The national lockdown revealed that very few South Africans have emergency savings on hand, which is why many struggled to make ends meet when the pandemic struck and had to make do with lower, or a complete a loss of income for a few months.
FNB Retail chief executive Raj Makanjee says that the accepted best practice in becoming financially resilient is having emergency savings available that is equal to at least three months’ worth of income or take-home pay.
Having a three-month financial buffer can be a lifesaver if an unexpected situation arises, like a retrenchment or temporary loss of income, Makanjee said.
“Because those savings allow us to get through the difficult times or cover unexpected expenses without having to take on additional debt just to cover our monthly living expenses. These unexpected expenses could include a burst geyser, new tyres for the car or medical expenses.”
Makanjee said very few South Africans have enough, or any, emergency savings – a fact that was highlighted by research done by FNB among its middle-income customers who earn between R15,000 and R42,000 per month.
“Our investigation revealed that more than 80% of middle-income customers have no, or limited savings that they are able to access within 7 days in case of an emergency.”
Around 27% have no emergency savings, and 56% have savings that is less than one week’s worth of take-home pay, he said.
The research looked at all money that customers have available across transact and savings accounts as well as prepayments on access facilities like credit cards or home loans where they can access within seven days.
From the FNB internal research, less than 6% of the bank’s middle-income customers have emergency savings that would see them through a loss of regular income for three months or longer.
“Comparing customers with the same level of income but different savings levels, we found that customers with low or no savings tend to be spending more on discretionary spend categories like travel, holiday accommodation and liquor,” said Doret Jooste, chief executive of Retail Money Management at FNB.
“The comparison also revealed that lower savers tend to spend more on servicing unsecured debt, like retail loans and credit cards, than customers who are saving more.
“This shows that rather than income determining savings levels, the everyday decisions we make on spending or how much debt we take have a big influence on our savings levels or ability to be financial resilient.”
How to build up savings
Jooste said that the first step towards building up an emergency savings balance is to recognise that it can take some time and that patience is key.
“It’s easy to get overwhelmed by looking at how much money we need to save up, and because of that we might never get started,” she said. “If you’re starting out, don’t focus on the three months’ worth of income needed – just aim for half a month’s income or take-home pay as a starting goal.
“Then, decide how much you’re going to put towards this savings goal every month and save it as soon as you get your salary.”
Jooste starting with putting R50 or R100 towards your savings goal is a good way to get going, as this money will grow over time and it is always better to start today than delaying it until ‘one day’.
Given that low savers tend to have higher debt, it is important to balance this freed up money between paying off debt and saving, Jooste said.
“For example, if you’ve freed up R300, try routing R200 of this to paying off your debt sooner while starting a savings account with the remaining R100 and still sticking to your budget.”
Jooste recommended automating your savings as an excellent way of staying in control of your savings over time.
“So, while building up enough emergency savings may seem difficult initially, it can be possible to do, and the value of having that financial buffer available when we need it tomorrow, far outweighs the small changes we may need to make, to achieve it today.”