not isolated segments. (We are NOT seeing an artificial flurry on the Oregon coast – due mostly to more people vacationing closer to home!!! – it’s a residual affect due to LOW economy, not a solid base)

      IMO, This artificial recovery is propped up by all the govt. bailouts and spending…. It has the appearance of being a recovery, but is not …. there is no solid foundation under it – it’s based on hot air and bailouts. Once the false foundation disappears, which it will, the quasi-foundation will fall, and we will be back in reality…. When that happens, one will need to have taken advantage of this false economy to stock up, save, pay off, and learn to get by on a lot less money and do a lot more for oneself….

      We have not seen the end of this one yet. We may not ever see it…. what we will see hopefully are some lifestyle changes tho, less glamor and more grubbing I think 🙂 I think our economy needs to be based on Production and NOT Consumption, and until that happens, we won’t see a full recovery. Take advantage of the false economy and pay off what you can!!!

  23. Whoa…this aneurysm-thing is a weird coincidence. I’m 51 and was just diagnosed with a small brain anuerysm. I’m OK for now but it’s a strange coincidence…Anyway, regarding saving a years-worth of expenses. Many, many years ago, I started an aggressive savings plan. As of right now, I have 21 years worth of living expenses saved up. (in today’s dollars of course) Yes you read that right. I could stop working right now and not have to work for 21 years. (And no, I’m not some highly-paid CEO. I’m just a regular guy who has stuck with his savings plan for most of my adult life)

    • Take good care of yourself and monitor the aneurysm closely. Unfortunately, my mom’s was not discovered until classified a “giant” aneurysm. A coiling procedure was the only option for her because of where the aneurysm was and its size. The surgery was effective, but unfortunately she had a stroke while in recovery. It was the stroke that caused paralysis on her right side, and complication ultimately leading to her death.

      21 years of living expenses – that’s incredible! And not having to work for 21 years provides an interesting way to think of early retirement. I wish you well.

  24. Very good article.

    This financial “situation” we have all navigated through has certainly made an impression on me. I think that there have been some learnings from this that will stay with me for a very long time.

    My take is that you should save money while you can. Whether young or old, if you’re healthy enough to earn money and save, take advantage of your window of opportunity. Save early and often.

    To that point, I also think that 3 months is not even a minimum for an emergency fund. 9 months would be better, in my opinion. You just don’t want to be underwater financially. As Warren Buffet is reported to have said, Rule #1 is don’t lose money, Rule #2 is don’t forget Rule #1.

    That said, we can also have fun too. Even if one takes a bunker mentality, it’s always good to appreciate what we do have, and enjoy life to its fullest.

  25. I agree that the worst is yet to come, and we have also been contemplating on living abroad, however, we don’t know if we still have to file income taxes for the US even though we are no longer living in the US. We were born in another country and have become US citizens and our children are natural-born citizens. We own some property abroad and would be able to live off the land for far longer than we are able to in New England. We’ve come to the conclusion that if the US is becoming more socialized than Europe is which makes the US a less desirable place to live in. I really don’t think that the american people get it and by the time they do it will be to late.

  26. I’m still looking for #9…
    In #5, the first line says “but continue to work on items 5-9 concurrently”

    At any rate, love the article!

    • Ha! I consolidated the final steps, and wound up with one less step than I originally intended. Thanks for catching that – I’ll edit to read “5-8.”

  27. It is amazing that I have friends that in spite of everything they see going on around them today are still walking with their blinders on. Some people believe that they are ‘un-touchable’ and while they might in fact end up being the lucky ones in the end there is also the very real possibility that they might be in for a rude awakening. Everyone should plan for the worst and be ready for anything and that does not mean they need to run around worrying about ‘doomsday’, but to just be aware and ready.

  28. To me, building a second or alternative income stream is key in case your day job disappears like millions of others.

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  30. I know this sounds strange coming from a teenager, but I want to prep in case of another economic crisis or flu pandemic. I don’t know a lot about how the stock market works but I am really fearing a crisis. Added to the fact that I have a dad with major health issues and a two year old sister, I don’t want to see them suffer.

    I haven’t talked to my parents about it but today ( after much worrying about it over the course of a couple of weeks ) I have decided to start prepping. I have no cash right now but I have started to take some of what we already have and stash it away. ( Eventually I will get an appropiate bag for it. )

    Yes, I know I sound crazy, but does anyone want to give me any advice for prepping. ( not prepping for ” the end of the world ” here 😉 but I just want some advice from the people on here. )

  31. I meant some extra of what we already have. ( Feminine products for one thing )

  32. I did notice one thing missing from the article (super great article!!). Water….. I’m not a survivalist by any stretch, but, a human can survive without food for approximately 2 weeks but can’t without water. I live in a town where our water rates are extremely high. I have about 3 1/2 gals. stored now, but, would like at least 15 gals. I have canned enough food to last approximately 8 months. My freezers are full and I have plans for smoking and drying as much meat as I can get a hold of. As a nation, we also have to look at the rising natural crisis’s that are happening. More severe hurricanes hitting areas that, before, didn’t get hit (hurricane Sandy), more severe tornadoes, more severe droughts, ect. Along with the terrible state of the countries financial crunch, there are the weather changes. I’ve never been real big on flapping about, crying wolf, but, this is getting scary enough for me. I’m, not only, prepping for financial disaster, but also, for natural ones as well. This article gives super advice on the financial aspect but, lacks in the natural ones. The combination is/maybe devastating.

  33. Paying off credit cards is great if the economy rights itself – instead if the economy goes to chaos having stockpiled emergency items is worth 1000 times more than a clean credit score.