But there are pain-free ways to stack up your savings and keep the momentum going—if you pick a method that matches who you are.
To set yourself up for success, experts say the key is to be honest about your financial behavior and then adjust your goal-setting approach accordingly. Do you freeze up when plans go astray? Tend to ignore monthly bank statements? There's still a long-term savings strategy for you.
To help you get started, we've identified five types of money personalities and asked motivational and financial pros to give their best advice for staying on track when your target is months, or even years, down the line.
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Get started with a free financial assessment.
The Quick Starter: You get fired up at the beginning but easily burn out ...
Setting a goal can be exciting—a little too exciting for some, in fact.
“The main hurdle that people tend to struggle with when setting money-related goals is that they try to do too much too quickly,” says clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis, Ph.D. On the contrary, “slow change is good change. When I am working with patients on these sorts of goals, I always advocate going smaller to go bigger.”
This means setting your goal with smaller benchmarks built in to meet them little by little, each week or month, without trying to “outdo” yourself by accelerating beyond the goal you’ve set from the get-go, which can lead to losing steam if you can’t keep up.
To help you stay on track, enlist a friend or family member as your accountability partner. Schedule periodic check-ins with this person to let him or her know what you’re doing to meet your goal. He or she can be a valuable sounding board if you, say, want to go above and beyond toward meeting your objective for a given stretch of time. Ideally, this person will know you well enough so that he or she can encourage you to test your limits without overextending yourself.
The Long-Term Planner: You like to think far ahead but get derailed when life gets in the way ...
Even if you’re working toward a long-term goal like saving up for a down payment, you do so not knowing what the future holds. The reality is that your life may change significantly within the next year, or even the next month, in ways you can’t even imagine.
If you’re the type of person who likes to have all of his or her ducks in a row well in advance, this may actually hinder you from meeting your goal when life throws you an inevitable curveball.
“When you have long-term goals it is important to not go too far out into the future,” says clinical therapist and life coach Cara Maksimow, LCSW, CPC. “Keep in mind how things can change and focus on one year or less at a time.”
She advises breaking down your goal into smaller chunks, perhaps quarterly or even monthly, to account for the unexpected. That way, you allow yourself time to revisit your money plan and change it as your life does, causing you less stress while still allowing you to work toward your ultimate achievement.
The Flip-Flopper: You go back and forth on what your goal should be ...
Simply learning to set the best type of goal for yourself, in terms of how much you want to accomplish and how soon, can be a challenge. “Setting a goal that does not require any stretching is not really a goal, and setting one that is too far outside of your comfort level often doesn’t work,” Michaelis says. “When you set goals that are a bit challenging but achievable, you end up pushing yourself just enough."
So how do you find that sweet spot of challenging enough but still attainable?
“Ask yourself: ‘What is the percentage likelihood I am able to achieve this particular goal?’ and give it a number,” Maksimow advises. “If you find the number is below 70% you are most likely setting yourself up for failure because it is too unrealistic. If it is 100% it may be a bit too easy. You want to see yourself somewhere above 70% in order to be challenged and still realistic.”
Consider factors like your savings or debt-payoff amount, time frame for completion or any other foreseeable variables that could impact your achievability percentage—and readjust the terms of your goal strategy accordingly—to get to that goal-attaining sweet spot.
The Instant Gratifier: You just can't resist spending money on things you love ...
While you’re shooting for that long-term goal, you’re also still living your life, which can be rife with tempting impulse buys and other alluring opportunities that can draw your eye away from the prize.
To keep your short-term wants or needs from thwarting your long-term progress, turn to automation, Michaelis recommends. Instead of using money “left over” from your monthly budget to save, make reaching your goal a priority by transferring a set amount from each paycheck directly into a dedicated savings account.
“If you are saving up for something like a vacation or a big-ticket item, try using an automated process so that saving just happens without your having to actually do anything over and over again,” Michaelis says. (Automation also works well for retirement, down payments and other large sums, too.)
This “set it and forget it” method can allow you to accomplish the goal without even thinking about it. Another bonus is that automating savings into a separate account means you never see the would-be spending money anyway. That way you can ensure your main objective stays on-track even if you decide to splurge on, say, a pair of shoes with your available spending resources.
The Avoider: You'd rather bury your head in the sand than deal ...
When it comes to very long-term goals, like retirement, some of us are tempted to just avoid thinking about it—especially if it seems like we won’t ever be able to meet our objective. For instance, perhaps you committed to adding $200 per month to your IRA, but you run into a stretch of a few months where that’s just not possible … so you decide to completely put off contributing until you’re able to dedicate that full amount again.
But as you'd expect, this tactic will only derail your goals, says Natalie Taylor, CFP®, a financial planner with LearnVest Planning Services. “It’s especially important to focus on doing what you can, even if you’re not fully on track,” she explains. “Something truly is much better than nothing, so start moving in the right direction and look for opportunities to speed up progress over time, like extra paychecks, side gigs, promotions, renting a cheaper place when your lease is up and so on.”
Focus on the long-term and try to make any progress, even if it’s small, rather than no progress at all. To go back to the aforementioned example, even if you can only put away $25 per month for a stretch before inching that amount back up, it’s still better than nothing.
By thinking of your far-off goals in terms of what you can work on now and attuning your personality to a strategy that highlights your strengths and confronts your weaknesses, you can keep the momentum of finally reaching the finish line alive.
Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, CFP® (with plaque design) and CFP® (with flame design) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.
LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc., that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Unless specifically identified as such, the individuals interviewed or otherwise listed in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services and the views expressed are their own. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed, linked to or otherwise appearing in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies. LearnVest, Inc., is wholly owned by NM Planning, LLC, a subsidiary of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company.