A Quick Primer on the Difference Between a Sinking Fund vs Emergency Fund

While sinking funds and emergency funds have some overlap, the difference between a sinking fund and an emergency fund lies in their intent and purpose.


When I studied abroad in college, I traveled more often than expected and had to take money out of my emergency fund to pay for my travel expenses. If I had known what a sinking fund was back then, I would have been better prepared and allocated a more reasonable amount of money towards my travels.

While I have since rebuilt my emergency fund, my savings took a hit that semester and I ended up having less money set aside than I would have liked for real emergencies. Although an emergency fund and sinking fund may sound similar, they are financial tools meant for different purposes.

We will explain what an emergency fund and a sinking fund are, their key differences, and ways to build them.

Key Takeaways

  • An emergency fund is for unplanned purchases, such as job loss or car repairs. The rule of thumb is to save at least 3-6 months of your monthly expenses.
  • A sinking fund is strategic and meant for one-time expenses or known expenses, such as a vacation or home down payment.
  • The main difference between a sinking fund and an emergency fund is that sinking funds are goal-oriented while emergency funds are for the unknown.

Understanding Emergency Funds

With the ongoing effects of the pandemic still lingering around, having an emergency fund is more important than ever. As its name implies, an emergency fund is money you set aside for emergencies, such as an unexpected medical bill, a car breakdown, or a lost job. Think of it as a financial safety net meant to protect you when sh*t hits the fan.

The rule of thumb is to save at least 3-6 months of expenses in your emergency fund, though some people may prefer to save more if they lean on the conservative side. If this seems like a lot of money, start by setting aside as little as $20 a week. It’s always better to save something than to not save at all.

How to Build an Emergency Fund

Your first step is to figure out how much you want to save. Go through your last few months of expenses using an app like Mint or Personal Capital and calculate the average amount you spend each month. Then, separate your expenses into needs versus wants and categorize them. For example, rent or mortgage payments, utilities, and groceries would fall under needs, whereas subscription services or dining out would fall under wants.

By categorizing your spending, you can get a clearer picture of what items your baseline budget includes. When calculating the amount you need for your emergency fund, it does not necessarily mean you must save at least 3-6 months of your monthly income. When times get tough, assume you will need to cut discretionary spending to get by.

Once you have the number, start transferring money towards that fund each month. We recommend keeping this money separate from your checking account and preferably in a high-yield savings account like Marcus by Goldman Sachs or Ally Bank instead. That way, you will not get tempted to spend it while earning a bit of interest on your money.

It may feel impossible to get started, but you can always start small and build from there. When I first started saving as a kid, it was only a few dollars here and there, occasionally maybe $20. Now that I’ve built the habit into my monthly routine, I save a lot. As long as you stay consistent, you will put yourself on track to financial security.

Understanding Sinking Funds

Sinking funds are similar to emergency funds in that they are both meant to act as financial safety nets and keep you on track to reach your financial goals. But, sinking funds are a more tactical way to save money.

The way it works is that you will regularly set aside a little bit of money in one or multiple categories to get used later down the line. This fund is separate from your emergency fund or savings account – it should be for specific goals.

smart goals explained

By setting aside a sinking fund for expenses you anticipate to incur later in the calendar year, you will not have to dip into your emergency fund. For example, if you know you will be going on vacation in 5 months and think it will cost about $2,000, you should save $400 per month for the next 5 months.

Common Sinking Fund Categories

Common types of sinking fund categories are planned expenses (such as a new car) or annual expenses (such as school tuition). Even if you do not have an exact number in mind, it’s still worth setting up a sinking fund for big expenses. How many sinking funds you decide to set up is up to you.

Sinking fund examples include:

  • Expected medical bills
  • Home repairs or remodels
  • Car repairs
  • Insurance premiums
  • Long-term debt
  • Vacations
  • Wedding expenses
  • Holiday spending
  • Pet expenses
  • New appliances
  • Parties or concerts
  • School tuition
  • New appliances
  • Clothing
  • Annual subscriptions (ex. Amazon prime subscription, Costo membership, Rakuten Viki, etc.)

This list is by no means exhaustive. You can create a sinking fund for any financial goals you want!

How to Build Sinking Funds

You can build sinking funds in four easy steps:

sinking funds steps

1. Decide What You are Saving For

The first step to building a sinking fund is deciding what line items you are saving for. If you feel overwhelmed, step back and start with the categories you value the most. Then, build from there. For example, you can have a sinking fund for each planned expense, such as your annual subscriptions, car repairs, medical bills, large purchases, etc.

If you find it challenging to figure out the exact costs, look through your old bank statements to get a good sense of your spending habits. Once you know how much you have been spending, it will be easier to figure out your goals.

2. Decide Where to Hold Your Sinking Fund

Once you have decided what you are saving for, you may want to open a separate savings account dedicated to holding your sinking funds rather than putting the funds into your regular savings account. That way, you will not dip into your sinking funds and use them for unrelated expenses.

If you decide to open separate savings accounts, make sure they do not require a minimum balance and are easily accessible. The last thing you want is for monthly fees to eat up your funds or for your money to get locked up when you need it most. For example, if your car breaks down, you would probably need cash quickly to cover the costs. On the other hand, your down payment for a home can be in a less liquid account, such as the stock market, because you will know in advance when you need the funds.

3. Decide How Much to Allocate

Next, you will need to decide how much you want to allocate toward each sinking fund. That will likely depend on your financial situation and goals. It may be harder to determine the actual cost for certain expenses, such as medical expenses. In those cases, make an educated guess and put in enough money until you reach that amount. Then, replenish the fund as needed.

To determine how much to save per week or month, take the total amount you need per fund and divide that by the number of weeks or months you have until you need to make the purchase. For example, if your best friend has a destination wedding coming up in 4 months and you anticipate it will cost you $1,000, you should stash away about $250 per month until then.

4. Set Up Your Sinking Fund in Your Budget

Lastly, you need to incorporate the fund into your monthly budget. Whether you use a spreadsheet or an app like Mint or Personal Capital, write down your sinking fund line items in your budget. You Need a Budget (YNAB) is a popular app that has a system designed to track various saving categories. Ally Bank is another tool you can use with a high-yield savings account that has “buckets” for different savings categories.

How often you decide to set money aside for your sinking funds is entirely up to you. We recommend stashing away money into your funds regularly, whether weekly, monthly, or quarterly, to stay on track to reach your goals.

Benefits of Sinking Funds 

Regardless of if you are a spender or saver, anyone can benefit from different sinking funds. With a sinking fund, you can save for anything you’d like. You can be as specific as you want to make sure you cover all your needs and wants.

Because you are saving for things you already anticipate, you will feel less guilty when you make larger purchases and won’t have headaches from unplanned expenses. When I first bought my Nintendo Switch, I had contemplated it for several months because I did not think to have a sinking fund. So, when I finally caved and bought it, I felt like I spent too much money upfront. As you start saving strategically, your fun purchases will actually be exciting, and you will not need to deal with any guilt or frustration from spending money.

Sinking Funds vs. Emergency Funds

Simply put, a sinking fund is a strategic saving account, while an emergency fund is for unexpected expenses. You are saving for planned expenses with a sinking fund, so the money you set aside has a specific purpose. An emergency fund is reserved for the unknown.

If you already have an emergency fund or monthly budget, adding sinking funds to the equation will help you manage your money better and help you focus on your financial goals. Both serve as safety nets between you and whatever life throws at you. While you cannot anticipate everything, at least you will have some money set aside.

The Bottom Line

While there are key differences between emergency funds and sinking funds, they are both tools to set and fulfill your financial goals. With a bit of patience and planning, you can save up now and avoid stressing yourself out over finances down the line. Your future self will thank you for putting in the effort.

We are not financial advisors. The content on this website and our YouTube videos are for educational purposes only and merely cite our own personal opinions. In order to make the best financial decision that suits your own needs, you must conduct your own research and seek the advice of a licensed financial advisor if necessary. Know that all investments involve some form of risk and there is no guarantee that you will be successful in making, saving, or investing money; nor is there any guarantee that you won't experience any loss when investing. Always remember to make smart decisions and do your own research!

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