Expert Advice: How To Actually Reach the Financial Goals You Set on January 1


Three years ago, my husband and I did something colossal: We paid off $200,000 in student loan debt. Two bachelor’s degrees and two master’s degrees put us under an immense amount of financial and emotional stress, so for a long time, that was our main financial goal. Now, we have shifted our focus (and our funds accordingly) to new goals like saving for retirement and investing in our son’s future. Financial goals look different depending on the season of life you’re in, but we’re all currently in a new season, or better yet, a new year.

The new year is prime time to set new habits, routines, and goals, including financial goals. If you’re overwhelmed and wondering where to even start when it comes to kickstarting the financial goals you have in this season of life, or you just need a little boost of inspiration and direction going into the new year, don’t worry—I’ve done the legwork for you. I asked experts how to kick-start our financial goals and am now sharing their advice on everything from saving to investing and more ahead so you can take on 2024 feeling confident and financially savvy.

If your goal is to save…

Focus on your emergency fund first

Many financial experts say the first thing you should do as it pertains to saving is to build an emergency fund. The general rule of thumb is to save 3-6 months of expenses—so, enough money for rent, utilities, car payments, and more for three months at the very least. “This can help you ‌get through tough times without having to rack up high-interest rate debt,” Kendall Meade, Certified Financial Planner at SoFi, shares.

“It is important to make sure your emergency fund is safe and accessible. Many people are tempted to invest their emergency fund, but this can be a big mistake,” Meade added. When choosing where to build and keep your fund, Judi Leahy, Senior Wealth Advisor at Citi Personal Wealth Management, recommends a high-interest-bearing account, like a high-yield savings account (HYSA), as those allow you to access the cash quickly when needed and allow your money to earn interest.

Review your retirement plan (and start saving if you haven’t already)

If you think saving for retirement is a future you problem, think again. The sooner you start, the better! Leahy recommends reviewing the 401(k) or qualified retirement plans available to you, especially if you work for an employer who offers a match. You can contribute a maximum amount ($24,000 in 2024) to your 401(k) each year, so determine how much you will be able to contribute now and increase that amount each year if you are able. “Increasing your 401(k) contribution each year can help maximize your savings; even a 1 percent increase can make a big difference.”

If a 401(k) or 403(b) isn’t offered through your employer, don’t worry! You can open a Roth IRA account and begin investing your after-tax dollars (i.e., the money you see in your bank account from your paycheck). Similar to a 401(k), there is a maximum contribution limit ($7,000 in 2024) each year, which begins to phase out based on your income. With a Roth IRA, it’s important to remember that you need to not only fund it (put money in your account) but then invest it. If you don’t invest it, your funds will simply be sitting in your account instead of growing tax-free. If you’re not sure how to do this, contact your bank for help.

Make a plan for this year’s big purchases

Do you have a ton of weddings to attend this year? Have you been dreaming about the travel plans you have coming up? Big events like weddings, vacations, and birthdays are so exciting, but they typically come with a hefty price tag. Start saving for them now instead of scrambling to pay for things like flights and gifts or charging them to a credit card at the last minute. To do this effectively, review your 2024 calendar and estimate how much events like this will cost you. Then, set aside a certain amount from each of your paychecks for these specific things. Saving a little over a longer period will make your expenses a lot easier to manage.

If your goal is to invest…

Educate yourself

If you’re confident in your retirement savings plan and want to start investing in other ways, start by educating yourself through books or podcasts or looking into platforms like Ellevest, which helps women start on their investing journey. You can also speak to a financial advisor or a financially savvy family member or friend whom you trust to learn more about investments and even get their help determining how and where to invest and what amount you’d be comfortable risking. This topic can be overwhelming for a lot of people, but if you start slow and look to trusted resources, you can learn everything you need to know about the investment strategies that are right for you and your future.

Develop your rules for investing

Liz Young, Head of Investment Strategy at SoFi, recommends developing a set of rules you’ll use to guide how you invest. This could look like defining what you’re comfortable risking, reviewing your investments regularly, trusting the process as the market adjusts, and more. You should also create a list of investments that interest you. This should be a diverse list of investments that you truly understand—meaning you should know the risks and any rights that would be associated with it. These two things can help you determine what you want to buy and why. By taking the extra time to decide on your rules as well as your interests, you can be more strategic and, in turn, more confident in your choices.

Start slow and easy

A great option for anyone who is just getting started in investing is index funds. These are low-risk long-term investment options that you don’t have to think about too much since they are passively managed. You can buy index funds through a brokerage account or directly from an index fund provider, such as Fidelity, according to Investopedia. When you do, you’ll get a diversified selection of securities. This can help lower your risk and build out your portfolio all at once with little to no legwork on your end.

Remember, no matter how or what you choose to invest in, understanding what you’re willing to risk and keeping a close eye on your money with the help of experts or a platform like Ellevest can help you ensure you’re making smart decisions with your money.

If your goal is to spend smarter…

Audit your 2023 spending

To give yourself a clear picture of your spending habits, take some time to audit your spending from last year. By reviewing your statements, you can gain a firm understanding of how much you spend on going out with friends, what your groceries really end up costing you, how big of a dent pet expenses make, the amount of money you spend on subscriptions like Netflix or Hello Fresh, and more. Taking stock of your spending to determine what’s necessary and what can go can not only help you make the most of your budget but can also help put money pack into your pocket.

Create (or revise) your budget

Once you know where your money is going and what categories (essentials, fun money, or savings) your money should be allocated to, it’s time to make or reassess your budget. The best budget for you is one you can actually stick to, so if you’re not sure where to start or need a new plan, we did a breakdown of eight different budgeting strategies to get you started that you can read right here.

Automate

If you have a bad habit of spending the money you have in your account just because it’s available to you, count on automation to keep your spending under control. “People who find that they struggle with spending may prefer to set up direct deposit so that a portion of their paycheck goes directly to savings,” explains Meade. This way, the amount of money you need for essentials or savings goals is automatically put away, and you don’t end up tricking yourself into thinking you have more than you actually do.

Make checking your budget a part of your routine

It would be a waste of time to determine your budget and then never check in to see if you’re actually following it. Even though it can be a boring, annoying, or intimidating task to sit down with your finances and get real with yourself about what you’re spending, it’s crucial nonetheless. Decide how often you want to check in with your budget and set reminders on your calendar. In the beginning, this might look like reviewing your spending once a week to see if it is in line with the parameters you initially set for each category, but once you get the hang of it, you might only need to check in once a month. Whatever you decide, make these check-ins a part of your regular routine.

If your goal is to earn more…

Negotiate a raise

You can only cut so much from your budget to help toward your financial goals. If you’ve scrimped and saved and still feel deflated, try negotiating a raise—especially if you haven’t received one in a while or your role has changed. Chris Lovell, HR Professional and Career Expert at SoFi, recommends arming yourself with comprehensive market research to establish a realistic salary range (which you can do on platforms like Glassdoor, LinkedIn Salary, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and a list of your work-related achievements, especially as they pertain to your company’s success, that you can bring to your manager. These two things can help you feel prepared and confident when you walk into your negotiation and show your manager that you are serious about your career growth.

Look for a new job

If you’re not happy at work or negotiating a raise isn’t an option, it may be time to look elsewhere, as getting a new job often comes with a salary bump. Start to look into similar roles in high-paying industries or ways that you can advance your career. For example, if you are a supervisor, look for management positions to apply to. Not only will this help with your career growth, but you’re more likely to make more money when your title advances.

Start a side hustle

If you’re happy where you are and want to look into earning more outside of your day job, try taking up a side hustle. This can look like launching your own side business (like consulting or coaching), getting a part-time job at a local coffee shop, walking dogs on your lunch break, or babysitting your neighbor’s kids. According to Gigworker.com, the average monthly earnings from side hustles range from $483-$810. That can make a big difference each month toward your financial goals! For inspiration, check out our story all about how to make an extra $1,000 a month!

If your goal is to pay off debt…

Make a plan

You can’t face your debt head-on unless you know how much you owe, so it’s time to face the truth. Make a list of all of your debt, including the lenders, and log into your online accounts to make note of your balances, monthly payments, and interest rates. Once you know where you stand, there are a couple of common repayment strategies you can try.

  • Debt snowball: Make all your minimum payments, and then, with any remaining money each month, you pay extra toward your debt with the lowest total balance. Once you pay off that first balance, you snowball the money you were paying on that account to the next smallest account, and so on, until all your debt is paid off.
  • Debt avalanche: Make all your minimum payments and then use any remaining money to pay toward the debt with the highest interest rate. Once that balance is paid off, you move on to the balance with the second-highest interest rate.

Consider all of your options

Even though debt can help us fund our lives by providing us money to purchase a home or a vehicle, owing money to financial institutions sucks, and it’s our responsibility to make sure that we are exploring all of our options. This year, figure out how you can minimize your debt by refinancing, consolidating, or taking advantage of transfer options. For example, you can refinance or consolidate your loans, which can help you lower your interest rate and pay your balances faster. Similarly, you can look into transferring your credit card balance to a new credit card that offers zero balance transfer fees and zero interest for an introductory period. You can find these offers through your banks, loan providers, and more. Don’t be afraid to do some digging and ask questions to ensure you’re making the most of your existing debt situation.

Adjust your budget and stick to it

If your main focus this year is paying off your debt, you might need to make some adjustments to your budget to support that goal. For example, if you usually allocate $150 a month to your gym membership, canceling it and doing free at-home workouts for a few months can allow you to pay an extra $150 a month on your credit card. Adjusting your budget and being strict about these changes can allow you to pay off more of your debt faster.

If your goal is to improve your money mindset…

Practice positive thinking

Determine a finance-related affirmation to repeat, and you’ll be shocked at how quickly you improve your money mindset. Affirmations like “I am worthy of wealth,” “I have and am enough,” “I am good with money,” “My net worth is not my self-worth,” and “I control my money” are positive affirmations to start with that can help ensure your mind is flowing with positive thoughts about money. Try putting your favorite on a Post-it note and sticking it to your mirror or making it your phone wallpaper. Saying (and seeing!) affirmations like these regularly can help you reframe your financial mindset. Over time, this can help you take control of your financial wellness.

Put meaning behind your money

Money isn’t everything, but it does help us go on vacations and make memories, book workout classes that bring us joy, live in apartments that feel like home, and spend our years doing things we love all the way through retirement. It has value and meaning that can be incredibly positive. This year, get clear on what your finances mean to you. Ashley Russo, Wealth Management advisor and founder of Russo Wealth Management, proposes asking yourself the following questions without judgment.

  • In 1-3 years, where do you see yourself personally, professionally, and financially?
  • In 4-10 years, where do you see yourself personally, professionally, and financially?
  • Do you have any bucket list items or must-dos?

With the answers to these questions, you can start to think about your money as more than just the payments you make every month and more about the life you get to live and want to live as your future self. Having a clear vision of where you want to go makes saving and investing more meaningful and enjoyable, contributing to a positive money mindset. Russo adds that by doing this, “your hard work, which creates your hard-earned dollars, will have meaning, and you will be on your way to sticking to your money goals.”

Increase your financial intelligence

Many things factor into your money mindset, from your attitude and beliefs about money to your upbringing and personal experiences to your financial habits. But to shift your money mindset in a positive direction, you need to heal your relationship with money and rewrite your money narrative. In addition to forgiving past money mishaps, the best way to build your confidence around money is to educate yourself. You need to shift your dialogue from ‘I don’t know anything about money’ or ‘I’m not good with money’ to ‘I’m learning about money.’ Increase your financial literacy by listening to a personal finance podcast, like Financial Feminist or Money with Katie, or pick up a money book, like Rich AF or Your Journey to Financial Freedom. Then, throughout your journey, journal about your personal experiences and beliefs around money. Getting your thoughts down on paper can be cathartic and set you on the path forward.

Be realistic

Arguably, one of the most important tips to kick-start your money goals this year is to be realistic. “At the start of a new year, many of us fall into the trap of making aggressive resolutions that aren’t actually sustainable past the first few weeks (or even days),” Courtney Alev, Consumer Financial Advocate at Credit Karma states. “We set our expectations for ourselves impossibly high, prompting us to give up before we’ve actually made any significant progress in reaching our goals.”

Alev recommends taking a deep dive into your monthly income and expenses and setting reasonable savings goals that make sense for you. And remember not to be too hard on yourself if you slip up! “Even if you only set aside a small percentage of your paycheck, when you stick to it, it’ll add up at the end of the year,” Courtney shares. We set ourselves up for success by managing our expectations. Realistic goals keep us focused, motivated, and moving in the right direction so we can continue to foster a positive mindset around money.





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