Have you ever told yourself that you were going to get your finances in order, but then struggled to make any meaningful changes? I hear it from readers and coaching clients all the time.
“I don’t know where to start.”
“I know I should be setting goals, but I just don’t know what goals to set.”
“I try to save money, but I feel like I never have anything left at the end of the month.”
If any of these sound like you, then this post is for you. I’m sharing why it’s important to set financial goals and how to set financial goals you can actually achieve.
How to Set Financial Goals
Why it’s important to set financial goals
Have you ever decided to start saving money just because you felt like you were supposed to. You tell yourself, “Well, I know I’m supposed to be save, so I guess I’ll start putting the money I have left at the end of each month into my savings account.”
Most often what happens is that you don’t have anything left at the end of the month, and you don’t end up saving money.
Because there’s no purpose behind your saving. When you’ve set an intentional goal that you’re excited to reach, you can create a plan to save for it. But when you’re saving just for the sake of purpose, it’s hard to get excited about it.
Setting financial goals pushes you to get super clear on what you want out of life and then come up with a plan to get there.
How to set financial goals
Envision your future
I see many of my readers and coaching clients setting arbitrary financial goals because they feel like they should. They open a credit card or start saving for a home without really having intention behind it, all because some personal finance “expert” told them that they should open a credit card or start saving for a home.
When I help my money coaching clients to set financial goals, I do an exercise where they envision their future. What do you see when you envision your life one year from now? Two years? Five years? Ten years?
Once you have that vision in your mind, consider what financial goals you need to reach to make it happen. What’s standing in between you and your dream life?
Brandon and I envision financial freedom in our future and being able to spend our money on things that bring us joy. Right now we’ve got six-figures of debt standing between us and that vision.
The bottom line: Don’t just set goals because you feel like you should. Have purpose and intention behind them.
Identify your current situation
Imagine you’re going on a road trip with a friend. What’s the first thing you do? You type your destination into the GPS. And the GPS can give you step by step directions based on where you’re starting from. But with no starting point, the GPS won’t work as planned.
Goal setting is no different. If you want to map out a route to get to your final goal, you’ll first need to identify where you’re starting from.
Let’s say your big financial goal is to pay off your debt. In order to make a plan and know when you’ll accomplish your goal, you need to know where you’re starting. In this case, that includes things like making a list of your debts, including the lender, amount owed, and the interest rate.
Or maybe you want to save an emergency fund of $10K. Figure out how much you currently have saved to know what your starting point is.
Set SMART goals
I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept of SMART goals. But this is important, so let’s talk about how this concept relates to financial goals. Smart goals are:
- Specific: The more specific your goals, the better. Don’t just set a goal of earning money from a side hustle. Set a goal of earning $1,000 per month from your side hustle within the first year (for example).
- Measurable: The progress of this goal can easily be tracked. $1,000 per month is very specific — you’ll know for sure if you’ve reached it or not, as well as if you’re on track to reach it. And once you know how much you want to make per month, you know what your daily and weekly goals should be.
- Attainable: While setting your goals high is awesome, make sure it’s something you can actually accomplish. I’m all for setting huge goals — to a limit. Consider what will be required of you to complete this goal, and carefully consider whether you have that to give.
- Relevant: Make sure your goal is in harmony with your core values and where you see yourself in the future. If your dream life includes you working from home on your own business, then setting a goal of $1,000 in the first year is awesome because it’s moving you in the right direction, not the wrong one.
- Time-bound: Don’t make the time frame for reaching your goal open-ended. We tend to take as long as we’re allowed to accomplish a task. If your goals are completely open-ended, they may never seem urgent enough to get to. As you can see, we set a time frame of one year for the goal we’re using as an example.
Break your goals down into small, actionable tasks
When you look at your big goal at one big task on your to-do list, chances are you’ll pass right on over it to something a little more achievable. After all, a goal like paying off debt or saving a large amount of money isn’t going to happen quickly.
When I’m going after a big goal, I like to start by breaking the goal down into as small of actionable tasks as I can. Break it down into small enough tasks that you can do in one sitting.
Suppose you’re making a plan to pay off six figures of debt. You can’t just throw that on your to-do list and hope you get to it. But you might plan tasks such as:
- Make a list of all your debts
- Call your credit company and ask for a lower interest rate
- Set up autopay for more than the minimum payment on one of your debts
Make a plan to reach your goal
Once you’ve broken your goal down into as many small actionable steps as you can, it’s time to make a plan to accomplish them. That typically looks like putting those tasks on your calendar.
Let’s go back to our debt payoff example. Maybe you’ll set aside half an hour tomorrow to make a list of all your debts, including lender and interest rate.
Then next week you’ll side aside some time to call each credit card company. While you’re doing that, you’ll hop onto your account and setup your auto pay.
I don’t know about you, but I’m far likely to accomplish a task when it’s actually on my calendar. Otherwise it’s just me constantly making mental notes to do something later, without ever actually remember to do it when I have time.
One reason that so many people struggle to stick to their goals is that they don’t have any accountability. They get really excited about a goal when they first set it, but then the motivation starts to wane.
So how do we go about creating accountability? Here are some ways to do just that:
- Write down your goal. Seriously, this is a step that most people skip. And studies show that just writing down your goal makes you more likely to reach it.
- Share your goal. When Brandon and I started saving for our RV, we told everyone — even before we had saved a dime. But everyone in our lives knowing about our goal kept us motivated.
- Track your progress. Remember that SMART goals are measurable, meaning you can measure their progress. Find a way to do this using a notebook, journal, spreadsheet, etc.
- Hire a money coach. If you’re struggling to create accountability on your own, hire a coach! One of the benefits of a money coach is that you’ve always got someone in your corner, encouraging you and pushing you.
Create helpful habits
One of the things that makes reaching any goal easier is having habits in place that help move you toward your goal.
In the case of financial goals, I find that a lot of people ignore their finances or fear opening their bank account. A good habit to adopt would be setting aside time on your calendar at least once per week to check in on your accounts and update your budget, whether you use a spreadsheet, budgeting app, etc.
You could also work on implementing habits that don’t seem related to your goal, but will help move you in the right direction. Let’s say you’re working to save for the downpayment on a house, but are finding that you don’t have much money left at the end of each month.
In that case, you might decide that you’ll meal plan and prep your lunches and dinners each week to prevent you from impulsively ordering takeout because you don’t feel like cooking.
6 tips for reaching your financial goals
Start a budget
I see a lot of personal finance experts talk about how they can teach you to save money without a budget. But here’s the thing — every one of those people teaches some method of tracking your spending. And they just call it something other than a budget.
There’s no way around it. The best way to make progress on your finances is to figure out where every dollar is going and to start intentionally deciding where you want your dollars to go from now on.
One of the first things we do in my money coaching program is design a values-based budget to help you get closer to your goals.
Change your money mindset
For many people, it’s actually their mindset that holds them back from reaching their financial goals. People struggle with limiting beliefs, telling themselves they’ll never be able to reach their goals because they’ve tried and failed before.
Anytime you’re getting your finances in order or chasing a big financial goal, I recommend making money mindset work a part of the process.
Look for temporary lifestyle changes you can make
One of the biggest struggles of setting financial goals is coming to terms with the fact that you might have to cut back in other areas in order to get there. Rather than thinking of those changes as permanent, consider temporary lifestyle changes you can make.
Let’s say you’re working to pay off debt and you know you could eat out less to make room in your budget. Rather than permanently cutting your eating out budget, decide that you’ll cut your eating out budget by 50% until you’re debt free.
Or maybe you get biweekly manicures, and you decide that until your emergency fund is fully funded, you’ll get manicures half as often.
Spend according to your values
I tell my clients all the time that they don’t have to stop spending on the things they love to pay off debt or reach their financial goals. And while they can spend their money on anything, they can’t spend it on everything.
Rather than letting your impulses guide your spending, let your values guide you. Decide on a few things that are really worthwhile expenses to you. What expenses are worth putting off your debt-free date or your goal for a bit longer?
Brandon and I love eating out and we love live music. We could cut those out completely and pay off our debt a lot faster. We also could have stayed in an apartment instead of buying an RV to travel full time. But we decided that those expenses really align with our values, and so they’re worth putting a bit less money toward our debt-free goal.
Find a motivating way to track your goals
I find that having some sort of goal tracker front and center is the best way to boost your motivation.
When Brandon and I started saving for our RV, we put a whiteboard in the kitchen where we tracked our progress. Every day we would see it and it would be a small reminder. There are plenty of creative and visually appealing goal and debt payoff trackers you can use to help you stay the course.
Treat yourself for milestones both small and large
Going all-in on your goals can be exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. While you might feel super motivated in the beginning, that excitement can start to wane.
Rather than letting your lack of motivation completely throw you off from your goal, set small milestones where you’ll treat yourself. Decide that for every $1,000 in your savings account, you’ll have a date night or whatever feels like a treat to you. Make these treats big enough that you keep you motivated, but small enough that they don’t throw you off track from your goal.
Financial goal examples
Not sure what financial goals to set? No problem! Here’s a list of great ideas for financial goals to set this year:
- Build an emergency fund
- Pay off debt
- Start saving for retirement
- Save for a house downpayment
- Renovate your home
- Plan a vacation
- Start a business
- Save for a child’s college education
- Pay off your mortgage
- Reach financial independence
Sitting down to set a new financial goal seems like just about the most daunting thing ever. I get it. I felt it when Brandon and I set the goal of paying off six figures of debt early, and when we decided to save up to buy an RV to travel.
But by setting goals that truly align with your dream life and breaking them into manageable pieces, you can totally do this.