At times, managing your money can be a bit overwhelming. Even if you feel like you’re generally on a positive path, it can be difficult to know what your next move should be. This is where setting specific financial goals can be extremely helpful — but what goal is right for you?
To help you answer that question and set you on your way toward reaching your next money milestone, let’s take a look at a few ways to determine what type of goal you should set for yourself.
Assessing where you stand
Looking at your balances and assets
Before you can decide where you should go next, you need to fully understand where you are. This begins by looking at your net worth, which itself starts by totaling up your assets. While “assets” might sound like a fancy word, it’s really just short-hand for “money and stuff of value.” In other words, what do you have to your name? This may include balances in any checking or savings accounts you have, retirement savings, investment accounts, etc. along with anything you own that’s worth more than a few hundred dollars (e.g. a house, car, and so on).
Keep in mind that, while calculating the total worth of your assets can be helpful, you’ll still want to list each item out separately if you really want to see where you can improve. For example, you may have an impressive 401(k) balance built up for your age but are otherwise living paycheck to paycheck. Therefore, while your net worth might show that you’re doing well, diving into specifics would show otherwise.
Sizing up your debts and spending
Your assets only make-up half of the net worth equation. To arrive at the other part, you’ll need to consider all of your debt and liabilities. This should include things like your outstanding mortgage balance, any loans you may have, and any credit card debt you might carry — although you can likely omit credit card balances you pay off monthly. Once you have this figure, you can subtract it from your total assets to get your net worth. Unfortunately, in some cases, this number can actually be negative. As disappointing as that can be, at least your next money goal should be pretty clear.
Again, since not all types of debt are the same, it’s also useful to look at these debts one-by-one. Perhaps you have one credit card in particular that carries a big balance and high interest rate. In this case, it might make sense to declare clearing this debt to be your top money priority. Meanwhile, with student debts and mortgages typically offering much lower interest rates, these intimidating balances may actually be better to draw down over time without too much worry.
Of course, another aspect of debt is stopping it before it even accrues. That’s where you spending habits come into play. Although I advised that you can forgo including revolving card balances in your net worth calculations, it is still a good idea to look at what you’re spending money on. Spoiler alert: doing this now will help you skip a step when it comes to cooking up a viable plan for reaching your money goals.
Tools to try
While you could always total up your assets, debts, and spending on a piece of paper or in a spreadsheet, there are also several tools you can use to help lead you through the process. One of my favorites is Personal Capital, which allows you to connect your various accounts and view your net worth in near real-time. Similarly, the popular personal finance app Mint also does this while also offering more of an emphasis on budgeting.
Most recently, I’ve also come across another free service that might make finding your next best money goal a bit easier. Savology is a platform that aims at providing consumers with a personalized financial plan. To do this, it will ask you some basic questions about your circumstances, lifestyle, preparedness, and more. Then, it will not only show you where you stand but also offer some next steps to take. Obviously, this could be a useful shortcut to getting some ideas, but be sure to take a closer look at any of Savology’s suggestions and determine how you alone would rank them in terms of importance.
Exploring potential next steps
Determining your priorities
As I alluded to, one of the most vital parts of selecting your next money goal is first to figure out what your priorities are. This is key because, although there may be several areas where you could improve, it can be overwhelming to try to tackle everything at once. Plus, while general financial advice can be helpful, it’s ultimately up to you to make it work for your lifestyle and passions.
With that said, let’s take a look at some popular “next-step” money goals.
You probably saw this one coming, huh? While having an emergency fund has been one of the most talked-about pieces of financial advice in modern society for a long while, it’s taken on new emphasis given recent world events. Because of this, I probably don’t need to lecture you on the benefits of having extra cash that you can access in a pinch — but you can feel free to read more about building an emergency fund for yourself.
Large purchase plans
Another common type of money goal is related to large purchases. This could mean that you want to start saving up for a down payment on a house, sock away enough money to buy your next car in cash, or maybe just build up enough disposable income to book the vacation of your dreams. Again, it all comes down to what your priorities are.
Retirement savings contributions
Looking even further into the future, if you already have your present money needs met through having an emergency fund and living debt-free, then your next money goal might be tied to retirement. Although this may be the last thing on the mind of many young people, they actually have the most to gain from upping their retirement contributions ASAP. That’s because compounding returns coupled with tax benefits provided by retirement accounts mean that those who start saving early can end up with much more money than their later-starting peers. Speaking of tax benefits, while the payoff in this goal probably won’t be evident for a long while, at least the potential reduction in your taxable income can help keep you motivated — not to mention watching your net worth climb as your contributions continue to roll in.
Mapping out your path
Have you ever set a lofty goal for yourself, only to fall on your face almost instantly? You’re certainly not alone as it’s quite common for us humans to bite off more than we can chew in the goal department. That’s why it’s imperative that, regardless of what money goal you aim for, you ensure that it’s something realistic and attainable.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t dream big or that you shouldn’t challenge yourself. But, there is a big difference between pushing yourself and begging for burnout. Yes, finding the balance here can be difficult but, hey, that can be the first part of your goal!
Every December, millions of Americans resolve to “spend less and save more.” It sounds great in theory, but there’s one problem: there are no specifics to measure. On the other hand, setting goals such as “pay off the $5,000 balance on my high-interest credit card” or “contribute an extra $100 a month to my IRA” come with natural indicators of whether you’re on track toward reaching your goal or whether you’re keeping up with your commitment. As for the first goal, you can also get even more specific by determining how much you’ll pay per month to attack your debt — or even where that money will come from. In most cases, the more detailed of a plan you put together, the better chance you have of making it a reality and meeting your goal.
Accountability and automation
Sure, having a realistic and specific goal is great and all, but who’s ultimately going to hold you accountable and ensure that you’re staying the course? For some people, the natural answer may be “my partner.” Meanwhile, others might have trusted friends or family members willing to check up on your progress and give you some tough love when needed. So what about everyone else?
Whether you don’t have anyone in particular to help hold you accountable or just want an easy way to help you reach your goal, it may be worth considering automation. Whether through the services you already use or via third-party apps, there are now several ways you can arrange to have your specific plans executed without you even having to think about it. Some examples include payroll contributions for 401(k)s; scheduled transfers to savings accounts or IRAs; automatic credit card or loan payments; and much more. By the way, if you’re looking for tools to help you set up these functions or others, I’d recommend checking out some of the reviews I’ve written for Dyer News over the years.
Allowing yourself rewards
Last but not least, as you make progress toward reaching your goal, it’s okay to allow yourself a treat. This doesn’t mean that you should, say, celebrate your emergency fund reaching one month’s worth of expenses by splurging on a $1,000 tablet, but maybe you treat yourself to dinner for a job well done. Marking these milestones can not only help remind you that your sacrifices are worth it but also keep you motivated to continue. Therefore, don’t be afraid to spoil yourself just a little every now and then.
When it comes to personal finance, there’s almost always room for improvement. Having your next money goal in mind can help ensure that you’re always moving forward. While the next logical step for one person can vary greatly from another, what’s important is your set a goal that speaks to your situation, priorities, and larger plan. Good luck!
Originally published at Money@30.