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SMART Strategies to Save Up for Something Big

Family on vacation

Saving up for something big—or just working to pay down a debt—can feel like an overwhelming task, especially at the outset. As with most big goals, standing on the bottom of the proverbial mountain and looking up past the clouds is just about the worst way to go about psyching yourself up to get there. There really is wisdom in that “one foot in front of the other” maxim. Big goals are achieved only by a series of small steps.

Beyond having patience and perspective, however, there are real tools that can help ensure you reach your goal. One of these tools, first introduced in the early 80s as an approach to business management, is known as the SMART method.

The SMART method to saving money

This clever label refers to both its savvy use as well as the acronym the word stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

After nearly 40 years of application, it’s a tried and true method for reaching both team-based and individual goals. Of course, you still have to show the discipline and accountability to get to the top of that mountain. But adopting the SMART method is a good first step to getting there.

Examples of SMART financial objectives:

Whether your goal is to buy a new car, take a future trip or save for a down payment for your very first house, the below examples of each of these objectives will show you how to think through each of the 5 aspects of the SMART method to savings.

SPECIFIC

Your plan must be specific. That means you need to write down the “who, what and why” of your savings goal. Below are examples that identify the people who must be on board with the project, your final savings goal and the purpose (and motivation!) for doing so. If you’re not sure how long it will take, check out our free Savings Goal Calculators.

Here are some examples of SMART financial goals:

  • “My wife and I will save $3,000 in the next 6 months in order to purchase a new car.”
  • “I will put 10% of my salary into a 401K each month so that my employer will match that amount dollar for dollar.”
  • “I will save $750 by February so I can visit my sister in Key West.”
  • “Robert and I will save $20,000 in the next 24 months to put toward a down payment for a home.”

Defining exactly what you’re signing up for is the first step toward accountability!

MEASURABLE

Your savings plan must have measurable components to it that you can write down or enter into a spreadsheet each month. That’s because if you can’t track your progress in concrete, quantifiable terms, you won’t be able to accurately judge your progress. If, instead, you simply resolve to set aside “the most you can” each month, those unexpected toothaches, unanticipated gifts and a whole host of other financial surprises will likely carve away at that amount. On the other hand, if you are tracking the exact amount you have determined to put away each month, you can see at a glance whether you are on target or not. And it will be obvious when you need to make up some dollars from last month’s unexpected expense in order to accomplish your goal.  Equally important, regularly reviewing your progress keeps your spirits high when you realize how far you’ve come. After all, nothing succeeds like success!

  • “We will each transfer $500 per month into a savings account we have opened expressly for this purpose.”
  • “I will arrange for my employer to allocate $675 pre-tax toward my retirement account starting next month.”
  • “I will drop $187.50 into a can for the next 4 months in order to have the money in time for the trip.”
  • “Each month for the next 24 months, Robert and I will transfer $835 from our shared savings account into this new account.”

ACHIEVABLE

Here’s the thing: Just because you would like to stash away, say, 10% of your salary doesn’t mean you have the means to do so, especially if you are currently struggling to make ends meet. Or perhaps you would like to put $500 away each month, but you know that the cost of the holidays or a friend’s upcoming wedding will eat up all your disposable income for a month or two. In those cases, you may need to reduce your savings goal or lengthen the time frame in order to have an achievable goal.

Alternatively, you could divide your larger goal into smaller goals and set SMART objectives to achieve each one. Whatever your savings goals, pledge to stash away an amount of money that is truly within the realm of possibility.

REALISTIC

Along these same lines, most of us can divide the amount of money we need by the number of months we have to secure it and come up with those target monthly amounts. But even if that money is theoretically at your disposal, it doesn’t guarantee you will reach your goal. Within that discretionary spending category, you need to consider and balance your priorities, which is easier said than done!

If you want to save $500 per month for a new car but that would mean not being able to send your kids to summer camp—your objective may not be realistic if camp is currently a higher priority for your wife.

Savings goals require that you think realistically about your hobbies, habits and priorities and those of the other people in your life! If something is in your control, go ahead and commit to the sacrifice. Other times, however, you’ll have to make do with extending your timeline to accommodate the priorities of the other people involved in your plan.

TIME-BOUND

Savings goals, like all goals, need deadlines. If you don’t know the date you’re meant to achieve your goal, you can’t gauge how well you are keeping the course. Setting an endpoint for your savings goals also helps you keep your eye on the prize when day-to-day hiccups and financial surprises threaten to take you off course. Deadlines have another purpose, too. Whether it’s a week, a month or a year from now, when you’ve finally reached that date, they give you opportunity to pause and celebrate! It’s like looking down from the top of that mountain to see just how far you’ve come.

 

In the end, achieving a hard-earned savings goal provides you with something far even more valuable than the money you saved. Watching yourself make hard decisions, gain mindfulness around your money and, ultimately, succeed at what you set out to do, will give you a sense of confidence and wellbeing that you cannot spend away.