Saturday, June 2, 2007

How to effectively set and track goals

A thread on the recently established Get Rich Slowly forums got me thinking about goal setting so I thought I'd post my goal setting instructions and worksheet for those who might be interested. The worksheet is in excel and is hosted on the Personal Finance 101 website and you can dowload it from there for free. Let me know if you have any questions/comments.

Get the goal setting worksheet

Why set goals?

Setting goals is one of the most important things you can do to ensure financial success, but it is usually the last thing people think about. If you don't set goals, how do you know if you are actually being successful? If you are going to get to where you want to be in life, you have to know the path to take. Goals are your roadmap and if you set them up right, they will take you from point A to point Z with as few detours and as little pain as possible.

How to set goals

The key to goal setting is to make your goals concrete and measurable and to make meeting them automatic. By this I mean, your goal should have a date and amount associated with it. You don't just say “I want to pay down my debt.” You say "I want to reduce my debt by $5,000 over the next 12 months." By giving yourself a set $ amount and date to meet, you will be able to judge whether you are actually meeting your goals or not and make adjustments accordingly.

By making it automatic, I mean using technology to your advantage. Set up automatic payments for all of your bills so that you are never late. Set up an automatic deduction from your pay check that goes directly to your savings account so that you are paying yourself first and will be less likely to spend the money instead of saving it.

Just doing those two things 1) Making your goals concrete and 2) Making them automatic, will drastically increase your chances of success.

The timeline

Goals can be divided into 3 categories: Short-term, Mid-term and Long-term. Short-term goals are goals that will be completed within the next 12 months. Mid-term goals are ones that will be completed within the next 1-7 years. Long-term goals are goals that will be completed 7+ years from now. Some examples could be:

Short term – establish emergency fund of $1000

Mid-term – pay off consumer debt within 3 years

Long-term – have enough for retirement

One of the biggest challenges is being realistic! If you only make $40k/year, it won’t really do you much good to set goals that will cost you $20k/year to meet. Be honest with yourself about what you can do. If you find that you are ahead of your timeline for meeting your goal, you can always add another one or meet your goal early but if you find that you are behind, it can be disheartening and cause you to give up all together.

The process

As I mentioned above, to set your goals you have to set specific criteria as well as an action plan. If you open the accompanying excel workbook and click on the Goal Summary tab you'll see that I have taken the liberty of filling in some goals for you that should be on everyone’s list. Remember, that your goals don’t all have to be responsible. Your goal can be to buy a new TV or to go on a vacation. As long as you are meeting the core responsible goals, there is nothing wrong with enjoying your life and money. Setting a goal plan just means that you will be more likely to meet all of your goals without having to scramble and sacrifice something else that is important.

For your goals, fill out the following information for each goal:

  1. Goal Name
  2. Start Date
  3. End Date
  4. $ Needed
  5. First Step

If you are married or in a similar relationship, you should do this with your partner.

Once you have set at a few goals in each category, print out that page and put it somewhere you will see it every day. It will remind you of what you are working towards and keep you on the right path. I would also suggest writing your most important goal on a sticky and attaching it to your credit card so you have to see it any time you want to use your card. That way you will know that every penny you spend on that card is a penny that is not taking you closer to your goal.

Make a plan

Now that you know what your goals are you need to plan how to meet them. In the same workbook is a tab called Detailed Goal. You should make as many copies of this as necessary – one for each goal. I would recommend re-naming the tab for each worksheet to reflect the name of your goal.

To develop your goal plan, you need to figure out what the steps are to meet your goals. The first step should be to implement whatever your automatic transaction will be. For example: if you want to buy a car in 5 years and you plan to spend $10,000 on that car, you can figure out that you will need to save $2,000/year or $167/month. So, your first step should be to set up an automatic transfer to your savings account for that amount per month. Since this is a longer-term goal, you should set up milestones so you can check back in to make sure that this goal is still a priority and you are still on track to meet it. I suggesting setting a milestone at least every year and preferably every 6 months. This allows you to take a minute to review your goals to make sure you're going the direction you want to go. Put your milestones on your calendar with reminders so you don't forget to check back in.

Implement your plan

So, you’ve gone through all the planning, now you just have to execute. The key to achieving your goals is to make them as easy to do as possible. This means making everything automatic. Set up all of your goals so that you don’t even have to think about them. Use auto bill pay and auto deductions to your savings/investment accounts. It takes a bit of time at first but it will be worth it in the long run.

Monitor/Add to your goals

Your goals are always going to be changing. You should keep adding goals as they come up. When you add a new goal, you have to look at your existing ones and figure out which is more important. It may be that your new goal is more important than one of the old ones so your old one gets pushed down the list. Look at your goal list as a fluid thing and don’t try to be too rigid with it. There is nothing wrong with reprioritizing as thing change.

How to manage your goal money

Everyone has a different method. It all depends on how much time/effort you want to put into it. Personally, I'm a fan of lazy accounting so I use ING for my goal savings accounts. I like the fact that with ING I can set up multiple sub-accounts and name them whatever I want. So I can have a car account and a vacation account and a furniture account, all separate, so I can tell at a glance how much money I've put towards each goal. It' makes things very easy for me and if you dislike book keeping as much as I do, this method may work for you as well.

Good luck with your goals. Just the fact that you're thinking about them puts you one step closer to success.


money market savings account said...

Wow this was helpful thanks alot..

Brett McKay said...

Thanks for the work sheet! I'll be working on this tonight!

PF101 said...

I'm glad you both found it useful. If you find anything about the worksheet that should be changed to make it more useful, please feel free to let me know. I love getting feedback.

Colonel Cash said...

I like the worksheet. Good road map!