How can you reach a money goal when there’s always something else vying for the limited funds you have? That’s what we’re considering this week.
Each Monday we’re tackling one of your pressing personal finance questions by asking a handful of money experts for their advice. If you have a general question or money concern, or just want to talk about something PeFi-related, leave it in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question is from Molly:
I don’t make a ton of money yet, and after rent, groceries, bills and some savings, I don’t have a lot of discretionary money left over. I have a financial goal in mind beyond savings, but something always comes up that’s more pressing than my goal and I end up spending what little money I have. Once that happens I have hard time getting back to focusing on my goals and making smart money decisions.
How can I balance all of my goals, wants and needs when there’s always something else popping up, keeping me from setting aside the money I need for this goal? It’s important to me, or at least I keep telling myself it is, and yet I can’t seem to save. Can you help?
This is what individual experts have to say generally about an issue that affects each person differently—if you want personalized advice you should see a financial planner.
Find Your Motivation
In many ways, this is the ultimate money question: How do you balance everything so that you’re making responsible financial decisions, saving for goals and still having fun?
It’s a question I ask myself on a daily basis. And the truth is, saving for any goal is going to be hard. Unless you were born into a wealthy family, the chances are you probably can’t do it all. I want to save for at least three different “big” goals at any one time, plus pay my rent on time, eat well, maybe take some classes to progress my career, explore the city, hang out with friends, etc. Financially, I’m doing ok for my age, but I’m certainly not making what a lot of people in New York make. So something’s gotta give.
There are always trade-offs. To succeed with any goal, you’re going to have to build the habit, and you’re going to have to remind yourself, often, why you’re doing it. Then, you’re going to need to find a way to motivate yourself.
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The last part, to me, is key. It’s so easy to fall behind, especially when it comes to saving, and then to reassure ourselves that it’s ok and we’ll make up for it next month. And then next month rolls around, and there’s a concert we want to go to, and suddenly we haven’t saved anything for two months. And then the next month passes, and there were a few shiny things we decided to buy, and then three months have passed and we haven’t made any progress. And on and on.
The truth is, there will always be something tempting us, something that we think we need, something that we hadn’t planned for. But when you have the right motivation to focus on, you’re less likely to get distracted by all of the shiny things floating around.
So consider: Do you want to start a business, or reach financial freedom early, or just work on what you want to work without feeling beholden to anyone? Why is that important to you? Write it down somewhere, and then write down some concrete steps you can take to reach it.
Do the Work
The hardest part of all of this is actually doing the work. Often people circle the same problem day after day, year after year, and they don’t change anything. Then they complain and want simple solutions. But there are no shortcuts—if you want to pay off your student loan debt, for example, you have to make your monthly payments until you’ve repaid what you borrowed, maybe for the next few decades. Every month, you have to slowly, but steadily, chip away at it. Similarly, if you want to save $5,000, you can’t just will the money into existence; you have to actually save $5,000, bit by bit. It’s a grind.
After accepting that it will take a while to reach a big savings goal or pay off debt or start your own business, the best things you can for yourself now are:
- Live within your means.
- Build a savings habit.
- Put aside something (anything!) for retirement.
- Pay off any debts you have.
- Learn the basics of investing and building wealth.
- Work towards your goal.
Once you have those building blocks in place, you’ll be able to better meet your goals. It might not happen overnight, or even within a year or two years. But with consistency, you’ll get there.
To stay motivated, divide your one Big Goal down into smaller goals. As Jocelyn K. Glei, creator of the Hurry Slowly podcast, writes on her blog, people are goal oriented. We need to finish something, check it off our list, to feel a sense of accomplishment. Doing so gives us the hit of dopamine we need to keep going. So if you’re goal is to save $5,000, break it up into smaller weekly or monthly goals to keep the dopamine hits coming.
Then keep track of your progress, in a journal or app. Glei suggests making a post-it grid of all of your tasks, tracking your progress on a daily calendar, or writing in your diary or journal for five minutes each day. Whatever you choose, remember consistency is key.
Along the way, you’ll cut things out that aren’t as important to you. You’ll learn this by trial and error. Everyone messes up—but it’s the ability to rebound from that, to circle back to your motivation and make real changes to progress to your goal, that will ultimately get you there. You might go three months without saving a penny, but as long as you can find your motivation that fourth month to make some progress toward your goal, you’ll be ok.