How to Set Achievable Financial Goals – Plus a Free, Printable Guide

At the start of a new year, we often find ourselves setting goals and seeking fresh starts. It isn’t coincidence. It’s something called a ‘temporal landmark.’ Humans seek out ways to improve on ourselves, and one of the popular ones (behind getting fit, losing weight, and enjoying life) is getting our finances in order.

Maybe that’s you! And if you’ve committed to getting money-savvy this year I want to commend you. It’s never too late to start getting right with your finances.

So today let’s capitalize on that momentum and excitement by talking about financial goal setting and positive habit formation.

Why set financial goals?

Setting great goals isn’t about creating a laundry list of everything you want to achieve (although that is part of it). It’s about getting really clear on what you want and how you will achieve it. As the late and great Lewis Carroll said, ‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.’

Goals provide focus.

And when it comes to getting your finances in order, focus is of the utmost importance. Without understanding what you’re trying to get your money to do for you, prioritizing how you’re spending and saving is next to impossible.

How to create and write great goals

Brainstorm Your Wants

First, get really clear about what the heck you even want. Grab some scrap paper, make a cup of your favorite warm beverage, and just start writing.

Do you want to have a fully funded Emergency Fund? Do you want to learn how to invest? Do you want to retire early? Do you just want to stop spending so dang much?

Don’t judge your wants – just write them all down.

Prioritize Your Wants

At this point you’ve probably got a list of all kinds of things with no rhyme or reason. Take a moment to read through them and on a clean sheet of paper, begin the work of prioritizing them in order of importance to you.

After you’ve got them all in a row – identify the few you feel you can reasonably work towards at the same time (and if you can only do one at a time – that’s absolutely OK).

Turn Your Wants into Action Plans

There are about as many ways to write goals as there are stars in the sky. My personal preference is to use the S.M.A.R.T. model of goal setting because it provides clarity, direction, and finality. As you’ve probably guessed…S.M.A.R.T is an acronym, and it goes a little something like this:

S – Specific: The goal you’re setting must be clear and specific in defining the area you’re trying to improve.

M – Measurable: You must be able to quantify progress so you know, without a doubt, when the goal is achieved.

A – Assignable: Be clear about who is doing the work (in most cases it’ll be You, but in some it may involve your partner, roommate, etc)

R – Realistic: It doesn’t do you any good to set a hugely unreachable goal right off the bat. Break huge goals down into smaller, more realistic pieces.

T – Time-Related: Set a date for when you want to achieve the goal by. Simple as that.

So if I were to write a S.M.A.R.T. goal for building an Emergency Fund, it would look a little like:

I will save 3 month’s worth of expenses ($3,600) in my savings account by December 31, 2017.

Or a S.M.A.R.T. goal for paying down debt(s):

I will have my credit card debt ($3,600) paid off by March 15, 2017.

Or a S.M.A.R.T. goal for you and your partner to fund your retirement:

My partner and I will research and open (Roth) IRAs with a credible institution and fund them to our personal limits ($5,500 ea.) by September 30, 2017.

Devise the Tactics to Support Your Financial Goals

The last part of this process is to sit with your S.M.A.R.T. goal and think about the tactics and changes you’ll need to undertake to achieve it. In many cases the changes are going to require you to really be mindful of how you’re using your money as you rebuild your money habits or form new ones.

Devising your tactics could be a laundry list of changes you need to make (put the credit card away, put $50 extra towards your student loans each month, make an additional mortgage payment each month, sign up for some investing classes), but it could also require some deeper introspection.

One way I like to explore this section is through the idea of trade-offs. Trade-offs are a necessary part of everyday life…including our personal finances. Often we live and interact with our money on ‘default,’ but by creating space to reflect about the choices we’re making we can approach our money from a place of power.

How to stay accountable while you work towards a goal

You’ve thought about it, identified what you want to achieve and devised a plan.

Now it’s time to do the work.

Staying accountable after setting a goal is just as important as the act of creating the goal itself. It’s about keeping the expectations of others – and yourself.

Here are just a few of the ways you can stay accountable:

  • Work for Yourself – for some people, keeping goals quiet works better than making a public commitment. For the lone worker bee I recommend accountability tools such as daily journaling or habit tracking.
  • Work with a Buddy – grab a partner, friend or family member and keep each other accountable. Have regularly scheduled check-ins over cocktails or grab a pizza and have planning parties where you work on your tactics. Ask the tough questions of your buddy and ask them to do the same to you. Best of all – celebrate together when you both achieve!
  • Talk with a Pro – sometimes you either want or need to work with an expert in their field. This can be a personal development coach, a counselor, a financial planner or other money-wiz. Work with them to create your action plan and use your regular appointments to stay accountable.
  • Find a Group – the more the merrier! Find a newbie investing club (or start your own) where you come together on a regular basis and share your learnings and follies. Or grab your closest (competitive) girlfriends and push each other with different savings challenges.

What to do after you’ve achieved a goal

First of all – that’s incredible and you should feel very proud!

And if you’re anything like me, you’re feeling a surge of motivation and accomplishment. Take that energy and focus it on a moment of reflection. Look back and write down what worked, what didn’t, and what you could improve in your approach.

Then…look forward.

Think about the logical next step in what you’re trying to do with your money:

  • If you’ve just hit a small emergency fund goal, go bigger! Try and save up 3 months worth expenses…6 months worth of expenses…etc.
  • If you’ve paid off your credit card debt but have other types of debt looming, steer your focus and funds toward the next largest (either in interest rate or amount owed).
  • If you’ve successfully completed a short time-frame ‘No-Buy’ – go longer! Try 30 days, 3 months or even a year without over-consumption.

When I achieve a goal of mine, I think back to this great quote by Casey Neistat:

‘With each success should come a bigger and more ambitious goal.’

Write it down. Devise a plan. Do the work. Repeat.

Looking for a little guidance? This free, printable guide can help.

I’ve created this free, printable goal setting guide! This 7-page guide walks you through each of the exercises discussed in this article – and it covers your health and happiness in addition to your wealth. Humans are complex creatures and often these areas of our lives are intertwined.

It’s PDF format and 8.5” x 11” – so it’ll print on most home printers.

Free Printable Wealth, Health, and Happiness Goal Setting Guide | Enough.

Print one for you. Print one for your best friend. Print one for your Aunt Judy. Print some for your accountability group. It’s all free and easy-to-follow.


In the comments: What financial goals have you set or are you thinking about setting?

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