For those of us absent from the year’s splashy Thirty Under Thirty lists, the vague, eternal fear of “falling behind” can loom large. In fact, the propensity to measure our successes — be they financial, professional, romantic, creative — by a metric of other people is inadvertently human. Who published a novel at 19? Opened a restaurant at 22? Got married first? Bought a home?
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all template for achievement — nor is there a pre-ordained timeline on which it must occur. But that pesky sense of behind-ness often derives from the belief that we all ought to perform on the same scale. And when it comes to money — perhaps the most literally quantifiable marker of success — that inclination toward self-comparison can be especially poignant. “When people tell me they’re feeling ‘financially behind,’ my response is just as psychological as it is financial: I ask them to get really clear with me about what they want to accomplish,” says Michael Liersch, PHD, behavioral scientist, and head of advice & planning at Wells Fargo. “Usually, there’s something they’re not articulating about what they personally want — and it’s more specific than the broad milestone that’s making them feel like they’re underachieving.”
Liersch’s point is a hopeful one: When it comes to financial goal-setting, no amount of self-flagellation can conjure stacks of cash into being. Rather than despair in the ways in which we feel behind, either relative to our own goals or those of our peers, we simply need to reframe what kinds of goals we’re setting for ourselves. That’s why we tapped Liersch to give us a look at six smart, realistic steps we can take towards upping the ante on our financial health in 2024.
Bring back the financial diary
“There’s so much going on in our heads when it comes to money, and often, it all seems too big, and broad, and scary to properly conceptualize,” says Liersch. “So, what I would encourage people to do is, take all that stuff out of their minds and put it on a piece of paper. We need to go back to basics: classic financial diaries.”
As he sees it, fully articulating our goals can help distill some of our more lofty, cyclical thinking into actionable, digestible words and phrases. “If you can figure out what exactly you want, and illuminate why you haven’t achieved it yet, in your own words, you’ll be far more equipped to make a plan,” he explains. The idea is to meditate on what your ideal next-level goal looks like — and how it can be tracked in real time. He even recommends using a tracking or saving app like LifeSync® in the Wells Fargo Mobile® app that will allow you to name your goal, watch your progress, and upload photos or other materials designed to help keep you motivated.
“If the goal is achievable and you can track your progress, you've suddenly reduced a lot of the uncertainty that gives us that feeling of behind-ness of anxiety in the world of money,” Liersch adds. “And even if it's a small goal, that progress starts giving you the feeling of control, again.”
Figure out where, exactly, your money is
Once you’ve determined what you want in the future, it’s important to take a good, hard look at where you’re at right now. “When you’re first making headway on a new goal, you have to start by figuring out where all your money is — and putting all that info in a spreadsheet,” Liersch advises.
Whether that’s a matter of cash you’ve been storing under the mattress, subscriptions you’ve been keeping on autopay, or, say, that couch you put on a monthly installment plan, you’ll need to take full stock of your expenditures. “Once you figure out where all that money is, you should put it in a spreadsheet, write it on a piece of paper, track it in some tool or application that feels safe for you, and visit that record as often as possible,” Liersch explains. “Based on our research at Wells Fargo, this is something many people don't do — they just don't know where their money is. Pulling together this record will help illuminate how, exactly, you're spending — and in turn, what you can alter.”
Make snack-sized, tangible goals
While larger, broader financial goals can be overwhelming to take on, even the most paralyzing aspirations can be broken down into piecemeal stepping stones — small, tangible actions that you can broach with confidence. “Let’s say you’re just looking to stack up some cash in a day-to-day sense — maybe you’re looking to afford a vacation, or a new couch,” says Liersch. “The secret isn’t restricting yourself all the time. Instead, we're talking about doing things a little bit differently. If you love getting coffee, or food from your favorite takeout joint, make sure you’re doing so in a way that maximizes rewards points. If you’re going out for drinks, make a point of looking out for a good happy hour.” The idea isn’t to upheave your life — it’s to make shifts that you feel absolutely confident you can manage. Perhaps that’s just taking the $5 you save in coupons per visit at the grocery store, and adding it to a tangible fund that’s laddering up to your goal. However slow and steady, that’s progress you can see.
On the other hand, if you’re working toward slightly loftier goals, those steps might look a little different. “When you're thinking about managing credit and debt, for example, you’ve really got to look at where you’re spending on things that are essential versus things that are optional,” says Liersch. “And if you just don't have enough money to cover your essential expenses while paying off your debts, you might need to make more fundamental changes in your lifestyle.” Maybe that’s downgrading to a smaller apartment, or getting rid of your car. Maybe that’s limiting the number of streaming services you subscribe to, or cutting out workout classes in favor of joining an affordable gym. Regardless, you’re still looking for lifestyle changes that feel within reach.
“One of the main reasons folks give up on financial goals is because it feels overwhelming and exhausting — so, with that in mind, if you’re going to succeed, you need to make sure you’re still taking the time to treat yourself,” says Liersch. “Every time you meet your monthly savings goal, maybe take $5 out and go get your favorite takeout burrito. Just do something to celebrate the fact that you’ve accomplished what you set your intentions towards.” In the long run, for him, endless constraint will often result in spurts of overspending — while making the choice to treat yourself responsibly will help you learn to celebrate the small wins.
Talk it out
Like with most matters of the heart, sharing your financial goals and concerns — rather than bottling them up — will benefit you in the long run. “There’s a lot of research pointing to the fact that having a collaborator — whether it’s a spouse, a parent, a friend, or a business partner — is beneficial. No, they don’t have to be a financial advisor or an expert. Instead, they just have to be someone you can trust,” says Liersch. “Whether they can offer encouragement when you’re feeling frustrated or hopeless, or they’re just there to hold you accountable, that kind of openness and shared communication will certainly help move you closer toward your goals.” Long story long, we’re social creatures — and making our finances communal endeavors is rarely a bad idea. Sure, that kind of communication helps with accountability, but moreover, it helps us work through some of our larger hang-ups or insecurities with regard to money.
As daunting as managing financial goals on any scale can feel, it’s important to leave some room for optimism. Hope can go a long way, motivationally speaking. “The science around optimistic framing is a Nobel Prize winning concept in behavioral finance. The gist is that, how you frame money in your mind, and even on paper, changes the way you make decisions around it,” says Liersch. As he puts it, optimism can quite literally affect your ability to succeed in the face of your financial goals. That means staying inspired, creating “mood boards” or hanging photos that help you continue to conceptualize your goals, and celebrating your wins, however small they may be.
Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., Member FDIC
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