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Commentary > Everyday Money
Life's surprises can be costly and catch you short. So here are 7 no-sweat ways to save for them.
October 26, 2004: 11:58 AM EDT
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money senior writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Addition can be fun when you're a kid. But it really loses some of its charm when you're an adult.

To show you what I mean, tally up the following and feel free to replace the items with unexpected costs that have blindsided you lately:

* Replacing the boiler that blew: $5,000

* Getting an emergency root canal and crown: $2,500

* Paying for veterinary care, including surgery, after feline Ernestine loses a cat fight: $3,500

What's the total?

See? Knowing the right answer just puts you in a bad mood.

That's especially the case if you haven't built some cushion to absorb the financial sucker-punches that life inevitably throws.

Two of my colleagues and I were grousing about this very issue last week. One had to replace a refrigerator that broke. Another is actively avoiding the dentist because he just knows the pain won't be limited to his mouth. And I've had more surprise expenses this year than I can name without a cheat sheet.

But I'd feel much worse about them if I had to slap every charge on a high-interest (or even a low-interest) credit card. That's like trying to nurse a concussion by banging your head against the wall.

Granted, setting aside money for just-in-case scenarios is not particularly gratifying. So the least you can do is make it as painless as possible.

With that in mind, here are seven no-sweat ways to squirrel away some cash:

Getting a bonus or financial gift from a relative? Give kisses all around, then earmark at least half of it for your emergency account.

Entitled to money back? Think hard. What about that flexible spending or transportation reimbursement account? Payable claim from an insurer? Tax refund? Sure, you're getting back what you shelled out. But you've managed to live without it for months. So consider it forced savings.

Got a job? If so, you probably get 26 paychecks a year if you're paid every two weeks, or 52 paychecks if you're paid weekly. That means some months you'll get three checks instead of two (or, if you're paid weekly, five checks instead of four).

Barbara O'Neill, author of "Saving on a Shoestring," suggests saving that "extra" paycheck. Her reasoning: Your fixed expenses don't change. So if you're paying them in the months you only get two (or four) paychecks, then you can still get by without the "extra" check.

Want to clear some clutter? If you've been meaning to clean out the basement and spare bedroom anyway, why not profit from the experience and have a garage sale, suggested certified financial planner Mark Stempel of Tucson, Ariz.. All proceeds can go to your emergency fund. (Granted, this option may actually generate a little sweat. Mea culpa.)

Have plastic? If you're good about reading the fine print, you might consider transferring any balance you have on a high-rate credit card to a one with a very low teaser rate for 6 months, Stempel suggested. Then redirect the extra money you would have paid in interest on the high-rate card and put it into your savings. Just make sure that a) there's not an onerous balance-transfer fee; and b) you move the balance to another card or pay it off before the teaser rate expires.

Own a house? You should never treat your house like a cash-machine. But certified financial planners Mary O. Mahoney of Albuquerque, N.M., and Mark Groesbeck of Houston, Texas, both recommend having a home-equity line of credit (HELOC) available to you in the event of a high-priced critical emergency. A HELOC will only cost you if you actually take money out but at least the interest rate is typically far below that of credit cards.

Contributing to a 401(k)? If you truly have no rainy day money, or ways to obtain some, you might consider as a last resort temporarily reducing your 401(k) contributions and redirecting the money into your emergency fund, Mahoney said. But, if possible, continue contributing enough to your 401(k) to get the full match from your employer.

Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNN/Money. She also appears regularly on CNNfn's "Your Money," which airs weeknights at 5 p.m. ET. You can e-mail her about this or any other column at  Top of page

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