Set clear long-term financial goals

Make sure your long-term goals are realistic ones, not involving things that are far outside your control, Hamm writes.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A studio image of a calendar taken December 2010. Short-term goals are much like pieces to a jigsaw puzzle where you have only the vaguest idea of what the final picture looks like, Hamm writes.

When Sarah and I first began our financial turnaround, we discovered that it was very easy to set and complete very short term personal finance goals and microgoals.

We’d agree to spend a weekend without spending any money.

We’d agree to spend a day or two going through our DVD collection and eliminating 60% of it.

We’d agree to spend the next month avoiding bookstores.

These were strong microgoals. These led into some great short-term goals. 

We agreed to focus on our highest interest rate credit card and get it paid off. Beyond that, we made a debt repayment plan to help guide us beyond that.

We decided to hold off our planned vehicle replacements until 2009 or 2010 so that we could eke as much value as possible from our current vehicles.

Our big challenge at first came after the short term goals. What comes next once we start fulfilling those short term goals?

What am I building towards?

Personal finance books and blogs do a tremendous job of giving people ideas and suggestions for microgoals and short-term goals. The problem is that microgoals and short-term goals are much like pieces to a jigsaw puzzle where you have only the vaguest idea of what the final picture looks like. The little pieces fit together, but what do they look like when you assemble them?

Another problem is that long-term goals can easily shift as you make progress on them. If you’ve set a goal of achieving a senior vice presidency at work in ten years and then your company implodes, what happens to that goal? It’s gone.

Given these problems, how does one set useful and clear long-term financial and professional goals? Here are four tactics I’ve used that have really worked well for me over the past five years.

Flash forward ten years
Where you do you want your life to be in ten years? Ask yourself this question as a realistic one, not as a fantasy that involves things that are far outside your control.

What you’re really looking for are the things you dream about that could happen if you gave up some of the poorer habits and routines in your life, established better ones, and started working for something bigger and better in your life.

What does that life look like? Are you in better physical shape? Do you have a better job? What is your personal life like?

You’re going to want to flesh out the details here. The more you consider things here, the closer the goals will be to the things that matter most to you.

Set milestones
Milestones are what I like to think of as “medium-term goals.” They’re simply guideposts along the way toward a large goal that help you move along a consistent, steady track to where you want to be.

Let’s say your long-term goal for your finances is to have a net worth of $500,000 in ten years. What kind of milestones can you have along the way?

One might simply be “debt freedom.” That’s a great medium-term goal. You might also want to have a milestone of having a net worth of $250,000 – halfway there.

Reaching these milestones is well worth celebrating. It means you’re making very strong progress toward your long-term goal, and that helps a great deal in terms of keeping you on that long, long path.

Choose generic microgoals and short-term goals
Of course, those milestones themselves require smaller steps to get there. The smaller goals of debt freedom revolve around paying off each debt. The smaller goal of getting in better shape involves achieving workout goals and perhaps weight goals, too.

As I mentioned early in this post, though, sometimes our long-term goals dissipate right in front of us. Life changes. What if your long term goal must change because of something in your life?

The best protection you have against that is to choose your short-term goals so that they would function as progress toward a wide variety of long-term goals.

A great example of this is in your career. There are a lot of ways to get ahead in an office environment, but there are certainly some paths that will help you more if, say, your company were to suddenly go under. Positive relationships will help. Self-improvement will help. Well-executed projects will help. What won’t help? Office political games. A “moat” around your job that made you hard to get rid of.

Focus on microgoals and short-term goals that make you better. No matter what happens in your life, self-improvement helps. Reduce your debt. Add to your education. Build strong relationships. These are the building blocks of many, many things you’ll want to do.

Re-evaluate regularly
People change over time. The goals they were once enthusiastic about begin to wane, and new directions begin to emerge.

Stay on top of this. People sometimes keep pushing toward the goals that they held two or three years ago that no longer truly match what they care about now. This leads to frustration and often a reduction in the appreciation of where one’s life is going. I’ve seen many people who feel like they’re running on a “treadmill,” and that’s often the result of not stepping back and looking at their goals.

I do this every week, believe it or not, but I suggest doing it at least once a month. Pull out your list of long-term goals and what you’re doing to move toward those goals and ask yourself if you still want that goal. Is this still where you feel like you should be heading with your life?

It’s okay to say that it isn’t. In fact, it’s far better to recognize that as soon as possible so that you don’t keep channeling energy toward something you don’t really want any more.

You will always feel more motivated toward a long term goal if you’ve recently considered that goal and concluded that it is truly something you want.

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