This Year, be a Goal-Digger: How to Set Financial Goals for the New Year (Part 2)

By Ali Goldstein

In Part One of this series, we explored how to set financial goals that are SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. These SMART guardrails make it easier to reach goals by building in quick wins for boosts of motivation, as well as ways to track and measure progress.

But what if you’re still not sure what your underlying goals should be in the first place? While your hopes and dreams for the future will be as unique as your fingerprint, taking your age, relationship and life status into consideration can help narrow down your choices. 

Set Financial Goals by Age

Someone who’s just gotten their first “adult” job will probably want to set financial goals that are much different than someone who’s ten years away from retirement. Here are some ways your age might inform your financial goals:

  • If you’re in your 20s, now is the perfect time to develop a lifelong habit of saving money. This is probably the first time you’re getting a steady paycheck with money that feels spendable — which means now is the perfect time to develop good savings habits, or else you may develop more damaging spending habits. 

One big tip? Spend less than you earn. It can be tempting to spend every penny you earn, but if you can squirrel away a portion of your monthly income into savings each month, your future self will thank you when it’s time to come up with a big down payment for that new car, home or baby.

For 20-somethings, the best target for your new savings habit is to start an emergency fund in the form of cash or a checking account, so you don’t have to reach for a high-interest credit card or other types of expensive borrowing when you need fast cash. The ideal amount in your emergency fund will total 3-6 months’ worth of essential expenses (“needs,” not “wants”), but for a “quick win” aim for putting away $1,000 first so you can gauge how long it will take to amass a larger amount.

  • If you’re in your 30s, it’s time set goals for short- and long-term financial objectives. If you still haven’t built an emergency fund, this might still be your first financial goal. But if you already have a healthy emergency fund in place, now is the time to get serious about saving and investing for: retirement, purchasing a home, or even coming up with more money to start your own business and become your own boss.
  • If you’re in your 40s, it’s time to start envisioning what your retirement might look like – and how much it may cost. Retirement is all about long-term savings and investments, especially if you’re new to both (which is pretty common for some Americans). At this stage, it’s a good idea to seek reputable financial advice, either via digital advisors or a human financial advisor to develop a financial plan and make sure you know what changes to make to get on track. 
  • If you’re in your 50s, it’s time to get laser-focused on retirement readiness. Even if you plan to work well into your 70s, beefing up your retirement savings will help guard against any unforeseen curveballs, like a medical issue that may impact your working hours per day. This is also an excellent time to make catch-up contributions if you’ve slipped in your savings efforts, which means socking away even more money in retirement accounts.
  • If you’re in your 60s, it’s retirement time. This poses a huge shift in how you set financial goals, because in previous decades your goals have revolved around saving. Now, it’s time to set goals around spending. Think about things you can do or changes you can make to make the money you’ve worked hard to save last even longer. For some people, that could mean making lifestyle adjustments like downsizing to a smaller living space, or relocating to a part of the country that has a lower cost of living. It might even make sense to invite family members to live with you to share costs and provide some caretaking assistance. 

Set Financial Goals by Family Status

Folks with dependents to care for have different goals than those who are single:

  • If you’re single, focus on building financial security for today and tomorrow. In addition to ensuring that you have a fully-funded emergency fund, make sure to set financial goals so you can enjoy a comfortable (or even early!) retirement.
  • If you have kids, you might want to start thinking about saving and investing to fund college in the future. Or, if funding retirement and college for the future are both in the mix, set financial goals that ensure you’re making steady progress towards both.
  • If your parents are approaching their golden years, it’s time to talk to them about their healthcare plans and estate planning. Set aside time to ask questions about their financial readiness so you can determine if you need to plan for professional caregiving. Of course, this can be a sensitive topic for all involved, so a gentle, caring approach is best.

Set Financial Goals by Financial Status

Some folks can save an incredible amount of money on a modest salary. Others are up to their neck in debt despite a six-figure salary. Understanding where you are in your financial journey can help you set financial goals that take your current money situation into account: 

  • If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s time to focus on developing a savings habit. Now is the time to start an emergency fund and make small lifestyle changes with the goal to spend less than you make, leaving an increasing amount of monthly income unspent that can help you afford the things and experiences you want in life.
  • If you’re carrying high-interest debt, pay off what you owe before thinking about long-term investing or buying anything new. Tip: if you’re eligible for a 0% APR transfer balance credit card, you can stop your existing high-interest debt from growing, and “freeze” it so you can make a “boot camp” style plan to pay it all down while benefiting from 0% interest.

One quick note from Angel on paying down debt: while it might seem counter-intuitive, “when considering a debt pay-down goal, you should first save money in a savings account.” That way you have “some sort of emergency savings set aside, so WHEN something comes up, and you have an unexpected expense, you don’t have to turn back to your credit card or debt source.”

Example Goals for the New Year

Ready to take our advice and set some real, really SMART goals? Here are a few thought-starters as you head into 2018: 

  1. Start contributing to a 401k. Be sure to check with your employer to see if they offer matching funds, which act like salary you must opt-in to grab. And, remember to contribute the absolute maximum that you can afford up to the allowable annual contribution limit.
  2. Set up and maintain an emergency fund. If you have to borrow from your stash for an unexpected emergency, this fund will let you do so guilt-free. Just remember to try to fill it back up as soon as you can.
  3. Get disciplined about your spending. Brewing your own java every morning instead of spending $4/day at a coffee shop might sound like peanuts — but it will save a whole “latte.” Think about it: $4 a day, five days a workweek = $20 a week. In one month, that’s $80 you can set aside into an emergency fund or retirement savings. In six months, that’s $480! Hardly chump change 
Ready to ring in the New Year with some concrete financial goals? Email or call (512) 531-8722 to work with a USAA Financial Advisor to customize a plan to set and reach your financial goals.

About the Professional: Matthew Angel serves as the Advice Director at USAA, focusing on the personal finance tenants of short-term saving and home advice. Matthew holds professional credentials including a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ designation, AAMS®, and a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Texas San Antonio. Matthew’s history at USAA includes seven years serving members as a financial planner and leading teams of financial professionals to help members achieve financial security. Outside of work, Matthew enjoys hunting and riding motorcycles, and is a proud husband and father to four kids.


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USAA means United Services Automobile Association and its affiliates. Financial advice provided by USAA Financial Advisors, Inc. (FAI), a registered broker-dealer, USAA Investment Management Company (IMCO), a registered broker-dealer and investment adviser, and for insurance, USAA Financial Planning Services Insurance Agency, Inc. (known as USAA Financial Insurance Agency in California, License # OE36312). Investment products and services offered by IMCO and FAI.  Life insurance and annuities provided by USAA Life Insurance Co., San Antonio, TX, and in NY by USAA Life Insurance Co of New York, Highland falls, NY. Other life and health insurance from select companies offered through USAA Life General Agency, Inc. (known in CA (license #0782231) and in NY as USAA Health and Life Insurance Agency). Banking products offered by USAA Federal Savings Bank and USAA Savings Bank, both FDIC insured. Trust services provided by USAA Federal Savings Bank.


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