Your Financial Emergency Fund is Not Enough: You Need an Energy Emergency Fund
Historically, work-life balance hasn’t been my strong suit. That might explain how, in the spring of 2013, I found myself saying yes to another project at work. This project was roughly double the size of my current workload but had the potential for significant career growth, and as a working mother of two young children and the breadwinner of the family, I did not take the new career opportunity lightly.
A few years later, though, I found myself weighing the options not in terms of career advancement or visibility, but in terms of time: hours of lost sleep, exercise, and household chores.
I assumed that I would take on this project without giving up my other work projects, and I would have to get by on fewer hours of sleep rather than take from precious family time. Already running on empty, after a few months, I decided to ask for help at work.
Leaning in too far and coming up empty
Help came in the form of a gentle yet firm career coach. Her tips on time management and communicating priorities were helpful day-to-day, but one thing she suggested continues to stick with me all of these years: to be successful at your career, learn how to manage your energy. Figure out what gives you energy and what drains it.
Of course, I would also learn these lessons outside of work, most notably in motherhood. (Every working mother learns how to carefully align screen time with a nap on the couch.) But where this lesson paid off most was when I discovered how to create and maintain what I am calling my personal Energy Emergency Fund (EEF).
What is an Energy Emergency Fund?
In simple terms, an Energy Emergency Fund is the reserve of mental, physical, and spiritual energy needed to remain resilient and intentional during a crisis. As with money, energy is a finite resource.
Spending energy on someone else’s crisis means you have less to spend on yourself or your family and friends. The financial equivalent to an energy emergency fund is the cash equivalent of the expenses you need to cover basic expenses for a few months during an emergency or to leave a toxic work situation.
The energy emergency fund doesn’t solve the crisis for you, but it does give you the opportunity to confront it as your best self. Not the self who hasn’t slept for days, has been overwhelmed by someone else’s work deadlines or is at the whim of needy friends or family members.
That self might have a tendency to snap back, avoid additional commitments, and take health or diet shortcuts just to get through the day. Having an energy emergency fund also means that you are aware of energy coming in and going out, just like you would for a financial emergency fund. You know what fills you up with energy and what depletes you.
Where do I start?
If you have a financial emergency fund already, you’ll recognize these steps. Start with tracking your energy sources and drains, just as you would track your expenses.
What people or situations take more energy than they give? What fills your energy reserve and keeps you alert and functioning?
Imagine that long afternoon chasing after your kids or a day spent preparing for a big work project: what restores you afterward? For me, that’s outdoor hikes or an hour with a good book or podcast. Long-term, I now know that I need ample sleep, meditation/prayer, exercise, and time with family.
One way to tell if you are storing enough energy is to check in with yourself daily. How resilient am I feeling? Will I be able to bounce back from challenges I might face today? Once you’ve built up an energy reserve, the next step is to work on giving yourself a buffer when dealing with difficult people and situations.
Learn to say no. Avoid multitasking and take regular breaks. Refuse to do emotional labor for situations when it isn’t needed or wanted. During challenging moments, build in pauses long enough to respond intentionally and thoughtfully, not out of instinct or emotion. A pause could be as simple as taking a deep breath or offering to take a coffee break.
Beyond the energy buffer
When you’ve got enough of an energy buffer, it’s time to focus on building and maintaining it more efficiently in the long term (kind of like earning interest on your financial investments). You might find that there are situations which are not only restorative, but lead to long-term resiliency and mindfulness. They give back more energy than the time it takes to do them.
This looks different for everyone. For some, that might be volunteer work; for others, planning a party, or going for a walk outside. For me, expressing appreciation to others restores me more than the few minutes it takes to text someone or invite them for lunch.
For this reason, I make time to write thank you notes or meet for coffee to put those expressions of gratitude into action. The end result is that I have become more intentional about interacting with others because I am coming from a place of gratitude and centeredness.
Manage your energy as seriously as you manage your finances
Personal finance goes hand in hand with managing other limited resources such as energy. To build an energy emergency fund, the basic plan, then, is to:
1) track your energy sources and drains and be deliberate about increasing and decreasing them, respectively;
2) build in an adequate energy reserve; and
3) develop long-term sources of centeredness and resilience.
When I first started to be more deliberate about managing my energy, referring to these actions in my head as an energy emergency fund felt kind of silly. Shouldn’t I be eating well, exercising, and spending time with loved ones anyway?
The reality is that energy is a limited resource, perhaps more so than money, and definitely one that is worthy of some hard prioritization. As one of my favorite voices in the personal finance space asks: “how do you align your limited resources — including your time, money, energy and attention — to the things that matter most?”
This message particularly resonated with me during these past couple of years of life at home. These aren’t normal times, and as resources seem as limited as ever, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to plan for our energy as intentionally as we plan for our finances.