How to know when something is really an emergency

U BoatPhoto courtesy of Elvin

I’ve talked a lot about emergencies, those unfortunate aspects of life that you have to deal with sometimes, ones that often require a monetary outlay (dipping into your emergency fund, if you have one).

I’ve made comments as to things that can feel like emergencies that actually aren’t. The example I often use is that of car repairs. Is a car repair an emergency? Well, it depends, of course, but take the specific example of that perennial annoyance, new brakes. Can it really be said that you didn’t know you were going need new brakes at some point?

(For the record, this website states that brake pads need to be replaced after about 50,000 miles on average, but some “need to be replaced after 25,000, while others can last for 70,000 miles”.)

But if you crash your car into a pole, certainly that is an emergency, isn’t it?

Or maybe not?

(For the record, this website says that the average driver will incur a collision approximately once every 18 years. And since this statistic was inferred by a trade association that analyzes insurance data, I’d tend to believe it.)

So how do you figure out what’s an emergency (and thus worthy of dipping into your emergency fund), and what is not?

Here are some metrics that you can use.

Or rather, here are some U’s you can use.


The situation might be an emergency if it is unexpected.

“To expect” something, to quote our word-masters at Merriam-Webster, means:

to consider probable or certain;

And so, flipping the words around, if something is unexpected, then it is not probable and not certain.

Can you reasonably say that an incident was “not probable”?

If so, read on for the next U-word.


When something is urgent, it has a time component to it. (See here for the important difference between the important and the urgent.) This means that decisions need to be made closer to now than later.

Notice how something can be unexpected but not urgent. To take another example from car land, let’s say that your out-of-warranty car has a transmission failure. But let’s also say that you live in an area that doesn’t hate you, and therefore you can use other options to get around, such as public transportation, biking, or car rentals.

This is exactly the situation that happened to me a few years ago. I had a car whose repairs were much more than the value of the car. But I didn’t need the car to get around, and so a decision on what to do about the car wasn’t an urgent one.

Does your incident merit action that needs to happen right now?

If so, read on, as we have one more crucial U-word.


The last criteria for determining if an incident is an emergency is whether it is unavoidable. Is it necessary to deal with this incident? Can you not get around it?

It’s easy to see how something can be unexpected and urgent, but not unavoidable. Take my beleaguered old car. When it died, I had it towed to my local mechanic, who performed last rites on it and gave me my options, which were not good. My transmission replacement would be around $1600. Meanwhile, the going rate for scrapping my car was $250.

While I didn’t need my car to get to work or get around, I did need to get the car off my mechanic’s lot.

Now, had I had a driveway to park the car in, I could have let it sit there and avoided the decision on what to do. But I didn’t have that option, so dealing with the situation was necessary. So inevitably, I scrapped the car, and then spent a year saving up for another one.

So is your incident one that you have to deal with, that you can’t get out of?

Bonus U

I’d add one more U-word to continue the happy alliteration: unfortunate.

This one is usually pretty obvious. Winning the lottery and figuring out what to do with your winnings is a situation that is both unexpected, urgent, and unavoidable, but no one would consider it an emergency, because it’s not unfortunate.

Sample solutions

With these indicators, it makes it much easier to determine whether something is an emergency.

  • Are your wisdom teeth impacted? That’s both unexpected (since it doesn’t happen to everyone) and unavoidable (since teeth don’t move around and fix themselves usually). But if it starts to hurt, well, then it becomes urgent (and thus an emergency).
  • Is your cat really sick? That sounds unexpected, unavoidable, and urgent, doesn’t it? You can’t not take care of your little fur ball.
  • Did you encounter a really good deal on a trip to a place you’ve always wanted to go to? It’s certainly unexpected and it’s urgent (as deals never last long), but it’s not unavoidable, so it’s not an emergency, and don’t touch that emergency fund.
  • Does the car you need to get to work need new tires? It is unavoidable (since you need the car to get to work) and it’s urgent (as work generally isn’t an optional thing). But is it unexpected? I’d say it’s not. You could make an argument that it’s unexpected if your tires have to be replaced much sooner than usual. But in general, I’d say that it’s not an emergency.
  • Birthdays and other gift-giving holidays? Not an emergency.

So, in short, if your incident is unexpected, urgent, and unavoidable, then it is an emergency, and thus it is worth using the money in your emergency fund to cover it. (Seriously, just pay for it. Find a way.)

But otherwise, don’t touch that emergency fund.

But enough about me. How do you determine what’s an emergency?

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

I offer a free phone consultation to anyone who is interested in changing their financial narrative. Are you ready? Click here for details.
Mike Pumphrey
Posted on September 19, 2016