How to Set Effective Financial Goals

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Every financial plan starts with asking yourself what you want to achieve, and then creating a list of your dreams and goals. A comfortable retirement takes the top spot for many people, but you may also have plans to buy a first or second home, send your kids to college, start your own business, travel, or make work optional by using your investment to support you.

“Knowing what you want and putting it in writing is an important first step,” says Rob Williams, vice president of financial planning at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. “But to get where you want to go, you’ll need to get more specific. For example, which goals will you work toward first? How much money will you need? And when will you need it?”

Once you’ve identified your goals, answering these questions can help you determine whether or not your goals are realistic, and how you’ll need to save or invest to reach each of them.

With that in mind, here are three steps to help you set effective financial goals.

1. Prioritize

Most of us have limited financial resources, making it difficult to save for all goals equally—so it’s essential to list your goals in order of importance.

One way to do this is to group your savings goals into two buckets: needs and wants.

Saving for retirement will likely be high on the list of needs. So, too, might be paying off high-interest debt. And if you haven’t yet set up an emergency fund with enough money to cover at least three to six months of essential living expenses, make that a priority, too.

Wants, on the other hand, can include a new car or a dream vacation—but also goals of major personal importance, such as buying a home or saving for a child’s college. The important thing is to be honest with yourself about what you absolutely need so you can tackle those items first.

Funding your needs first is especially important in leaner times when you might not be able to save for everything at the same time. “Saving for retirement may not seem like a top priority when you’re younger—especially when you’re trying to pay off student loans or manage other financial obligations,” Rob says. “But saving enough to fund a 30-year retirement is a big undertaking, so the earlier you start, the better off you’ll be.”

2. Get specific

Once you’ve prioritized your goals, the next step is to figure out what it will take to achieve them. In particular, you should focus on two key factors:

  • Dollar figure: Assigning a price tag to each of your goals will help you figure out how much you need to save in order to get there. For example, if you’re looking to purchase a $300,000 home, the gold standard is to save 20%—or $60,000—for a down payment. You may be able to put down less than that, but lenders will typically require you to purchase private mortgage insurance to compensate.

    Longer-term goals such as retirement can be tougher to estimate, but one school of thought says you’ll need 75% to 80% of your current income in order to maintain your present living standard. Better yet, use a budgeting worksheet to estimate your expenses and then calculate what it will take to get there.
     
  • Target date: Next, divide your savings goals into near, medium, and long-term buckets based on how soon you’ll need the money. Not only will this help determine how much you’ll need to save each month, but it also will inform how best to consider investing your savings.
     

Near, medium, and long-term goals

  • Near-term
  • Medium-term
  • Long-term
  • Near-term

    1–2 years away
  • Medium-term

    3–10 years away
  • Long-term

    More than 10 years away
  • Near-term

    Because you’ll need to tap your savings for, say, a vacation or wedding in the next few years, you should keep this money in relatively stable investments, such as certificates of deposit, money-market funds, or short-term Treasury bills.
  • Medium-term

    For medium-term goals like a down payment on a new home, you should prioritize capital preservation over growth, so consider a larger allocation to intermediate-term bonds and a relatively small allocation to stocks.
  • Long-term

    Goals like college or retirement that are ideally 10 or more years off generally should be invested for potential growth—meaning a much larger allocation to stocks.

After you identify your target savings amount and timeframe, you can use Schwab’s complimentary tools and calculators to see where you stand with your goals. If any of your goals feel unattainable, revisit your priorities and look for places to cut back. “It’s a balancing act,” Rob says. “You want to find a solution that allows you to live comfortably today while making meaningful progress toward tomorrow.”

3. Take action

Now that you’ve identified your goals and determined how much you need to save to reach each one, it’s time to document those details as part of a holistic financial plan, which should incorporate not only your future goals but also your present circumstances to give you a better sense of where your money is going.

That said, no need to wait to start saving toward your biggest and most pressing goals until you have your financial plan totally buttoned up—the sooner you start, the more time your money has to benefit from potential compound growth. Also, be sure to review your progress toward each goal at least once a year. (The shorter the time frame of your goals, the more frequently you’ll want to check in.) Not only will this help ensure you’re on track for each goal, it’ll also serve as an opportunity to course-correct, if necessary.

You might also find that your needs change over time. Maybe you changed jobs, had a baby, or got married or remarried. Other developments—such as an unexpected medical bill—might also mean revising your time horizon. “Big life changes can have a huge impact on your priorities and your means, and timeframe for getting there,” Rob says. “So checking in and remaining flexible are key.”