An emergency fund as the name implies, is money saved for and used during emergency situations. It is a fallback fund in certain situations like losing your job or unexpected car costs. It is similar to a sinking fund but quite different. As an international student in the states, an emergency fund needs to be a top priority in your finances. It serves as a fall back plan and provides a back-up in unexpected situations.
When I was a junior in college, a friend of mine who doubled as a big sister told me to have at least $6000 in emergency funds before I graduated college. While in college I was making less than minimum wage ($4 an hour) so it was almost impossible saving that amount of money before graduation. However during the summer when school was not in session, I would work had and work overtime and be able to make about $4000 in 3 months. I did not know about High Yield Savings Accounts then so I would put the money in my second checking account which served as a savings account for me.
After my first internship, I was able to save $4000 (after paying for rent and basic needs) and my second internship helped me save about $6000. By the time I graduated college, I had about $13,000 in savings, which would help me start life. My friend had suggested $6000 because that would cover my cost of moving and an apartment after graduation. She did not account for unexpected scenarios and neither did I. I was graduating in December 2020 and I had just got my first job which I would start in February 2021. Life was good, or so I thought.
By the ending of January, I was yet to receive my OPT card. This was my work authorization card, and even though I had gotten a job I would not be able to work legally if I did not have this card. By first week of February, my work began and I still could not start working. My OPT card had not arrived and I was neither in school nor employed. I was in this state of hiatus and was neither here nor there. My OPT card finally arrived sometime in March, but my company had already moved my start date from February to August 2021. It was a huge company, and they were not flexible. They hired new graduates only in winter and in fall. I could not start my job since I was moved to the next incoming class and I was devastated. I was done with college so I could not live in my college dorm again (I had free accommodation from my scholarship). I went to stay with my uncle, but after a month I could not live in his place much longer. In as much as people say you are like family, it is a known fact that ‘Family’ and ‘Like family’ are not the same.
Fortunately I had a friend who understood what I was passing through and I stayed at her place for a month. She wanted me to stay longer, but I began to feel like a burden after a month. My friend was good and we got along well, but it is strange living in a person’s house for a long time. In Africa, it is normal for a friend or relative to live with you contributing next to nothing. But this is not the case in the United States. This is an individualistic country and it was everyone for himself. While I was there, I worked as a writer for my side hustle making just about $250 a month. This was good enough to cover my groceries, but not rent. After a month, I moved out of my friend’s place, and got a place for $650 a month. It was in a decent part of town, but since the rent was so low I had 4 roommates. Thankfully everyone minded their business and respected each other and there was no problem living there. During this period, I had to work for a volunteer organization to remain in the country legally, which surviving on my savings. From April till August, I survived on the savings I had accumulated from college. By August, I had only about $8000 left in my savings. I never foresaw that I would be in a situation like this, but I had to make it through. Thankfully, by August 2021, I was able to start my paid position, move to a new apartment and started saving. I further learned more about managing my finances and started investing. I am forever grateful to my friend who told me to have a lot of money in my savings, and I shudder to think what would have happened if I did not have money to keep me going for a while.
Most international students do not have back-ups, and are unable to ask family for help in situations like this. An emergency fund keeps you afloat when you are sinking. It is a life-jacket in an ocean. Having an emergency fund gives you at least 6 months of cushion in an unexpected situation. Check out this post to know more about what financial steps to take as an international student in the United States.