For most people, every new payday represents two opportunities: an opportunity to save and an opportunity to squander. The question is, will you safely put away your hard-earned dollars in a money market account or nickel and dime them away on pizza and movies?
You may think what separates the affluent from those living on the edge is the size of their paycheck. However, wealth isn't necessarily measured by the amount you make. Rather, it is a reflection of what you do after you make it.
If you feel like money is slipping through your fingers, chances are you don't have concrete financial goals. People without plans tend to be easily separated from their money. So before you come to the end of another week and wonder where all the money went, spend some time defining your financial goals.
Here are five steps to get started:
1. Consider where you want to go
The first step to creating a financial goal is to determine your desired destination. This may seem obvious, but amazingly, many people decide to save money without specifying exactly why they're doing it. Unless you have a plan for your future, it is difficult to determine how much to save or whether a money market account, online savings account or CD is the best place to park those funds.
When you consider your future, you may want to split your expectations into three categories: short-term, intermediate and long-term. The short-term could be where you'd like to find yourself in a year. In a different job? With less debt? With a new car? For intermediate goals, consider activities you'd like to plan for on a regular basis, such as taking vacations. Then consider the same for your long-term, maybe 10 years out. These may include paying off your mortgage or taking an early retirement.
2. Evaluate your resources
Once you have an idea of where you'd like to be, you need to do a reality check. Look at your current resources and determine whether your plans are realistic. For example, if you have $20,000 on your credit cards but only bring in $30,000 annually, you probably aren't going to be debt-free in a year.
At this point, you need to either scale back your expectations for the future or pinpoint what steps are needed to make them a reality. In this case, getting more education or training to apply for a better job while pushing back your debt-free dreams a year or two is a two-pronged approach that could help you meet your goal.
3. Use a SMART strategy
Now we get to the nitty-gritty of the process. Once you know where you want to be and understand the resources at your disposal, it is time to create some concrete financial goals. The key to making your goals stick is to break them down into smaller chunks. Rather than making a goal of retiring in 10 years, determine exactly how much you need to put into your retirement savings accounts each month. This instantly transforms your grand financial goal of retirement into more easily attained monthly goal.
The key with goal-setting is to get SMART. For a goal to be SMART, it must be:
In other words, you want to have a specific goal that you can measure your progress toward. It should also be realistic based on your needs and resources, and it shouldn't linger on forever. So as an example, 'I will save money' is not a SMART goal. It would be better to set a goal that says, "I will have a $2,000 emergency fund by October 1 by depositing 10 percent of each paycheck into an online savings account."
4. Write it down
Once you have created your goals, write them down. Having a written record of your plans can help you stay on track. Keep them posted in a location where they can be easily seen when you sit down to do your bills. Let them be a visual reminder to keep on track.
5. Review on a regular basis
Finally, just because you make something a goal doesn't mean it is set in stone. On at least an annual basis, sit down and review your goals. Consider whether they still make sense for you and your family. For example, if you recently had a baby, maybe a college fund makes more sense as a savings goal rather than taking a year off work to sail around the world.
Creating financial goals is an important part of taking control of your finances. You can have the best savings account in the world, but it will only get you so far without a well-defined plan for your money. Decide where you want to be in the future and make a plan for your money to take you there.