How to Set Financial Goals and Set Yourself Up for Success

By Janet Siroto · August 21, 2023 · 13 minute read

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How to Set Financial Goals and Set Yourself Up for Success

Many people harbor hopes and dreams for how they will live, achieve professional success, start a family, travel, and more. Whether that means launching a nonprofit by age 30, having three kids, sailing around the world, or all of the above, reaching those goals takes planning and focus.

The same is true of your finances. Money helps fund your aspirations, and it needs care and tending. Solid financial planning can help you realize those dreams, from having your child graduate college debt-free to being able to retire early.

So here’s your guide to setting smart money goals and achieving them, step by simple step.

Check out our Money Management Guide.

This article is from SoFi’s guide on how to manage your money, where you can learn basic money management tips and strategies.

money management guide for beginners

What Are Financial Goals?

Financial goals are the aspirations you have for how you will bring in income, spend it, and save it. These can be short-term dreams, like financing a vacation to Tulum next winter, or longer-term ones, such as retiring by age 50.

Identifying these goals and then creating a roadmap to achieve them is what smart financial management typically boils down to.

Short-Term Financial Goals

Short-term goals are usually defined as things you want to achieve with your personal finances within anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.

Examples of short-term financial goals could be anything from starting an emergency fund to finding a budget that works for you to saving up for a new mobile phone.

Long-Term Financial Goals

When you pull back and think big-picture about money management, you have likely entered the realm of long-term financial goal setting. These are goals that can take several years or even decades to achieve.

Examples of long-term goals would be saving enough money to buy a house, putting your kids through college, or retiring comfortably.

What Are S.M.A.R.T. Goals?

s.m.a.r.t. financial goals

When you are thinking about your financial goals and doing some research, you may come upon the acronym S.M.A.R.T. Think of this as a guideline to help you set and achieve your money aspirations. Here’s what it stands for:

•   S for Specific: Instead of your goal being “to be financially comfortable,” try to be more precise. Perhaps your goal would be to have no debt except your mortgage and a certain amount in your retirement fund.

•   M for Measurable: It can be wise to assign real numbers to your goals. For instance, to save $200K in your kids’ college funds is a measurable aspiration. Just saying, “to pay for college” can be too vague to work toward.

•   A for Achievable: Setting unrealistic expectations can lead to frustration and disappointment. Think about your lifestyle, income potential, cost of living, and other key factors, and set reasonable goals.

•   R for Realistic: Similarly, plan steps to achieve your goals realistically. Don’t expect to cut your expenses to the rock bottom or ignore the impact of inflation over time.

•   T for Time-based: Give yourself specific goals and due dates, such as “Save $500 a month until I have $5,000 in my emergency fund 10 months from now.”

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How to Set Financial Goals

Next, consider the specific steps of setting financial goals. Break it down as follows:

1. Assessing Your Finances

Figuring out exactly what your current finances look like is a vital step. Sure, you probably know when you get paid, but have you checked how much is going toward your retirement savings fund every pay period or — gulp — exactly how much you’re spending on food delivery? Keeping a close eye on your finances might help you set smarter money goals.

It might seem easy to ignore the finer details of our finances in favor of blissful ignorance, but failing to know where you and your money stand might harm your financial health down the line.

So if you haven’t looked at where your money is going in a while, taking a look at how much money you’re bringing in, how much you’re spending, and how much you’re saving might help you set more meaningful money goals.

•   Check out your bank statements, credit card statements, and even online banking records to help you determine where your money is going every month.

•   Write down big numbers like credit card, personal loan, or student loan debt. This can help you plan for payoff.

•   Consider using tech tools to help you wrangle your finances. There are plenty of apps you can download, and online banking might be able to help you too. Typically, banks offer apps where users can easily access details about their spending and balances. Your credit card bill or app can also often provide a graphic representation of where your dollars fly off to each month.

2. Figuring Out What Is Most Important to You

Once you have a snapshot of your overall financial situation, it can be worthwhile to spend some time reflecting on your money goals: what is really important to you.

While there are many things a person ideally should be saving for, like a down payment on a house or retirement fund, your financial goals might not be the same as your sibling’s or your coworker’s.

Just like your parents always told you: You’re unique. And so is the process of setting financial goals. What might they look like?

•   You might want to pay off student debt as fast as possible in order to free up more cash every month.

•   You might be working toward public service loan forgiveness and not be as focused on quickly paying off student loans.

•   Perhaps your financial goal is to save up an emergency fund or take a vacation in six months.

•   You might want to retire and move to another country by the time you’re 55.

It’s likely that your goals will be a mix of short-term and long-term aspirations, as described above.

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3. Establishing a Fun Budget

Okay, but what if you just want to go clothes shopping once a month without feeling guilty or take that Budapest vacation you’ve been dreaming about?

Make it work! Setting a financial goal is all about having your money serve you. Here are some pointers:

•   Planning out your discretionary spending might not only help keep your finances on track but can also help you inject an extra fun quotient into your life. That’s a win-win.

•   When a budget is too harsh and punitive, you might wind up making impulse buys or otherwise overspending. If you know you have some cash stashed for mood-lifting purposes, you can hopefully avoid that scenario.

But whether you’re focused on saving up for a down payment on a house or a trip to Disneyland, you won’t get there without a plan. Making a budget will get you focused and help you take control of your finances.

4. Staying On Track

Once you’ve decided on a money goal or two, it’s time to put a plan into action. Your plan will vary depending on whether you’re tackling a long-haul climb out of credit card debt or saving an emergency fund. A bit of advice:

•   Managing your money isn’t a “set it and forget it” proposition. Life happens. You may get a raise one month, and then have a (surprise!) major dental bill the next. It’s important to check in with your money regularly.

•   Adapt your budget when things shift. Everything from getting a nice bonus to having a baby can be a good reason to check in with your money goals and recalibrate.

•   Whatever your financial goals, there are tools that can help you along on your financial journey. Having the right banking partner can play a crucial role. Look for a bank that can help you set up automatic deductions from your checking account on payday to savings toward your financial goals. And find a bank that doesn’t charge you all kinds of fees; after all, they’re enjoying the privilege of using the money you’ve deposited!

6 Examples of Financial Goals to Consider

types of financial goals

If you’re looking for help brainstorming how to manage your money aims, here are some popular financial goal examples to consider:

1. Build an Emergency Fund

Whether you’re easily covering your monthly expenses or grabbing change from the bottom of your bag to buy a coffee, many people are living paycheck to paycheck. But what if that paycheck disappeared or if you had a large, unexpected expense? Enter the emergency fund.

Recent history has taught us a lot about how emergencies can arise. Stashing away an emergency fund might help you comfortably weather a pandemic, a “company-wide restructuring” that eliminates your position, or an unexpected illness that cuts into your freelance earnings.

Consider a long-term financial goal of setting aside about three to six months’ worth of expenses to help you weather any rough financial waters that may lie ahead.

2. Track Your Spending

As mentioned above, keeping track of your expenses is important. Sometimes, spending that starts as an occasional thing (that TGIF latte) becomes a regular expense that drags down your budget.

Or you might find that you are dealing with lifestyle creep, which occurs when you earn more but your spending rises too, keeping you at the same level of wealth.

If you track your expenses, you can see how your money is tracking. You might decide to cut back on streaming services or realize that now that you’ve paid off your credit card debt, you could put more toward retirement.

3. Pay Down Credit Card Debt

High-interest credit card debt can feel like a treadmill: You keep putting in more and more effort, seemingly without getting closer to the finish line. Many of us struggle with it. The average balance that consumers carry as of the start of 2023 was over $7,000, and the average interest rate as of mid-2023 topped an eye-watering 24%.

With numbers like that, it can take a very, very long time to pay off what one owes, especially if you only make the minimum payment. What’s more, if your balance is more than 30% of your card’s credit limit, your credit-utilization ratio may not look too attractive to the credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion), and your credit score may skid south. In fact, some say that it’s financially healthiest to use only 10% or less of the credit your card extends to you.

It’s no wonder that for many of us, setting a financial goal involves the words “pay off my credit card.” Indeed, making a plan to pay down debt instead of focusing on those minimum monthly payments could help you dramatically improve your finances. Your credit card statement will tell you how much to pay to get rid of debt in three years; that can be a helpful guideline.

If you need other options, consider:

•   A balance-transfer credit card, which offers low or no interest for a period of time (typically 6 to 18 months), may also be useful.

•   A personal loan, which may offer a lower interest rate. You can use that to pay off the credit card debt and then have a lower amount due to pay off the loan.

•   You might also consider a debt management plan or meeting with a nonprofit debt counseling agency if you feel you need additional help.

When you get out from under the burden of this kind of debt, other doors (like to a home you own) may open. It can give your budget just the kind of breathing room you crave.

4. Pay Off Student Loans

Paying off student loans is another move that can help you reach your financial goals. Doing so frees up funds in your budget for other uses. Some ideas:

•   Make extra payments toward the principal when possible. That might mean a little more every month or applying a windfall like a tax refund.

•   Refinance a student loan. This could potentially lower your rate and help you pay off your debt sooner.

•   Pay biweekly instead of monthly. This means you make an extra payment each year, again helping shorten the timeline to becoming free of student loan debt.

•   Enroll in autopay. Federal student loan servicers and many private lenders will lower your interest rate a bit if you opt into automatic payments. While it won’t make a huge dent in what you owe, every little bit can help.

5. Contribute to Your Retirement Fund

Most of us know we should be saving for retirement, but that financial goal can be easier said than done when there are so many competing places to put our money.

The good news is that when you set up a retirement account and start saving, even small amounts can grow over time, which makes saving for your golden years a great financial goal. Contributing regularly — whether through your employer’s plan or an IRA — is worthwhile, especially when inflation is high.

Many experts say that a smart financial goal is to be saving 10% to 15% of your pre-tax paycheck for your retirement. One smart move: If your employer offers a company match of dollars put toward retirement, put in at least the minimum required to snag it. So if your company says you must contribute 6% of your salary to get a 50% match, that means if you put in 6%, they will add 3% to your savings. Don’t leave that money on the table!

6. Save More Money

Another way to hit your financial goals, big and small, is to save more money. Here are a few techniques:

•   Automate your savings. Set up seamless recurring deductions from checking to savings for just after payday. Doing so means you don’t have to remember to allocate the funds. And you won’t see the money sitting in checking, tempting you to go shopping with it.

•   Challenge yourself each month to give up an expense. For instance, don’t buy any pricey coffees for one month and put aside the savings. Next month, no movies. The following, no takeout lunches. You can do it!

•   See about bundling insurance premiums or paying annually vs. monthly to save money.

•   Negotiate bills. See if your credit card provider will lower your rate, for starters.

How to Adjust Your Financial Goals if Your Circumstances Change

Sometimes, life throws you curveballs. You don’t get the raise you were hoping for. A family member has a medical issue that requires more money to manage than you expected. Or you move to a new town with a higher cost of living.

In these situations, you may need to ramp down some of your financial goals. Perhaps you can’t have that emergency fund fully saved by the end of this year. You could lower how much you put away and reconcile yourself to the fact that you won’t meet your goal as soon as you would have liked.

This is just another reason why checking in with your money and adjusting your budget often is important.

And don’t forget the bright side: If you get a major salary bump or a windfall, you can use that to crush your goals that much sooner. Staying flexible can be vital, regardless of which way your finances are trending.

Setting smart financial goals is an important step in managing your money and achieving your life goals.

By taking such steps as evaluating your financial situation, creating a budget, and setting smart benchmarks, you can be on track to check off your aspirations. Whether that means saving for summer vacations, eliminating credit card debt, or retiring early, taking control of your money can be a very good feeling. And finding the right banking partner can help make the process even easier.

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What is a good financial goal?

Financial goals need to reflect what’s important to you, but for most people, they are a mix of short-term aspirations (like having an emergency fund and minimizing credit-card debt) and long-term plans, like retirement savings.

How do you stick to a financial goal?

Sticking to a financial goal can be easier if you set up automatic deductions that transfer money from checking (where you might be tempted to spend it) to savings. Also, getting familiar with your finances, developing a plan, and regularly checking your progress are good moves.

What are some money management tips?

It’s a good idea to assess your finances and make short- and long-term goals. Then, allocate a percent of your earnings and set up automatic deductions to your savings; pay down high-interest debt (like credit cards); establish an emergency fund; and start saving for retirement. Even if it’s just a small amount, it will grow!

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