The entire financial world wants you to believe that success with money is just math.  It’s not.

Well, it is, but – for most average, everyday people, anyway – it’s only about math eventually.  First, it’s about behaviour.

The idea that you can transition seamlessly from someone spending more than she makes to someone who can handle money surprises, knows how to invest, saves 25% of her gross income, and makes good financial decisions without even trying over a weekend of reading Total Money Makeover or watching a ‘Til Debt Do Us Part rerun marathon is faintly ludicrous, unless your income to expenses ratio is already really, really good.

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A five minute clip on an evening news show isn’t going to magically balance your budget for you, and we – collectively, the financial media – have got to stop patting ourselves fatuously on the back for “helping people” when we’re not acknowledging that the part between “figuring out there’s a problem” and “solving the problem” takes time.

An example: the emergency fund.  A staple of personal finance advice: make a budget, pay off debt, build an emergency fund, save a couple of bucketloads of money, buy a unicorn, live happily ever after.  Simple formula, fixed your life, you’re welcome.

Look, I’d bet that most people who encounter the tenets of personal finance for the first time encounter them because finances are in some way a problem: too much debt, too little income, a series of small crises, a big crisis, or a nagging inability to go from one month to the next without a credit card balance increasing ever-so-slightly.

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Figuring out how much money you will bring in over the next year and allocating it so you’ll still have a place to stay, food to eat, clothes to wear, a way to get to work, lower (or no debt) and more savings by next year, plus all of the other things we need or want to spend money on is a skill that develops with practice.  It’s hard.  It takes time.

So when I say enough with the emergency fund already, I don’t want you to misunderstand me: no one ever, in the history of money, ever said “I wish I hadn’t had that pile of cash sitting there when I needed it after I was hit by a car”.  A bag of money sitting in the bank, ready and willing to be used in the event of an emergency is a fine thing.  But it’s a luxury, not a necessity.

If it’s relatively easy for you to amass a pile of cash, I’m going to bet that you don’t really need one.  If it’s pretty tough to build up that minimum three to six month’s worth of income (or expenses, depending on who you read), and you need to dip into it pretty frequently for unexpected non-emergencies like car maintenance, or your semi-annual property taxes, and you find yourself back to whatever-baby-step-number-it-is “refill the emergency fund”, then I’m going to suggest that you haven’t mastered budgeting yet, and an emergency fund is the last thing you should be fixating on.

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No one ever mentions this about an emergency fund, but it’s true: once you build a cash reserve – no matter how small – you don’t want to use it.  Ever.  You’ll go to great lengths to not use it, because it’s become a symbol of success to you, and because using it means you’ve failed to properly account for irregular expenses that aren’t really emergencies.  You might not use that exact phrase to describe the feeling of deep reluctance to break the piggy bank, but you know it’s true.

Repeat after me: an emergency fund is only as good as your willingness to use it, and your ability to fill it up again, and your ability to fill it up again is only as good as your ability to budget in the first place.

Sandi Martin is an ex-banker who left the dark side to start Spring Personal Finance, a one woman fee only financial planning practice based in Gravenhurst, Ontario.  She and her husband have three kids under six, none of whom are learning the words to “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank” quickly enough.  She takes her clients seriously, but not much else.

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