Health & Fitness/Living With Debt/Work/Life Balance

How Setting SMART Goals Helped Me Get Healthier & Pay Off Thousands in 2019

By | Friday, December 20, 2019

Borderline Budgeting” is a column by Mercedes Killeen about the intersection of mental health and spending habits. Mercedes writes about her own experiences with mental illness, and how she manages to practice skills like self-care while staying on budget. 

During a particularly rough time last year, upon a recommendation from my family doctor, I tried setting some SMART Goals. I was in a really bad spot in terms of my depression, and although I was skeptical (and quite cynical) about the prospect of goal-setting, I did it anyway.

I’m not one for setting new year’s resolutions, but this goal-setting process did genuinely help shape my year. The act of writing out my targets for 2019 was extremely useful in terms of getting clear on what really needed to change in my life. And even though I didn’t complete all three of my SMART goals, I still made a lot of headway. Here are the basics of how you can use this planning process to make 2020 (or whatever time-frame you choose) the most productive one yet.

Defining SMART goals

“SMART” is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based. The basic idea is that you go through each of the five terms using a worksheet, so that you can determine exactly what you want to achieve. In doing so, you determine how to measure your progress, whether the goal is realistic, how relevant it is to your life situation, and how long it will take you to complete.

It’s commonly cited that the term was first coined by George T. Doran in 1981. Over the years, it’s become extremely popular for anyone seeking to make progress in their personal or professional lives — it’s commonly used by businesses and individuals alike. I found that the easiest way to implement this acronym was to find a free worksheet online to print out and use. Pinterest is teeming with these sorts of templates. You can find a basic example of one here, but feel free to look around for one that speaks to you.

My experience with setting SMART goals

Personally, I chose to set three basic goals: 

  • To get sober from alcohol.
  • To pay off all of my credit card debt.
  • To complete a yoga teacher training program.

Of the three, I succeeded in getting sober, I paid off almost all of my credit card debt, and I didn’t complete a yoga teacher training program. I’ll walk you through each one:

Getting sober

This is the goal that honestly seemed impossible when I set it. I’ve had a problem with alcohol since I was a teenager, but never took the issue seriously enough. I had a few weeks at a time where I’d tried to “take a break,” but it never stuck.

Thankfully, I was able to achieve this goal. It’s been almost eleven months now, and I couldn’t be happier with my sober lifestyle. I’ve never had such a “boring” or normal life, and it’s been extremely helpful. In the process, I’ve saved about $1,200 USD in costs since quitting, my mental health has got significantly more stable, and I have less stress since I’m no longer getting blackout drunk and acting stupid every weekend.

Aside from setting the goal in the first place, I’ve also used other tools to support me in this journey. For example, I’ve continued my weekly therapy work, kept seeing my family doctor every two weeks, and adopted a more regular yoga practice. I’ve also found it really helpful to use a sobriety tracking app. I like I Am Sober, which is a mobile app with a comprehensive free version. It shows you how long you’ve been sober (down to the second!), notifies you of big milestones in your sobriety (one week clean, two weeks clean, one month clean, etc.), shows you how many hours you’ve saved by ditching your addiction, how much money you’ve saved, and even lets you post little status updates and photos to interact with the online community.

You can customize it for whichever substance you’re trying to quit, and it’s got a really nice interface. Definitely check it out if getting sober is one of your goals!

Paying off credit card debt

I’ve also almost completely paid off my credit card balance, which was at about $2,500 USD when I started. Over the past year or so, I’ve made significant strides in decreasing my consumer debt and increasing my total net worth. I wrote about that topic in-depth in this article for TFD, so I won’t dwell on it too much here.

Essentially, I made a debt repayment plan, which included putting a large chunk of my monthly income towards my credit card debt. I prioritized this goal above many other things — like recreational spending (or even my savings), for a while. I also avoided using my credit card for new purchases, instead opting for my debit card/debit account. And if I absolutely had to use a credit card, I made sure to pay off that purchase within minutes, from my banking app.

At this point, I’m over 80% of the way there. Even though I haven’t 100% finished this goal, I still feel really good about the progress I’ve made. I don’t think I would have accomplished that much if I’d never set the goal in the first place.

Becoming a certified yoga teacher

For this goal, I didn’t even get close. I researched various programs, but it just didn’t make financial (or professional) sense for me. I still managed to incorporate yoga into my routine, though, by ramping up my home practice and attending class at a studio once per week.

And I did manage to take several online courses — they just weren’t related to yoga. I completed multiple professional certificates via the Lynda/LinkedIn Learning platform (which is free to use with my Toronto Public Library card). All of the courses were relevant to my freelance writing career. I also paid for an edX course on Shakespeare offered by Harvard University, which was a lot of fun to do. (I used to study English Lit. at the University of Toronto, so this was a great investment which allowed me to keep learning from home.) Lastly, I recently purchased Elna Cain’s “Write Your Way to Your First 1k” course, which was also an investment in my freelance writing career. I’m about halfway through the material, and it’s been extremely useful.

SMART goals summary

So, even though I didn’t 100% finish each of my goals, I’m satisfied with the personal and professional development I’ve achieved. The process of setting these three goals (and understanding what I needed to do, how I’d measure my success, and how appropriate they were) was a catalyst for change in my life. 

If you’re interested in trying this out, I’d suggest using a SMART goals worksheet like the one I linked above. If you can, make a few physical, printed copies of the template instead of filling it out on your computer. (I find that writing things out by hand makes them seem a lot more tangible to my brain.)

Once you’ve filled out the worksheets, display them somewhere that’s prominent and visible on a daily basis, like over your desk, on your mirror, or on a bulletin board. Make sure that you consult them daily, as a reminder of where you want to go.

As you go about your daily and weekly routines, keep those long-term goals top of mind, and schedule regular sub-tasks to help you succeed. For example, open up Google Calendar and plan out specific days to work on your goals. And as you keep chipping away at those targets, you’ll be well on your way to a more productive year.

I hope you find these suggestions useful. Let us know in the comments: What are your goals for 2020?

Mercedes Killeen is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor. You can learn more about her work, and order her freelance services, at

Image via Unsplash

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