How to Make Better Financial Decisions

Woman learning how to make better financial decisions

A key financial decision people struggle to make is how to allocate savings for multiple financial goals. Do you save for several goals at the same time or fund them one-by-one in a series of steps? Basically, there are two ways to approach financial goal-setting:

Concurrently: Saving for two or more financial goals at the same time.

Sequentially: Saving for one financial goal at a time in a series of steps.

Each method has its pros and cons. Here’s how to decide which method is best for you.

Sequential goal-setting

Pros

You can focus intensely on one goal at a time and feel a sense of completion when each goal is achieved. It’s also simpler to set up and manage single-goal savings than plans for multiple goals. You only need to set up and manage one account.

Cons

Compound interest is not retroactive. If it takes up to a decade to get around to long-term savings goals (e.g., funding a retirement savings plan), that’s time that interest is not earned.

Concurrent goal-setting

Pros

Compound interest is not delayed on savings for goals that come later in life. The earlier money is set aside, the longer it can grow. Based on the Rule of 72, you can double a sum of money in nine years with an 8 percent average return. The earliest years of savings toward long-term goals are the most powerful ones.

Cons

Funding multiple financial goals is more complex than single-tasking. Income needs to be earmarked separately for each goal and often placed in different accounts. In addition, it will probably take longer to complete any one goal because savings is being placed in multiple locations.

Research findings

Working with Wise Bread to recruit respondents, I conducted a study of financial goal-setting decisions with four colleagues that was recently published in the Journal of Personal Finance. The target audience was young adults with 69 percent of the sample under age 45. Four key financial decisions were explored: financial goals, homeownership, retirement planning, and student loans.

Results indicated that many respondents were sequencing financial priorities, instead of funding them simultaneously, and delaying homeownership and retirement savings. Three-word phrases like “once I have…,", “after I [action],” and “as soon as…,” were noted frequently, indicating a hesitancy to fund certain financial goals until achieving others.

The top three financial goals reported by 1,538 respondents were saving for something, buying something, and reducing debt. About a third (32 percent) of the sample had outstanding student loan balances at the time of data collection and student loan debt had a major impact on respondents’ financial decisions. About three-quarters of the sample said loan debt affected both housing choices and retirement savings.

Actionable steps

Based on the findings from the study mentioned above, here are five ways to make better financial decisions.

1. Consider concurrent financial planning

Rethink the practice of completing financial goals one at a time. Concurrent goal-setting will maximize the awesome power of compound interest and prevent the frequently-reported survey result of having the completion date for one goal determine the start date to save for others.

2. Increase positive financial actions

Do more of anything positive that you’re already doing to better your personal finances. For example, if you’re saving 3 percent of your income in a SEP-IRA (if self-employed) or 401(k) or 403(b) employer retirement savings plan, decide to increase savings to 4 percent or 5 percent.

3. Decrease negative financial habits

Decide to stop (or at least reduce) costly actions that are counterproductive to building financial security. Everyone has their own culprits. Key criteria for consideration are potential cost savings, health impacts, and personal enjoyment.

4. Save something for retirement

Almost 40 percent of the respondents were saving nothing for retirement, which is sobering. The actions that people take (or do not take) today affect their future selves. Any savings is better than no savings and even modest amounts like $100 a month add up over time.

5. Run some financial calculations

Use an online calculator to set financial goals and make plans to achieve them. Planning increases people’s sense of control over their finances and motivation to save. Useful tools are available from FINRA and Practical Money Skills.

What’s the best way to save money for financial goals? It depends. In the end, the most important thing is that you’re taking positive action. Weigh the pros and cons of concurrent and sequential goal-setting strategies and personal preferences, and follow a regular savings strategy that works for you. Every small step matters!

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How to Measure Progress and Achieve Goals

Measurement! I just love measurement. That’s because it tells you how you’re doing and how much progress you’ve made. Progress checks can motivate you, help you catch yourself when you’re slacking, and tell you when to change course. 

Without giving thought to how you define progress, however, you can measure the wrong thing, or measure the wrong way. You might end up demoralized for no reason, or falling behind unknowingly on a project, or missing opportunities. So if you’re going to measure progress, do it right! Turn off auto-pilot “gut checks” and measure progress thoughtfully.

Measure process goals

If you’re Type A like me, you probably overwork yourself, under the assumption that more work gives more progress. But does it? Have you ever measured? Just being busy and stressed doesn’t mean we’re getting anything done. We need to track how far we are from our goal, and whether we’re closing that gap.

First determine the kind of goals you’re chasing. Episode 462, “Grow a Pair for Your Career,” outlines the difference between outcome goals and process goals. Outcome goals—like getting a promotion—are something you strive for, not something you just do. Process goals, on the other hand, are measurable actions that help you get closer to your outcome goal, like making ten more sales calls each day. 

If you’re going to measure progress, do it right! Turn off auto-pilot “gut checks” and measure progress thoughtfully.

On a daily basis, measure progress through movement toward your process goals. It doesn’t matter how much you work, only whether that work takes you closer to finishing that day’s process goals. Then check that your process goals are doing what they should, by tracking overall movement toward an outcome goal.

For example, if you work in sales, your process goal might be to make fifty cold calls a day. If that’s your goal, sending two hundred emails should not count as progress. What’s more, if your outcome goal is to close sales, and you haven’t closed one in months, you may need to rethink if you have the right process goals. Maybe “number of calls” doesn’t lead to sales. Maybe you need to make progress on the quality of your calls, instead. So make your new process goal tweaking your sales pitch, and direct some work toward that.

Measure how far you’ve come

Another way to track progress is to look at how far you are from your starting point. 

Sam is a twenty-something who’s just started up a fairly successful online delivery company. The vision of being the next Amazon.com seems impossible! Or at least, light years away. And it is. But knowing that it’s not Amazon yet isn’t a useful measure for evaluating progress. Furthermore, it’s so far away that it isn’t even clear which paths lead to that result.

Sam can instead concentrate on what’s been accomplished so far. They started sitting around a dining room table. Now they have office space, customers, a business model that works, money in the bank, and profit. By measuring progress based on how far they’ve come, not on how far they have left to go, Sam can realize they’ve made tons of progress, and can make sure it continues to unfold, as more and more milestones get added to the list.

Measure distance to your goals

At some point your goal is within reach. Then, you can start measuring how far you are from your goal, and concentrate on closing the gap.

Don’t do this too soon! You can hurt morale. At my last Harvard Business School reunion, for example, doing an “Am I there yet?” progress check gave me a soul-crushing burst of inadequacy as I was moderating a panel of my classmates, whose combined net worth was enough to purchase a third world country and pave it over. In gold. 

When you’re out on a long run, you get a surge of fresh energy when you see you’re only ten feet from the finish line, and there’s an entire 55-gallon drum of gummy bears waiting at the end. And an Oreo ice cream cake. The next thing you know, you’re barreling over the finish line.

When you’ve passed the halfway point, start measuring your progress by how quickly you’re closing on your goal. Keep that Oreo ice cream cake in mind, and set new goals to push you those last few feet.

Even if you get some steps wrong, just making the plan will energize you and be motivating.

A good way to do this is to make a checklist of things you’ll need to do to reach the end point. These can be high-level things like, “Run A/B testing with focus groups,” or low-level things like, “Write an email to call for A/B testing participants.” Once your plan is on paper, finishing your project will seem much more doable, since all the steps left to take are right there in front of you. And as I talked about in episode 466, "Make a Plan for Motivation," even if you get some steps wrong, just making the plan will energize you and be motivating.

Re-measure often

Once you figure out the best way to track your progress, and the types of progress you need to track, choose how often you’ll track. Sometimes, tracking progress once a week is plenty. But from my experience, it’s best to track progress every two to three days.

That way, if you suddenly notice you’re not where you should be, you only have to make up two or three days’ worth of work. If you were only checking once a week, you could get an entire week behind before you’d notice it.

From my experience, it’s best to track progress every two to three days.

What gets measured gets managed. And we love to manage progress. On a daily basis, concentrate your measurements on your progress goals, rather than your outcome goals. Then choose a less-frequent measurement that is based on where you are in your project: distance to your goal, or distance from your starting point. With a little experimentation, you can find the magic balance that keeps you on top of your game.

This is Stever Robbins. I give great keynote speeches on productivity, Living an Extraordinary Life, and entrepreneurship. If you want to know more, visit http://SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

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