Setting and Prioritizing Your Financial Goals

When you have more than one, think in terms of importance, timeline, and the amount you need

financial goal examples on background

In 1 minute

Saving for big financial goals like retirement doesn’t have to mean letting go of your other goals. But prioritizing them is tough. How are you supposed to weigh something like a distant retirement versus a more immediate financial goal, like a honeymoon? Or a down payment on a home?

Start by identifying all of the things you’d like to achieve. They might be big-ticket items you want to buy, experiences you want to have, or expenses you want to be prepared for. Once you’ve named them, estimate how much you’d need to reach each goal, and how soon you’d like to reach them.

After you’ve clearly defined the goals you could save for, it’s time to choose which ones matter most to you. You might rank every goal or just narrow the list down to your top five to ten. Then you can calculate how much you’d have to save each month to reach these goals based on your timeline.

From there, turn to your budget. Decide how much you can afford to save each month and apply it to your biggest goals first. We highly recommend turning on auto-deposit so you won’t be tempted to stop working toward your goals.

Your financial goals don’t have to be set in stone, and neither does your plan. Over time, you may find that you can save more—or that you can’t save as much as you thought. Maybe it’ll take more or less to reach your goal. Or your priorities might change. That’s OK. With Betterment, it’s easy to set, automate, and adjust your goals.

In 5 minutes

In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • Defining your financial goals
  • Prioritizing your goals
  • Deciding how to allocate your money
  • Adjusting goals as needed

Financial goals help you plan for the things you’d like to do with your money, but can’t afford to do right now. Like retiring. Buying a house. Sending your kids to college. Getting that dream car. Remodeling your kitchen.

When you know what you want to do, you can estimate how much you need and when you need it. Knowing your goals also helps you choose the right financial accounts, so you can reach them sooner. But what happens when you have multiple financial goals? All of a sudden, it’s harder to know how much to put toward each goal.

Thankfully, working toward one goal doesn’t mean you can’t reach another. Here’s how to set and prioritize your financial goals.

Define your financial goals

If you sit down and think about all of the things you’d like to do with your money, you can probably create a much longer list than you’d expect. Do it. It’s worth taking the time to write down every goal—because you might be forgetting something important!

Some of your goals could be as simple as saving up for holiday gifts, as important as building a safety net, or as big as planning for retirement or long-term care. If it’s on your mind, put it on the list. 

Part of this process should involve estimating how much you’d need to save to reach each goal and when you’d like to reach it. Is it months away? Years? Decades? Will it take hundreds of dollars or hundreds of thousands? Each goal should have a timeline and amount.

At Betterment, it’s easy to add this information every time you set up a goal. (And you can change it at any time.)

Prioritize what matters to you

Your financial goals are yours. This isn’t about what your parents want or what your friends expect from you. Whatever your goals are, prioritize them based on how important they are to you.

Remember that ranking your goals doesn’t mean you won’t reach the ones on the bottom. For example, you shouldn’t be afraid to pay down debt and invest at the same time. This is just to help you think about which goals you care about the most.

Once you’ve ranked your goals, your list might look like this:

  1. Pay off medical debt
  2. Build emergency fund
  3. Save for retirement
  4. Put a down payment on a house
  5. Remodel the bathroom

You can include as many goals as you want. And in Betterment, you can add each goal to your account, whether you put anything toward it or not.

Apply your budget to your list

Now that you know how much you need to save, when you need to save it by, and which goals are most important to you, it’s time to see what you can actually accomplish. 

Using your estimated amount and your timeline (in investing, this is called your “time horizon”), calculate how much you need to save each month to reach each goal. It’s OK if this is more than you can afford to save right now. Putting the numbers in front of you with an ordered list helps you ask questions like, “Can I reach all of these goals on these timelines?” and “Which goal(s) am I willing to delay in order to make progress on the others?

If you plan on investing to reach your goal, you should also consider how much you can expect to earn toward these goals with an investment account. Every time you set up a goal in Betterment, we’ll handle this part for you. You can see how achievable your goal is based on how much you put toward it. Here's a hypothetical example:

goal-projection-demo

Automate your financial goals

The best way to make sure you reach your goals? Automate them. Don’t make the mistake of putting your goals on pause. Set up recurring deposits for each goal with the amount you’ve set aside for them, and the right amount automatically goes to the right goal. This makes it easy to budget around your goals, and you won’t accidentally miss a month. The strategy is often called “paying yourself first” because you’re putting money toward your highest priorities before spending it on anything else.

Want to start working toward your financial goals? Set up a goal with Betterment, and see what you can achieve.