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Here's a better way to think about emergency funds if you're stuck in debt and stressed out

If worrying about your emergency fund is holding you back from paying off debt, here's some advice from a certified financial planner.

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When you're stuck in debt, saving up for an emergency fund might be the last thing on your mind.

Or worse — it could also be the only thing on your mind.

Generally, experts recommend that you keep three to six months' worth of cash stowed away for emergencies in a high-yield savings account. But when you have debt, saving up several thousand dollars can feel like an impossible task.

In a New York Times Opinion piece from earlier this year, Economic Hardship Reporting Project director Alissa Quart estimated it would take the average American household over two years to save just one month's worth of living expenses. At this rate, it would take more than six years just to save your basic, three-month cushion.

It can also be counterproductive: If you focused on saving rather than paying off debt, think of the amount of credit card interest you could pay over six years. Prolonging your debt payoff could cost you thousands in interest charges, depending on the size of your credit card balance and APR. Even if you have a cash cushion, the compounding interest you pay on credit card debt can easily cut into your net worth.

"Logically, I understand why folks would want to have that back up," says Rachel Sanborn Lawrence, advisory services director and certified financial planner at Ellevest. "It really does help people sleep better at night to have a little bit saved."

But when you look at the math, Sanborn Lawrence says don't get too hung up on emergency savings. Credit card interest rates currently average about 16.43% APR, whereas you'll likely earn less than 1% APY letting your money sit in a high-yield savings account (give or take).

If you're stuck in debt because you're worried you don't have enough cash, here are some helpful things to consider, according to Sanborn Lawrence.

You might be better off than you realize

We love to think of ourselves as independent, especially when it comes to our money. But don't get bogged down thinking you have to be overprepared for an emergency. Instead, just be appropriately prepared. Consider what supports and resources you have in place now that you could count on in the future if you encountered a problem.

Of course, cash is a great place to start. But also take inventory of the family, friends and community members who would offer you an extra job if you needed it, or maybe give you a place to stay while you get back on your feet. If you're in a partnership or marriage, talk to your significant other about how much they could cover if you lost your job.

Look around, notice the supports you have today and feel grateful. Doing so may ease your stress and give yourself the boost you need to keep going.

Your credit cards are emergency funds, too

Remember when your parents told you that a credit card was for emergencies? They weren't lying. If you've got available credit across one or more credit lines, you can think of this as a form of emergency money.

Of course, this comes with a big caveat: Credit cards are a very expensive form of "cash." But when the choice is between prioritizing building an emergency fund or paying off credit card debt, you're much better off with the latter, argues Sanborn Lawrence.

Sure, there's risk: If the water heater breaks, you'll probably have to pay for the unexpected repair with a credit card. Your balance will go back up — temporarily.

"But that way you're not paying interest until you actually have the emergency," she says.

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Your safety net can be as large (or small) as you want

When planning how much to put in your emergency fund, keep in mind that budgets fluctuate. There will be good times and hard times, and your spending habits are probably going to change depending on the circumstances.

That's not to say you shouldn't have a plan for an unexpected emergency, like a job loss or medical bill. But before you stay awake at night worrying how long it's going take you to save up $30,000, take a breath and reconsider.

Ask yourself what's the smallest amount in cash you'd need to handle a bump in the road, and start from there. Just because you live on $5,000 per month today doesn't mean your 6-month emergency fund has to be $30,000. Start small, and remember that it will be easier to ramp up your savings when you're free of high-interest debt.

Some experts recommend making a separate budget for hard times, eliminating all of the non-necessities like dining out, entertainment, travel, etc. You might find that you can trim $1,000 or more off of your normal budget, which can make building up to a six-month emergency fund more attainable.

You're allowed to be in debt

While you shouldn't necessarily aspire to be in debt, it's important to remember that you are allowed to borrow money.

"Not all debt is bad," says Sanborn Lawrence. "If you take a student loan or a car loan to get to work and earn an income that could be helpful."

Debt becomes tricky when we feel like it's holding us back. That could mean a mortgage payment that's eating up too much of your monthly income. Or perhaps a credit card balance that's charging you sky-high 29% interest.

But as costly as debt can be, it's not shameful. Learn to treat yourself with compassion and put together a debt plan that works for you, not punishes you.

Ready to start saving?
  • The Synchrony Bank High Yield Savings account has no minimum balance requirement to open, no monthly fees and a higher-than-average APY. With convenient withdrawal options and a $5-per-month ATM fee reimbursement, you can access your money when you need it.

Bottom line

It's smart to prepare for the worst-case scenario but don't let your fears inflate the amount you think you need to have in your emergency fund before you can get started on the road to debt freedom.

To get started, save enough cash to ease your worries and cover yourself in a pinch (a recent report suggests that $2,467 is the magic number) — and don't forget the friends, family and community safety nets that don't come from a bank.




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