How to Set Retirement Goals

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Yogi Berra once said, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.” Perhaps he was pondering retirement. Without a retirement plan you can’t tell “if you’re there yet.”

But saving something toward retirement and hoping for the best does not constitute an adequate plan. Because retirement is years – even decades – away, planning is more critical, not less. The more detailed the retirement plan, the greater the likelihood of success.

All financial planning begins by listing your financial goals. Most of us are not motivated primarily by money. The excitement of having millions of dollars would fade quickly if we couldn’t spend any of it. Having money is not the goal. It’s the means to reach your goals.

Writing your goals

Work on writing your goals that are desirable, specific, measurable, and realistic.

If you find the goals that truly motivate you, you will find it easier to have the self-discipline to stick to the plan to achieve those goals. Clearly defining and writing down your financial goals is proven to increase your likelihood of achievement.

For example, for most people “spending less money” is not desirable goal. Given a choice, most of us would like to spend more money, not less. While reducing spending is not desirable, reducing debt is. Similarly, saving for retirement may be too abstract but buying a small retirement house at the beach is specific. Writing your goals in a positive, attractive way will help motivate you to achieve them.

Specific goals also allow you to evaluate your progress. While the goal of making the best investment decisions is neither specific nor measurable, the goal of averaging a 5% return per year is. To determine whether you’re on track, you’ll need to develop a method of evaluating your investments considering factors like expense ratios, turnover, volatility, ratings, diversification and asset allocation.

Finally your goals need to be reasonable. Later refinement will help you evaluate if your goals are reasonable, but examples might include eliminating credit card debt in 18 months or retiring at my current standard of living by age 65.

Translating goals to behaviors

After committing your goals to paper, list the behaviors that contribute or detract from achieving your goals. Start simply by listing your current behavior as a baseline. For instance, if you are currently increasing your credit card debt by $200 each month, halting the increase may be the first positive goal to reasonably expect. Measuring your current behavior can help determine what changes are realistic toward achieving your goals. Revisiting your baseline behavior will encourage you when small improvements are made and help you understand what changes are reasonable to expect.

When evaluating helpful and harmful behaviors, make note of the triggers associated with those behaviors. A trigger is anything that increases the likelihood of a behavior. For instance, if you discover you spend whatever cash is in your pocket, carry less cash with you. Or conversely if credit cards are too tempting, leave them at home.

Being aware of triggers can help bypass undesirable behaviors and reinforce the positive. For example, if you are prone to impulse buying, make the rule that you must wait at least one week between when you first think of buying something and when you actually buy it. And make the rule that purchases over a certain amount must be discussed with your spouse.

Dealing with lack of time and stress

Also remember that resolve is the weakest when time is short and stress is high. Any plan needs to prepare for possibilities ahead of time. If you are saving money by packing a lunch, keep some cans of soup in your desk drawer for the morning when you are too rushed. And everyone should cultivate healthy methods of dealing with stress.

Those who eat when they are stressed tend to be overweight. Those who drink tend to be drunk. And those who spend tend to be broke. But those who have a healthy way of dealing with stress can weather more stress. Cultivate a healthy response to stress such as exercise, sewing, dancing, or reading.

It is financially unhealthy to try to spend your way out of stress or depression. Clothes, jewelry, shoes, stereo equipment, and electronic gadgets can’t solve our deepest struggles. Be purposeful in deciding what behavior you cultivate as your reward, comfort, and coping mechanism for life’s trials.

Getting a support system

Finally, surround yourself with a support system that will encourage desirable behaviors and discourage undesirable behaviors. Your spouse, friends, coworkers, or a trusted financial advisor can provide the encouragement needed to stay the course and change long standing behaviors.

The process isn’t easy, and neither is finding support. In addition to friends and family, you can seek professional advice and management. A fee-only financial advisor can help not only running the numbers, but also providing the decades of support and encouragement to make financial planning, effective life planning.

The original version of this article was published November 22, 2004 under the title “Retirement Wisdom Part 6 – Have a Concrete Plan.” Photo by Sid Leigh on Unsplash

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David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. Favorite number: e (2.7182818…)