Emergency Preparedness and LoCs

January 25th, 2012 by Potato

Krystal Yee weighs in on the eternal savings vs line of credit (LoC) emergency fund debate. I disagree with her on a number of points which is largely just personal preference, but importantly she’s needlessly fearmongering on a few points, and that needs to be cleared up.

To begin, I think of emergency preparedness as having multiple levels, each of which requires its own solution.

The first level is not financial at all: what if you get stuck in your house? A bad blizzard, a quarantine, earthquake, or zombies roving the neighbourhood. Whatever it is, money won’t help you. You need to have a few days’ supply of food and water (and um… q-tips). The government has a site that’s a good resource for basic planning. Remember, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a separate dedicated cache: if you normally keep bottled water in the house, then just make sure your inventory never goes below a few litres; likewise for shelf-stable, easy-to-prepare food.

The next level is for the likely but not severe “emergencies” or “lumpy” expenses you may face, and that’s IMHO best kept in cash (in your chequing/savings account, not literal paper cash). Whether it’s HR screwing up and delaying your pay by a month, getting hit with a car repair, needing to fly across the country for a funeral, or finding a sale on a big item you didn’t properly budget for, there’s a reasonably high likelihood you’ll need a few hundred to a few thousand or so dollars at the ready. But much beyond that and I think it’s more optimal to put the money to work rather than keep it around.

After that comes the less likely but larger expenses. This level, I argue, shouldn’t be kept in cash unless you are very conservative. A line of credit is a good option here, alongside the ability to sell investments and use that cash.

What are the trade-offs? If you don’t keep cash and are hit with an emergency that needs more than a few hundred/few thousand dollars to cope with, you’ll have to find a way to cover that. If you borrow from a LoC you’ll have to pay some interest, if you sell investments you may have transaction fees, you may be forced to sell low and buy higher later when you recover from the emergency, and you may have to temporarily give up some TFSA room. None of that sounds so onerous to me, especially when faced with a rare, expensive emergency.

So, what did I find so objectionable about Krystal’s post? A few points:

Her first point, she says “after your emergency money is gone, you will still be debt-free” which implies that after using a LoC to cover some emergency, you would be in debt if you didn’t keep a cash cushion. But if you approach it from an all else being equal perspective, you see that’s a ridiculous false dichotomy: if you had cash and spent it you’d realistically be no better or worse off than if you had invested the cash and then borrowed against the investments in an emergency. Yes, there is debt, but you’re not in net debt — with the click of a mouse you can sell your (bond) index funds and pay off the LoC if you so choose. And if you’re debt averse, you may be less likely to tap the LoC for avoidable “emergency” spending that might otherwise drain the cash account. In other words, the choice is not between cash and debt, the choice is between cash and investments with a debt option.

Her second point is entirely personal: sure, going into debt is stressful. I had to experience it myself when I went 4 months this summer without a paycheque, and sold off investments and tapped my LoC to make ends meet. But the fact I had debt on my LoC was a trivial, marginal increase to my stress caused by the overall situation. And because I had invested my money rather than keeping $6000 in cash lying around, I made several hundreds of dollars on that money over the years, which was more than a fair trade-off for that marginal stress.

She almost gets the point on the 3rd bullet: the bank controls the LoC. The big risk of the strategy is that the bank could pull your LoC at exactly the moment you need it most (e.g., if you lose your job, or during a liquidity crisis). One way to help ameliorate that is by securing the LoC against your house, if you have one and have enough equity (a HELOC). “If your line of credit is secured by your home equity, you have the added pressure of knowing that you will be putting your house is at risk.” [sic] No. Well, technically, yes. But realistically, no. No one in the history of Canadian banking has had the bank repossess their house over a few thousand dollars on a HELOC. The risk to your house is there from the emergency itself: if you don’t make your mortgage payments, or pay your property tax, or whatever. Not from actually using your HELOC to cover a few thousand for an emergency (the amount she says you should keep in cash instead).

To say it again more clearly, the risk of using a HELOC for your emergency fund is that the line gets taken away, not that the house gets taken away. It’s more risky than holding unproductive cash, but it’s a remote risk that’s not really worth getting worked up over.

So in the end, I think a better strategy is to keep a small (~1 mo) emergency fund, and then have the rest invested, with access to a LoC/HELOC if needed. The choice is not between a large cash emergency fund and nothing to fall back on at all — those investments are available if you need them. And of course, that’s one of the reasons I recommend filling the TFSA first over the RRSP, since you can withdraw from the TFSA if you do hit a bump in the road and need to cash out. Since it may take a few days for transactions to clear, the LoC can help you bridge that time, and also give yourself some time and breathing room to decide if you do need to liquidate, or just borrow and repay the LoC from future savings.

It all depends on your own risk tolerance of course: if you can’t sleep at night without a big metaphorical mattress stuffed with cash under you, then so be it. You’d most likely be better off investing most of that cash, but you do need to take your own psychology into account. Just don’t go out of your way to make up risks to frighten yourself with, the world is scary enough as it is.

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