Set Financial Goals You Can Slay Instead of Resolutions You'll Blow Off
Decide what you really want in life, then figure out what it will take to get there.
Illustration by Daniel Zender
If you’ve struggled with resolutions in the past but you still want to get your money right in the new year, don’t give up. Instead of setting the same cookie-cutter resolution as everyone else, set a financial goal perfectly tailored to you.
Achieving your money goal is all about knowing yourself. Choose a realistic goal that fits your interests, your passions, and your income. Then, pick a time frame to match. Setting goals that would require a six-figure income when you’re just starting out as a teacher just won’t fly. Trust me, I tried.
Saving can be a struggle. Working toward something you really want doesn’t make it easier, but it can give you the fuel you need to work harder and make that goal happen.
These steps will help you slay your money this year.
Pick a goal
If you’re going to achieve a goal, it’s got to be something you really want. Glossy magazine covers and filtered Instagram accounts turn heads and pull in double taps. But if this goal is something that is going to be your focus for an entire year, it has to hold your attention for longer than your wait in a checkout line.
Ask yourself what you’re passionate about. Think about your interests. If you had more free time, how or where would you spend it? Once you’ve determined your focus, set a specific goal around it in dollars and cents. Here are a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing.
Get lost. Whether you have your sights set on Florida or Fiji, you need to know your numbers. Figure out an approximate amount you’re planning to spend, including airfare, accommodations and meals cost. And don’t forget excursions or activities you’ll want to try out while you travel. You don’t want to end up in your dream destination only to spend your days eating PB&J in your hotel room.
Try your hand at a dream hobby. Whether you want to raise chickens in your backyard or finally learn to play the electric guitar, it’s probably going to cost you a bit of money. Do a little research on the cost involved so you can pull it off financially. For example, learning a musical instrument involves weekly lessons at the least, along with the price of the instrument. Backyard chickens, on the other hand, involve the price of the chicken coup, feed, and the chicks themselves.
Tie the knot. Weddings mean different things to different people. You might be well above or well below the national average of $33,000. Taking on debt to say “I do” is asking for heartache. Money is mentioned often as a leading cause of fights in a marriage, with some studies suggesting early fights about money could actually be a top predictor for divorce. While creating a goal around a wedding fund doesn’t mean your marriage will be failproof, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
Save for a house. Repeat after me: you don’t have to buy a house. If local housing markets, your job, or your lifestyle make you better suited to renting, rent as long as you’d like. But if you have your heart set on being a homeowner, it’s time think hard about what a down payment will look like. The larger the down payment you are able to make, the smaller your mortgage will be each month. That means there’s more wiggle room in your budget and less money lost to interest. If you put 20 percent down, you can also dodge private mortgage insurance.
Have enough money to sleep at night. Maybe you don’t want to travel or learn to play the oboe. Fine. Maybe you just want to get out of credit card debt or have some real savings in case you suddenly lose your job or decide to buy a new couch or a new car. Money buys freedom and having some stashed away “just in case” is as good a money goal as any. It’s smart to have three to six months living expenses saved at any given time, so maybe use that as your benchmark.
Do the math
Once you’ve picked a focus, here’s a strategy to check that your goal is actionable and achievable: First, calculate a ballpark amount for the overall cost. Second, divide that amount by 52 if you want a weekly goal or by 12 if you want a monthly goal. If that number doesn’t make sense, consider focusing on a portion of it. You might not save up an entire down payment this year, but having 25 percent of one banked is still going to feel amazing.
Suppose your goal is to spend three months on a solo travel adventure in Southeast Asia. Assuming you’ll spend about $40 per day traveling and need about $1,000 to get there (and back!), plus a few hundred dollars for emergencies, $5,000 is a good estimate of how much you’ll want. If you’re determined to meet this goal in a single year, that works out to saving about $417 a month.
Let’s say on the other hand that you’ve set your sights set on becoming a homeowner. The median sales price of a home in the US was $325,000 in the third quarter of 2018, according to Federal Reserve data. To save $65,000, enough for a traditional mortgage with 20 percent down, you’d need to set aside about $5,400 a month. Gulp.
Give your goal a reality check
A key part of making goals work is being realistic about them. Take the house example. Can you really afford to save more than $5,000 a month for a down payment on a house? For most Americans, the answer is no.
So you’ve got three choices: adjust your goal, adjust your timeframe or find a way to put more money toward your goal. For three months of extended travel, for example, you might decide to save for an extra year to cut the amount you need to save each month in half. Or you might take on a side gig to bring in more cash or move back in with your folks to save money faster.
It helps to get creative when it comes to achieving your goals. If saving $65,000 for a down payment on a home feels impossible, for example, do a little research to find out if you can qualify for low- or no down payment mortgages, such as one from the Federal Housing Administration, which requires as little as a 3.5 percent down payment, or from Veterans Affairs, which requires no down payment.
Once you done all the calculations, you're ready to get started. You’ve picked the perfect goal, and you’ve crunched the numbers. You’re excited about it because it matches your interests, plus you know it’s a good fit because you considered your income, your debt, and a timetable that matches your lifestyle.