The time equivalent of an emergency fund

If you read a lot of personal finance literature, you’re familiar with the concept of an “emergency fund.”

Life happens. When it does, it can be expensive. An emergency fund is easily accessed cash that can cover an unexpected car repair, a broken pipe, or the like. These things fall in the category of “known unknowns.” You don’t know exactly what unexpected expense will arise, but you can be pretty sure something will happen. Having savings means you can absorb the expense without going into debt. This is why Dave Ramsey advises even people with significant debts to save $1000 first, before paying off loans. That baby-steps emergency fund often keeps people from going deeper into the hole.

There are many parallels between time and money. I think this is one area where seeing parallels can lead to good choices. Good time management means creating the time equivalent of an emergency fund.

This is easily accessed time that you can deploy when something unexpected happens. If you have this open time, then an emergency means you don’t need to “borrow” from other priorities. You have a place for the emergency to go. Slack in your schedule means you stay on track.

One of the best ways to do this is to avoid scheduling things for a multi-hour block somewhere in the week. Friday afternoon is a common choice, as it tends not to be anyone’s peak productivity window. If nothing happens, great! Quit early. But more likely, a client whose project is due Thursday will call on Wednesday with some additional requests. Anything scheduled for Wednesday will need to move. If Friday afternoon is open, it can go there. If Friday afternoon is already packed, then you start having to borrow from future weeks, which are equally packed, and then the time debt starts to add up.

To be sure, there are some challenges involved in a time emergency fund that aren’t there for money. Once you create a financial emergency fund, it’s there unless you spend it, whereas even the wealthiest person would see her time emergency fund disappear once those minutes were in the past. You have to keep creating the time emergency fund again and again.

But if you do, life can feel reasonably calm. I was thinking of that today, which was my “time emergency fund” day for the week. I don’t have choir rehearsal tonight because we’re not singing this Sunday, and I managed most other projects and calls into Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday this week. It was going to be a gloriously open day!

And then it wasn’t. Snow and frigid temperatures meant the schools had a 2-hour delay this morning. I also managed to break my iPhone, necessitating a 2-hour visit to the Apple store to purchase a new one, followed by finding various files and setting up my accounts. I was rather annoyed at myself about the whole (expensive) phone debacle but I was happy that at least I had the space in my schedule to absorb it.

Do you have a “time emergency fund” in your schedule? What have you needed to use it for recently?

Photo: I’m sure I’ll have all sorts of fun with the camera on the new phone. Definitely snazzier than the model I’ve had for the last 3.5 years.  

19 thoughts on “The time equivalent of an emergency fund

  1. I absolutely love this idea, especially since I seem to have some truly unpredictable emergency nearly every week and feel like I have no space in my life. Reframing it this way might help me get my head around how to shift time and maybe finally get some space.

    1. @Sara B – you can’t predict what the emergency will be, but you can predict that there will be at least one! I really love the “known unknowns” idea.

  2. I work in a law firm where work is often feast or famine. I always wished that I could save time from the slow times and draw on it for the busy times. Still, I can see the value of your approach during both times because unexpected things still happen even if it’s slow. And we are very deadline oriented so that can add to the stress if there isn’t time set aside.

    1. @Lynn – this is a good topic for a post – how to “bank” time for the future, when it isn’t technically possible. There are certain things we can do to bank time (like getting your hair cut BEFORE busy season if you’re an accountant) – it might be interesting to come up with a list…

      1. I would be super interested in this. Everyone has busy times. It would be a good list for Oct/beginning of Nov time before the known busyness of the holidays.

  3. This is great advice, that I could’ve used a few weeks ago ha! Extreme weather meant my office was closed 3 days this week! Coupled with three days of travel last week and I am so behind, thankfully all of my coworkers and most clients have faced the same crazy week. But still, today has been madness (although, apparently, I still found a bit of time for blog reading on my lunch break). Looking forward to blocking off some empty time next week (and future weeks) to accommodate things that will surely come up.

  4. Love this! I moved to this scheduling a couple of years ago and call it “margin” but this concept is less esoteric for others to grasp.

  5. I used to schedule no meetings on Fridays until the beginning of each week for that reason. The emergency meetings for the week could go there, and if by some miracle there weren’t any, I could work from home! I’ve gotten out of that habit, so I really should do that again this year, especially as it is going to be very busy.

    1. @Jennifer Lang- it is a good habit, especially if it’s a busy year. And also good to have some motivation (working from home!) to keep you accountable.

  6. Thanks for putting this concept into words! I’ve been tracking my time and adding time estimates to my to-do list lately, and I’m finding that I really don’t know how long things take. This results in my never being able to complete all I’ve planned to do in a day, and feeling frustrated and defeated. So I’ve been working learning from this, and being more realistic about what I can manage in a day/week. The next step is what you’re talking about: building in the time equivalent of an emergency fund. Thanks for the food for thought.

  7. When I first started my PhD, my mentor told me to plan on keeping one day completely free from experiments. I’ve never had that day completely free, as experimental spillover means I’m completing some tasks that day, but I’ve tried to use it as a ‘catch up’ day. Also very good for me as I started building collaborations-I always had a day I could definitely meet a faculty member or schedule a Skype call.

    Made it so easy to schedule lunches/beers with friends from my original med school class who had less flexible schedules-I could just find out when they had a free afternoon in the month and meet them for a coffee and catch up.

    Now that I’m spending 80% of my time writing and only the next three weeks are devoted to experiments, I’m spending those days completely away from campus, so I won’t get distracted by my own internal pressure to ‘do lab stuff’ or by people needing things from me.

  8. I’ve been thinking about the idea of banking some time in anticipation of upcoming travel. There are certain tasks I do each Monday, but I see several (fun) weekend trips in the calendar, so that the corresponding Monday won’t be in front of my computer. My hope is to get ahead of these content-generation tasks, so I’m not in a tizzy when that week arrives.

    This is a bit different from what you suggested, of keeping time free every week. But it will help me feel more in control of my overall schedule.

  9. This is a great concept. The opposite should also apply– a list of things to do when you suddenly have time on your hands. For example, last week our schools had a snow day, two 2-hour delays and an early dismissal. I ended up spending a lot more time at home than at work, and I wish I’d prepared some activities for the kids and for me. We could have reorganized a bedroom or two if I’d had the materials, or go the opposite way and do a house-wide scavenger hunt just for fun! I know that snow days happen, yet I don’t plan for them, because their timing is unpredictable.

  10. The problem for me is if I leave open space, I often won’t do what needs to be done but just pass the time with something mindless. Like if I leave an evening per night open, instead of going to the gym (which I didn’t have time to earlier in the week), I get lost in laundry or Instagram.

  11. I also think about allocating some vacation days every year for family emergencies. If you can roll over vacation time, then this is like both a time bank and emergency fund. If our family has an emergency (medical or otherwise), then I know I have time and a paycheck available to cover at least some of it. And if I don’t need to use that time in one year, it can be rolled over as a time bank for the next year for emergencies or a longer vacation! This can be a really useful strategy if you or a family member has a chronic medical condition.

  12. I love this idea! As a teacher, I bank a lot of time during summer. Like I will bake a class-size batch of muffins for that day when snack day is during a busy week.

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