Can you ever have too many cushions?

I pulled a muscle in my back recently. Determined to implement at least one of the multifarious Just-One-Things that we can all supposedly squeeze into our daily lives, I dropped to the floor in between popping to the loo and putting a wash on to do a small number of press-ups (knees on the floor, obvs – I’m not stupid). As a consequence, I’ve been making use of a cushion as I sit at my desk, and it has occurred to me that I don’t ordinarily need a cushion. Mostly, they are just there for show.

Enough cushions for all – but no more than that

I warn you now that I am going to flog this cushion thing to death in the next few paragraphs because, the more I think about it, the more apt the word cushion becomes when we are talking about emergency stashes of cash. I’m super grateful for the little cushion at my back right now – it is serving the purpose for which it was intended and very much coming into its own. Happily, if every member of my family were to succumb to the temptation to overreach themselves in the pursuit of physical betterment, we would have enough cushions for all. However, do we really need any more than that? As a guest in someone else’s house recently, I had to put some cushions on the floor because they were preventing me from sitting on the sofa. Definitely too many cushions.

Women like cushions more than men

Sadly – and this is surely an omission on the part of the Office for National Statistics – I could find no data for the gender split in cushion ownership. However, in January this year, Boring Money research* found that 19% of women in the UK aged between 25 and 44 were investors in stocks and shares versus 34% of their male counterparts. Yet when it comes to saving cash, women consistently outstrip men**. Call me bold but I’m going to stick my neck out (as far as my pulled muscle will allow) and say that women like cushions more than men (you can read that sentence any way you like!).

Beware inflation nibbling holes in the cushions

Whatever you name it, an emergency pot of cash that you can reliably get your hands on in a hurry is considered a must-have when planning your finances. We are taught at How-to-be-a-Financial-Adviser School that building a cushion to absorb financial shocks – such as the loss of earnings or an unexpected car failure – should be the first use of ‘spare’ money. The rule of thumb for earning households is that you should keep cash of between three and six months’ essential spending (think mortgage, heating and food, but not gym membership, take-away coffees or Track Days in your Porsche). Once you have that cushion stuffed – and assuming you have all your day-to-day finances in order – you can think of more long-term ways of saving spare money, such as investing, whether that’s in your pension or a Stocks & Shares ISA or other type of account. Because keeping money in cash that you are unlikely to need in the next five-to-ten years is a sure-fire way of losing value as inflation nibbles holes in it faster than it can earn interest.

What will the sofa look like without them?

This usually makes perfect sense to people and sounds great in theory. Where we can stumble is in the discipline required to stop stock-piling the cushions and make the leap to investing, Those cushions are just so darned plump and attractive. The idea of taking one or two away can be tough and, even though you know it won’t affect your level of comfort in any way, you’re scared of how the sofa will look without them.

Left alone in the box room

People also worry about what happens if the dog, cat or gerbil tears the odd cushion to shreds. Surely you should always keep more than you need for exactly this reason? Well, not necessarily. Yes, it’s good to have resources beyond the emergency cushion quota, but these are better kept as long-term investments – for example in stocks and shares where they have the potential to grow over time and keep pace with inflation. You might need to call on them now and then to replace the odd cushion that has had the stuffing knocked out of it, but the rest of the time they can be left alone in the box room that no-one uses to quietly do their thing until you need them.

Short-term money languishes on the sofa doing nothing

That said, sometimes the best way to deal with an abundance of cash savings is not to invest it but to spend it. This might be if you are retired, for example, and already have investments that you are currently drawing from for spending money – for example a drawdown pension. If you have large amounts of cash (ie a good deal more than you really need for emergencies) but are taking an income from investments, you are effectively spending your ‘hard-working, long-term money with growth potential’ whilst your short-term money languishes on the sofa. And it doesn’t matter how much cushion-plumping you do, it will never get any bigger than inflation. Using surplus cash for spending instead of (or alongside) drawing from investments can make particular sense if investment markets are having a wobble – because it means you can leave your investments to recover rather than selling them when their value is low.

Death throes on a bed of cash

A cushion-loving client told me recently that she feared she had passed on her cash-bias to her daughter who, upon buying her first house with the deposit she had been saving so hard to accumulate, then proceeded to mourn the loss of cash in her account. I know of my own fledgling adults that they struggle to adjust mentally to the loss or shrinkage of a cushion, even when it has been spent on the very thing it was there for. But if you take that mindset to its ultimate conclusion, you will be encountering your death throes on a bed of cash that has lost so much value to inflation that you might as well pop it in the coffin with you.

Changing your mind about what you own

There is a magnificent study of the mind games we play with ourselves when it comes to money in a short novel written in the 1930s called The Midnight Bell (Patrick Hamilton, the author, is the man who wrote the play Gaslight, the title of which has come into common usage to mean tricking someone into thinking that they are losing the plot). Having worked hard and saved his wages, the main character goes off track (blame women and booze – this was the thirties, after all) and starts dipping into his savings to make ends meet. Rather than feel the loss of his money, he just readjusts how he regards himself so that, where previously he was a man who had, say, eighty pounds of savings, now he is a man with seventy-five pounds of savings. And as these savings are in a bank, rather than a pile of cash under his mattress, he bolsters his reasoning with the fact that the numbers are hypothetical and he has simply ‘changed his mind’ about what he owns.

Just enough cushions plus the materials to grow more

Now, I’m not advocating that we all go out and spend our emergency cushions on women and booze, but I do think we could learn a trick from this. If you find yourself hoarding cash that is more than you are going to need in the next few years, you can try readjusting your thinking. Instead of being a woman with so many cushions that there is nowhere to sit down, you could become a woman who has just enough cushions for every bad back and pulled muscle the sofa can accommodate as well as being the proud owner of a box room of assorted fabrics and stuffings where more cushions can be made.

I have to stop now because I’ve used the word ‘cushion’ so much that it has gone all weird on me. If you think you might benefit from a chat about making the leap to investing, please do get in touch. I’ll be on the sofa.


*Women’s lack of confidence widens gender investment gap, study finds ( March 2024

** The gender savings gap: Men are more likely to invest in an Isa while women opt for cash | This is Money

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This article represents the personal opinion of Carole Haswell only and does not represent any opinion of Parallel Lines the Advisor Collective Ltd. Financial decisions should not be made on the basis of this article.

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