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Should you carry credit or cash on hand for emergency expenses? We asked two experts

Does cash or credit prevail in times of financial hardship? Select asked two experts about which to have on hand during emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.

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In light of the coronavirus outbreak, you may have heard the saying, "cash is king," being murmured by your family members, roommate or partner.

But before you rush to the ATM to withdraw money, most experts recommend you take a moment to evaluate your situation. Whether you use cash or credit to stock up on coronavirus supplies, your choice should come from information, not panic.

Select wanted some more insight on whether cash or credit prevails in a time of financial hardship. Below, experts responded to our questions about how much cash to carry during an emergency, as well as how to rely on credit cards so you get the most rewards for your spending.

When to use your credit card during an emergency

It's fine to use a credit card in an emergency — as long as you have cash to pay off the balance before interest starts accruing. To better guarantee this, you may want to consider using a rewards credit card with a lengthy interest-free intro period.

The Discover it® Balance Transfer comes with an introductory 0% APR period for 18 months on balance transfers and an introductory 0% APR period for six months on new purchases (after, 12.24% to 23.24% variable APR). This gives you extra time to pay for emergency supplies, plus you'll earn cash back on spending. It offers 5% cash back in rotating categories on up to $1,500 in combined purchases after you activate the bonus every quarter. After you reach the limit, you'll still earn 1% on all purchases.

"Using credit cards this way can help earn redeemable points or cashback rewards," Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), tells Select. "Using a credit card with an introductory interest-free repayment period can help buy some additional time before the balance should be paid off."

Carrying a credit card can also be the more secure option when leaving the house, such as going on a grocery run. "It is much safer than walking around with a lot of cash in your pocket," McClary says.

When to use cash during an emergency

While credit cards can be a financially smart tool to use, sticking with cash if you don't think you can pay your credit card balance off in full makes plenty of sense — especially during uncertain times like this when your finances may be in limbo.

As a security measure, it's always a good idea to have cash on hand for an emergency in case you have a situation where you can't use your credit card, like when the balance is already racked up too high.

"For instance, what if you have medical expenses and you're running a high balance on your credit cards?" Beverly Harzog, consumer finance analyst and author of "The Debt Escape Plan" and "Confessions of a Credit Junkie" tells Select.

Carrying cash can also be essential in scenarios like natural disasters when the power may go out for long periods of time, leaving purchases of goods and services to be conducted only on a cash basis. "Without electricity to power ATMs, having a personal stash of money in your home will help you buy the essentials necessary for survival," McClary says.

How much cash should you have on hand?

The short answer: It can vary. But there is a general 'rule-of-thumb.'

"If you have a home safe, it's probably a good idea to have at least enough set aside to cover a few weeks of essential expenses," McClary says. This can mean different amounts for different individuals, whether you live alone or have someone else to support. 

And experts recommend you have an emergency savings account as well. "Beyond what you keep in your home safe, you should have at least three months of net income set aside in an insured savings account," advises McClary.

Each individual has to decide what they need based on their resources right now, but a global pandemic is an especially important time to keep in mind budgeting for any health care expenses you may incur.

"I recommend having enough cash to cover copays for medical visits for each family member," Harzog says. "This is just a precaution in case the system gets backed up and they can't process your credit card. But this is only a guideline."

Bottom line

Depending on your personal financial situation, it can be ideal to have both credit cards and cash on hand during emergencies.

A credit card can help you redeem rewards while also covering your emergency expenses, but it should only be used if you can pay the balance off in full without incurring interest. And cash can be a good backup plan in case something happens to credit processing systems.

And while it's possible that electronic systems may go out in an unprecedented scenario, it's not likely. So it's not always recommended that you run to your nearest ATM and pull out all of your cash. 

"It's more important to maintain as much cash as you can in your account," Harzog says. "Just have some in your wallet in case you need to pay cash for something you need.

"If you've got credit cards, this is one of the few times I recommend using them as often as you can to maintain your cash reserves," she says. "This crisis will pass, and when it does, we're all going to be busy getting our financial lives back on track. But for now, it's more about financial survival."

For rates and fees of the Discover it® Balance Transfer, click here.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.