As of today, my husband and I have finished saving our emergency fund. Yay! We had depleted some of our fund while buying our first home this summer because there were some expenses we hadn’t expected. We also needed to increase the fund because, well, now we own a home and can’t call the leasing office to fix the air conditioner or the hot water heater anymore. Now that we have completed this major money goal, we are moving on to our next major money goal: saving for a second car.
These first two-plus years of our marriage have been a string of major financial goals. First, it was paying off debt. Our second goal was saving an emergency fund. Then we bought a house, saved up a new emergency fund, and now we’re going to start saving for a second car. All of these goals have been what you would call “big-ticket items,” so they have necessitated a good deal of sacrificing in the lifestyle department. It hasn’t been too bad, but it has taught me how to stay motivated for long-term goals. Therefore, I thought I would share some of the ways I have stayed motivated during the long months of prioritizing savings.
1. Decide on the dollar amount.
For me, the biggest motivator in staying disciplined for any amount of time is knowing where the finish line is. A key element of setting a goal is ensuring it is measurable. Major companies realize that they can’t say, “We want to increase efficiency,” without setting the parameters of how much that increase should be and what they will measure to determine whether they have met their goal.
Luckily, big money goals have easy-to-define criteria for measurement: how much money you need to put away to reach your goal. If your goal is to pay off your current debt, then that dollar amount is already set. If your goal is an emergency fund, a down payment on a home, a car, a vacation, or some other item that can vary based on several variables, you will have some decision-making to do. When my husband and I were setting our final dollar amount for our emergency fund, we first decided on what lifestyle line items in our budget would be off the table in a true emergency (e.g. if we both lost our jobs, we would not be saving up for a vacation). After making those decisions, we knew what three-to-six months worth of that budget would add up to, which gave us our final number. When starting to save up for our down payment, we used Dave Ramsey’s tool to get an idea of how much we could reasonably spend on our home, which led us to learning what we would need for our down payment. We then added approximately $6,000 extra for closing costs based on some research we had done for costs in our area.
2. Get an acountabili-buddy.
It’s hard to make tough choices if you feel like no one is on your side. More than likely, while you are trying to save up for a big goal, there will be some “haters” (or, rather, people who don’t understand why you say no to fun outings, order water when you do go out, and aren’t salivating over the newest shiny thing). This is why you need someone on your side who knows your goals and applauds you for making sacrifices now to live a better life later. For us married folks, your partner will always be your acountabili-buddy. They have to be because your financial futures are intertwined no matter how you set up your bank accounts or bill-paying arrangements. You have to learn to communicate and work together on your finances to achieve your dreams as a team, because it would be hard to plan and save for a retirement for two if only one of you is committed to the goal. However, it doesn’t hurt to have a close friend who is also cheering you on.
If you do chose a friend, I recommend choosing a friend who you have seen be good with their money, as opposed to a friend who overspends on Friday night and stresses about paying their rent on Monday morning. Your buddy should be willing to cheer you on when you’re doing well and speak up when it seems like you’re slipping into some bad habits. If you feel like you are the “financially responsible one” in your friend group, then seek out someone a little older than you who is more of a mentor than a friend. No matter what, having an ally makes the tough times easier.
3. Make sure you keep a “miscellaneous” line item in your budget for unexpected expenses.
This is a lesson I learned after constantly growing frustrated when small, unexpected (or unremembered) things came up, and I felt like they were keeping me from hitting a goal in the time frame that I’d set out for myself. It can be little things like a water or electric bill being unusually higher than normal, or getting a gift for a friend who just announced that they’re pregnant. After a few of these surprises, we learned that a small ($50 for us) line item marked “miscellaneous” went a long way in relieving the stress of an unexpected addition to monthly expenses. That one little line item can keep you from throwing up your hands and deciding that life is too unpredictable and you just can’t live with this horribly restrictive saving-intensive budget anymore. (Also, on a related note, a teeny-tiny line item for “splurge money” can help you feel less deprived in the long run.)
4. Make your progress fun.
Most of us have enough of a competitive streak to enjoy winning a game, even when we’re the only player. There have been several strategies posted on TFD about how to make saving fun, but ultimately, it comes down to you finding something that works for you. This article is about one smart lady who created swirly art that she colored in as she worked toward her goals. My husband and I went with a similar coloring idea. I found a piece of clipart that represented the goal to us (e.g. a piggy bank for our emergency fund, a house for our down payment, etc.) and overlayed the images with a table that had dollar amounts on each row. As we reached that dollar amount, we colored in the row. It wasn’t a big, expensive project, but watching that piggy bank fill in with color got me excited about coloring in the next row, and the next. It was a game we were playing to challenge ourselves to be more mindful of how we spent our money. I think you’ll find that you can be your own best competitor.
5. Plan small rewards for hitting your goals.
For me, the best part about working out is building in a few extra calories into my diet that I can use to indulge in something I enjoy. Personally, I love sweets, which is a weakness I have had to tango with to lose weight. For our financial goals, we plan out what we will splurge on while motivating ourselves to save rather than spend. For example, when we became 100% debt-free, we threw a small party to celebrate. This upcoming month, we have decided to use a little money to visit family and friends as our reward for completing our emergency fund. Setting our sights on these rewards made us hunger for completing our goals as quickly as possible. When picking your reward, make sure you take into account that you don’t want to unravel your savings in one extravagant night. Make sure you reward yourself with something you’re excited about that isn’t breaking the bank.
While working on my savings goals, I try to remember that the sacrifices I’m making while aggressively saving aren’t forever. Short-term sacrifices are always worth the long-term peace of mind and the sense of empowerment you get from achieving big goals. Knocking out these big goals early in our marriage has given me a positive outlook on what we can accomplish in the long-term. And that is priceless.
Melonie grew up in a modest-size town in Georgia in a middle-class family. She attended a small private college in her hometown to get a B.S. in Mathematics and Computer Information Systems. She went on to get an M.S. in Computer Science at Southern Polytechnic State University. She works in the IT division of a Fortune 500 company and is looking to change careers within the next year.
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