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Getting out of debt and having a sizable emergency fund are both important goals. If you’re swimming in debt and concerned about how you would make ends meet if you lost your job, here are some tips to help you prioritize.

When to Focus on Your Emergency Fund First
A job loss, an unexpected medical bill or another type of catastrophe can strike at any time. Having an emergency fund can help you weather those tough times and avoid adding to your debt load.

If you don’t currently have any savings, or if you only have low-interest debt, make building an emergency fund your top priority. You will still have to make minimum payments on your credit cards, mortgage and any auto or student loans you have, but focusing on your emergency fund can give you peace of mind. Once you have amassed a substantial amount, you will know that you’ll be able to get by if something unexpected happens.

Many people don’t know how much they should have set aside for emergencies. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Having at least enough money to cover essential living expenses for three to six months is a reasonable goal, but you may need more if your income goes up and down, you have a job that isn’t secure or you’re self-employed. You should also set aside money for bills that don’t occur regularly but will pop up eventually, such as car repairs. If you currently have no savings and you’re feeling overwhelmed, focus on saving up at least $1,000 as quickly as possible. 

When to Pay Off Debt First
If your credit cards have high interest rates, you may pay thousands of dollars in interest before you eliminate a balance. Putting money in a savings account won’t pay you nearly as much in interest as you will save in interest if you put the money toward debt. Paying off high-interest credit card balances as soon as possible may save you thousands of dollars in the long run, boosting your credit score as well.

How to Balance Your Goals
It’s important to carefully consider your individual circumstances. If your job is secure and your income is stable, you may be able to get away with having a relatively small emergency fund. If you have high interest rates on your credit cards, tackling your debt first may make more sense than focusing on an emergency fund.

You may want to figure out how to work toward both goals at the same time. For instance, you may decide to pay as much as possible on your credit card with the highest interest rate, pay the minimums on your other cards and put a fixed amount toward an emergency fund each month. If you would like additional advice, consult a personal finance professional.

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