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How to Achieve Your Financial Goals—Even When Your Motivation Runs Low

Smash your money goals without giving up your lattes by spending intentionally, finding smart ways to save, and boosting your income.
Achieving money goals illustration by Daniel Zender
Illustration by Daniel Zender

If you’re like most of us, you’re walking into the new year with some goals. While I won’t pretend to know all of your goals, there’s a good chance you’re looking to win with money. You’re not alone. Most of us should set our sights on improving our finances. Last year, 1 out of 5 Americans reported that they weren’t saving a single penny. Things aren’t looking much better for the new year, with more than half of people surveyed by Bankrate late last year saying they don’t expect their finances to improve in 2019.


It’s a little early in the year to be so pessimistic though. Instead, come up with a strategy to help you achieve whatever it is you want, whether it’s getting out of debt or taking time off to travel. By setting up short- and long-term strategies, you can build a plan to find more financial success this year. And if you’re still coming up short? Don’t worry. There are fixes for that, too.

Short-term thinking can get you going

Finding ways to save more money each day is the easiest way to start. Understanding your discretionary spending can help you see what you might be able to funnel into savings instead. Short-term wins really do add up, and they’re going to keep you motivated. Don’t worry. I’m not coming for your lattes. Instead, try one of these three tricks.

Do a zero spend day. Commit to freezing your spending for one day. It’ll help you see where you normally spend. Once you know where your money disappears to, you can decide if that’s actually the right call for you or not.

Cancel one thing. Review your credit card or debit card statement from last month. How many subscriptions or automatic charges can you find? Pick one, and get rid of it. For example, if you see charges for Hulu and Netflix, cancel one and put the savings in a separate account. Cutting just $10 or $20 a month adds up to a few hundred dollars a year.

Make other small swaps. This is where a lot of money articles tell you to make your coffee at home. But if you love your lattes, cheers. Instead, keep what you value, and cut things that don’t matter as much to you. Explore other grocery stores. Decide if everything has to be brand name. Turn the heat down a few degrees. Only say yes to happy hour meet ups that you want to attend. Make sure that you stash the cash from any swap that you do make. For instance, if you normally buy lunch twice a week for $10 a day, eliminating one day will get you $40 closer to your financial goal each month. An extra $480 a year could go a long way toward your next vacation.


Channel your inner nerd to stay motivated

There’s a good chance that you’ll be able to pull at least an extra $50 toward your goal after making these short-term changes. You’ve got extra money. Finally! Now you can go out and spend it, right? Not so fast.

Once you’ve started this savings journey, you need to figure out how to hold yourself accountable and how to give yourself a pat on the back when you deserve it. Most importantly, though, you want to keep putting that money toward your goals. You can make every short-term money win in the book, but none of it matters if the money gets spent right away on something else.

Open a high-interest savings account. A separate account keeps your money out of sight, so you can keep saving without the temptation to spend. As a bonus, once your account grows, you can earn some significant interest. Currently, a high-interest savings account with $1,000 can earn $20 a year in interest. Push your nest egg to $10,000, and you’ll pull in $200 just for keeping your money out of sight.

Track your savings. Set up a spreadsheet or download an app to keep tabs on what you’re saving. Even though you’re only making small swaps, they can sting a bit until you start seeing results. Use that growing number to keep you going even when you want to quit.

Celebrate without spending (much). No, this didn’t suddenly turn into an article on how to DIY your own confetti. You can celebrate without burning through a bunch of dough. If you hit a milestone once a quarter or even once a month, treat yourself to a small splurge. Maybe it’s a pedicure or a six-pack of craft beer. Whatever you choose, pick a single celebration and then get back to saving. Think of it as a cheat meal for your dollars.


Try these pro moves for long-term savings

Once you’ve got your short-term strategy locked down, it’s time to set your sights on the big picture. Adding an extra $50 or even $100 a month is nice, but it isn’t going to get you backpacking across Europe or owning a home. Not anytime soon anyway.

That means you can either shrink your goal, expand your time horizon, or make more money. To really boost your income, you need to make some long-term changes.

Focus on the big three. The majority of our budgets go to three things: housing, transportation, and food. If your lease is coming up, reevaluate your priorities and decide if getting a roommate or just finding a cheaper place to live makes sense. Figure out if you can rideshare or take public transportation. Track your grocery spending for a month and see if you can cut back by even just $50 or $25 the next month. Anything you can do to reduce your spending in these categories is a huge win for your spending overall.

Grow your income. Maybe you can take a course or acquire new skills that will make you more valuable to your current employer. Or maybe you take the leap the most millennials will make and look for a new, better-paying job. Once you do boost your income, set all of that aside into savings. It’s tempting to inflate your lifestyle along with your paycheck, but then you’re back to square one.

Start a side hustle. It isn’t always practical to try to grow your income. For some people, finding some part-time work is a better bet. In the era of the gig economy, you can try your hand at anything from dog walking to ghostwriting. No matter how you land some extra cash, make sure that money gets saved, not spent. A good side hustle could add hundreds or even thousands of dollars to your income each month.


How I achieved a big money goal of my own

It sounds overwhelming to achieve a goal, but it is possible, especially if you give yourself enough of a timeframe. How can I say that with certainty? My husband and I put this plan to the test when we got married on two teacher salaries.

When we first got engaged, my husband and I knew we had some savings that we felt comfortable putting towards our wedding, but we also knew to build the wedding fund we really wanted, we had to save more. To come up with an extra $10,000, we each had to set aside about $250 a month for a year and a half. It turns out long engagements really do have their advantages!

One of the first things we did was scale back on the number of times we ate out for date night. We also made individual switches. I dialed down my Starbucks habit just a notch and found a better rate for my cell phone plan.

Those little switches did make a difference, but I knew wedding planning would be stressful enough without worrying about coming up short with our wedding fund. So instead of only focusing on saving, I decided to earn more money. I found ways to earn extra at work by picking up weekend work occasionally, and I also started writing on the side.

None of these switches would have made a difference, though, if I spent my new savings or earnings. Instead, I made sure to keep it carefully stashed in an account earmarked just for our big day.

Achieving a big financial goal took dreams and determination to get through the different starts and stops. Once some of the short-term switches started to work, we made some long-term adjustments to really bring in more income. In the end, we met our goal. We threw the celebration we wanted, and we didn’t take home any debt.