Let’s talk about emergency funds

You should have one.
You should have already had one.
You don’t have one?

Isn’t it a lovely idea? A big pile of money… fabricated to value 3 to 6 months of expenses, that’s just waiting to solve all your problems? It’s the perfect grass is greener solution to all the stress you’re feeling.

And yes, it’s a good thing, but the conversation around it needs some focusing.

First. If you didn’t come into this pandemic with an emergency fund, it’s time to let yourself off the hook

Yes. It would have been helpful to have a big pile of cash. You don’t have one. Maybe you’ll give it some thought once things are less stressful, but for now… put down the stick you’ve been flogging yourself with and look at what you do have.

I’m done with the backwards looking advice I’m reading about how people ‘really should have saved an emergency fund’. I don’t imagine it’s very helpful.

When crisis hits, we all have whatever we have. Take stock, and if your mental energy allows… make a bit of a plan.

Second. If you have one, give yourself permission to use it

Something I’m hearing a lot from people is a real reticence to use the money they’ve put aside for emergencies. Spending that money feels like another emergency. It was so hard to save up.

I can’t tell you if this is the time to spend it. Everyone’s life is different. But what I will encourage you to do is to build a permission structure into all your pools of savings. What is an emergency? When can I spend this? Write it down on a little piece of paper.

Please don’t let using your emergency fund be another source of stress in an emergency.

There will be a time, when work comes back, for us to build better resiliency for next time. But when you are in a crisis… building systems is difficult.

If you can find some extra resources to build an emergency fund right now, do it.

If you can’t, do what you need to do to get through this, and we can talk about building one later.


Uncertain as to whether his Good Foods delivery would come,
Chris purchased extra groceries at the store
He wore gloves and a homemade mask.
Chris is managing uncertainty in the time of COVID

Uncertain as to whether he could travel to see his family and friends soon
Chris has scheduled Zoom calls to stay connected
It is not the same, but he is grateful for their laughter
Chris is managing uncertainty in the time of COVID

Uncertain of whether his income would be affected by the mass closure of the economy
Chris sat down with his wife to lower expenses and see how long their savings would last them
“It is good to have a plan” they say, knowing that the plan will change daily… it has to
Chris is managing uncertainty in the time of COVID

Uncertain of whether he is carrying this disease, which does not always show symptoms
Chris stayed home. Mostly. As much as he could.
He does not want others to die, but he would really like to be with people sometimes
Chris is managing uncertainty in the time of COVID

Uncertain of whether he, his wife, or his friends in the arts will ever return to their ‘before’ lives
Chris sits and stares at the wall, not knowing how to start thinking of the possibilities
He starts watching ‘The Wire’
Chris is managing uncertainty in the time of COVID

Uncertain of how to speak to people who are all experiencing the effects of COVID in different ways
Chris uses the word ‘uncertainty’ at the start of most emails
He hates writing the word. It is not big enough. Not nuanced enough. Not true enough.
But Chris is uncertain of what else to say
Chris is managed by uncertainty in the time of COVID

How do you talk about ‘financial planning’ right now?

Planning is really hard when there are so many unknowns. Too many variables and no real data to make good assumptions on.

The biggest problem is… what’s going to happen in the next year?

Will people go back to work? Which people? What work?

Will businesses be able to continue to operate? Which businesses?

For those of us connected to live art forms, those questions get scarier. In opera there is a lot of talk about fall 2021 or even 2022. But at the same time, some organizations are talking about a September 2020 return…

Will there be work in the fall or is it a year until work starts? What assumptions should we make?

We don’t know.

And so planning is hard.

It’s still valuable, if you can muster the energy to do it. I say ‘if’ not because you ‘really should’, but because sometimes you can’t… and that’s okay. There is a lot of work to be done these days and I won’t pretend that this is the most important kind.

Planning is hard most of the time, but planning is very hard right now.

Stretching my mind into the future often feels like reaching out and touching a hot stove. Too clear a vision into the next year causes my reaching mind to recoil, scarred.

But I feel the need to reach out again and again in the hope that looking, imagining, planning will help this lost feeling that I can’t shake.

So how can you make a plan this year? Just pick some assumptions that make sense right now, and sketch out one path. Sketch it out knowing that it will change, but sketch anyways.

For example:

Assumption One: It will be difficult to make any real income in the next 3 months.
Assumption Two: Most likely live theatre will not happen until fall 2021
Assumption Three: Government benefits will likely stop after CERB

If these things are true, what are some decisions I can make? How do I want to use the assets that I have? What will make me the most flexible if things change?

Your assumptions will probably be wrong. But never forget that planning is a craft not a product. By going through this process it will be easier to incorporate new information when it comes.

I would prefer things to be different

I would like to plant a garden. Not an ordinary garden of course, I would prefer it to be amazing. I would prefer that when people walked into it they found themselves accidentally letting loose a muttered curse at its unexpected, playful beauty.

I would like to plant a garden, and I would prefer to be good at it immediately. I would prefer to have the first things I plant flourish exactly where I planted them. I would, of course, prefer that things grow very quickly up to the height that I would prefer and then stop growing.

I would like to plant a garden, but it must fit within my available time and energy. I do not want it to look low maintenance, in fact I would prefer it to have the look of a garden that is simultaneously wild and immaculately cared for. I would prefer to be seen as someone who has lovingly tended every inch of soil and green, but upon closer inspection there are a lot of inches of both soil and green, and so I would prefer if my new garden could meet me half way on this.

I would like to plant a garden that feeds my family for many months. It makes so much food that neighbours peer around the fence and wonder how we could possibly be picking tomatoes again. “How do they do it?”, I would prefer them to say, and of course I would prefer to know.

These were the words that came to me as I mocked my own impatience with my gardening enthusiasm. In our new back yard I am excited to build an extensive English-style cottage garden. I do want it to be amazing, and I have so much to learn.

I am constantly needing to remind myself that this knowledge cannot be rushed. No matter how much I want people to be impressed by my hard work and gumption, the work of this first year will be visually unremarkable. I will watch and learn what plants are already there. I will watch the sun through the seasons to see where the light is and where it is not. I will feel the wind as it whips through the hedges in the winter to find the sheltered spots vs the vulnerable ones. I will sit and learn… something that is to the outside observer utterly unremarkable.

I would prefer to be doing something rather than watching and learning… but I know that this is the foundation for building anything that matters.

And so, that is my reminder to any of you who are looking at the landscape of your finances and wishing things were different. I know you would prefer to have more money. You’d prefer for things to feel more stable. You’d prefer to have a diverse crop of income ready for the first of next month.

Me too.

But no matter your urgency building a craft takes time. So much of the first stages of the work are learning to look, dreaming and designing, and practising on a smaller scale than will feel satisfying.

No matter the scale of the current drought, the process has not changed. Things grow as fast as they grow. However we might all prefer it to be otherwise.

Discounting the Possible

I was listening to a presentation on cashflow given to a group of colleagues recently that was being done by a mentor of mine. Cashflow, for those of you who don’t speak finance, is what the money world calls the intricate dance of money coming in and out of our lives.

What I love about how my mentor speaks about this dance is that she grounds herself in a values based approach – first having a long conversation about what’s important and then building a structure on top of that. I know to many of you that sounds pretty obvious, but it’s actually revolutionary in the world of finance.

After she spoke, a colleague asked her about whether there was a danger in having a client ‘dream too big’. What if you guided them through exercises and had them set money goals and values but they found that they couldn’t achieve them… wouldn’t that be irresponsible?

Again, it seems like the job of the financial professional is to tell you what is responsible. To tell you how you can fit the scope of your dreams into the realities of the present.

And that’s a belief that is nestled up next to the truth.

There are limited resources in this world. Limited time, energy and money. You can’t have all the things right now, none of us can.

But what frustrates me about this thought process is the overvaluing of the current numbers and the discounting of the value of good technique. Sure, it is helpful for a coach to come in and tell a singer “you can’t pull off that aria right now, you can’t handle it just yet and it needs to wait a few years”, but if they stop there… that value, the thing that excites them and inspires them to practice and work at their craft, is pretty short lived. What may be more helpful, especially for those at the beginning of building a financial craft, is to capture the excitement for the work and use that to build a technique. Even if the goals are somewhat lofty.

Any goal that lights a spark in someone and makes them interested to try to use the tool of money to accomplish it is a good goal, no matter how impossible it might seem right now.

The goal is not the thing, the technique is the thing. That is what makes us flexible in the face of an ever changing world.

The grief of moving what we hoped for into the past tense

There are many things that are happening in the world right now. For lots of us, the world has forever changed since we rang in the new year.

One of the things I’ve been hearing (and feeling) a lot is people struggling with releasing what this year was ‘supposed to be’.

“I was supposed to be debt free by June”

“I was supposed to be able to go on tour this summer”

Something I found very difficult after my dad died was moving from the present to the past tense. The words got caught in my throat every time. Even now, they don’t seem right.

So much has changed this year. Our goals and dreams for this year have to change too. And I get if you’re not there yet. I get if you need to grieve that change a little longer.

What I don’t want you to do, is hold yourself to an old standard that no longer is possible. If all your work has been cancelled for the next year (I’m looking at you, live theatre people), please don’t set the standard of failure at your previously set debt payoff goals.

Some of those goals are dead, at least they are for now. We instead aim to survive until we can dream again.


9 Thoughts on Financial planning in the time of COVID

1. Having cash will make you feel better. Being able to see that pile of cash in terms of how many months it will keep you afloat will make you able to plan better.

2. Don’t beat yourself up for not having skills on Day One of the pandemic that you didn’t have the day before the pandemic. Financial technique doesn’t all of a sudden appear just because you need it. Be gentle with yourself and start figuring it out.

3. Lots of people are going to use debt to get through this. That’s okay. Don’t add shame to the shit you’re carrying around. However, instead of pulling on credit in a wild out-of-control way, do it deliberately. Only take what you need for that month and try to stick to it.

4. Austerity budgets are really hard the longer you stick to them. Remember to keep looking at your numbers and being as honest as possible about what you need. Lying to yourself doesn’t help.

5. At some point there might be the need to shift from ‘how do I keep afloat’ to making some major changes. I don’t know what that looks like in your life, but for some of us (especially those linked to the arts world) things might not ever be the same.

6. In times where making a decision seems impossible, sometimes the only answer is to wait for more information. Understanding how long you can afford to be patient will help give you the permission to wait.

7. When you take stock of what you have don’t just stop at pure financial resources. A good relationship with your landlord is a good an asset as anything these days. Write everything down and remember that you are not unequipped for this fight.

8. Your plans will be wrong. They were always going to be anyways, but they definitely will be now. Planning is about stretching out your perception so you can figure out where to place your next step. Plan, but then re-plan when more information comes up.

9. We will not all be okay. If you are, that’s great. Some people are not. People will lose their houses and their businesses. People will suffer, and some are already. Be as kind as you can be, be as gentle as you can be… with yourself and with those around you.