As many of you know, I coach wrestling. Sometimes the methods are a little unorthodox. An example: in wrestling, the best way to win is to pin your opponent. When we have three kids pin their opponent in a row, you might hear me and the kids yelling “Keel!”
Opposing teams are often bewildered. There is no “Keel” in wrestling lingo. It doesn’t mean anything in the wrestling world, isn’t short for anything, and is not somebody’s name.
It is something our team randomly invented. Teams don’t know it, but our kids chase after Keels. There is nothing special about three pins or getting pins in a row. Other than scoring points for your team, we do it for fun. It gives the kids something to strive towards: something achievable, exciting, and measurable.
Goals in financial planning really aren’t so different.
Some financial experts denounce the traditional goals people set for themselves. Some people say “I want a million dollars! My goal is to become a millionaire!” Many experts wag their fingers and say that is an arbitrary number, with no real substance behind it. “Why a million dollars? You didn’t put any math or thought behind that goal!”
They might be right. That said, the goal might not need any math or thought behind it.
If the goal to reach a million dollars inspires you to save money and put away more than you otherwise would and gives you a sense of progress…maybe the goal is doing what it should after all?
When your goal is instead “retiring comfortably with enough income to live life 25 years from now”, does it make your mind go blank? Does it inspire action? Sometimes the goal is so nebulous and far away that it fails us as a goal, even if it is the “correct” goal. For the big, hard to imagine goals, sometimes we have to artificially attach meaning to otherwise randomly chosen goals.
There is something else our wrestlers chase after. When our wrestler gets out from underneath another wrestler (Escape, worth one point) and immediately turns around and takes the other wrestler down (Takedown, worth two points), you might hear our entire team shout “Chocolate malt!”.
This one doesn’t need Sherlock Holmes on the case. When our wrestlers execute that against quality competition, they earn a milkshake. Naturally, the kids will battle to earn the shake. Throughout the season, they chase after milkshakes and in so doing develop the muscle memory of great wrestling. Lo and behold, at the state tournament when they are tired and wrestling tough opponents and gunning for bigger goals like a state title, the habit is already there to chase after the escape and takedown. Of course, at that point they aren’t thinking about the milkshake. But the short term, low hanging goal throughout the season led them to behaviors that created success for what they were ultimately trying to achieve.
This is how the human mind works. It is easier to save money each month for that house you and your family want, or that dream trip to the Bahamas, or the season tickets to the Seahawks. These things are tangible, not so far away, and exciting!
It is harder to save for something half a lifetime away, even if it is important to you.
To make it easier, sometimes you have to find small milestones along the way to chase. It might be maxing out your 401(k) for the year, getting your will knocked out before that big trip, or paying off $10,000 of student loan debt. They might not be as exciting as a takedown, but they are real, simple, and push you in the right direction.
Sometimes we simply need to embrace our inner child and use our imagination. Conjuring up images of the life we want to live makes that distant goal much more real.
Once your imagination fails you (it probably will), something else that works is good old fashioned peer pressure. For example, I tell our wrestlers to come up with a personal goal for the season. I make them write it on an index card. On the back they have to write the tangible things they are going to do to make it a reality. It might be ten extra minutes working on a position they struggle with after practice. It might be going to the athletic medicine room to get ice after practice, so their injury recovers more quickly.
Then they have to share their goals with someone else. That person becomes their official accountability partner. Peer pressure works.
You can do the same thing. Tell your friend about a big financial goal you have. Tell them exactly how you are going to get there. Then create a penalty and leave it in the hands of your accountability partner. One of my favorites: if you don’t follow through, you make a political contribution to the presidential candidate you like the least. Give your accountability partner the check, all written out and ready to be mailed. If you don’t do what you said you would, your partner simply drops it in the mail. Saving 10% of your paycheck gets a lot easier when the alternative is mailing $250 to Richard Nixon every year (I hope he doesn’t win).
Later, once you reach a goal, you might need to set a new one. And eventually, yes, you should get more specific and scientific as you get closer. If your goal is to retire in five years, you likely have a much better idea of what you want at that point than twenty years prior, and getting precise is likely much more useful.
A last note: there is still value in getting specific with financial planning. Sometimes the arbitrary goals we set for ourselves won’t get us where we want to go. Going through the planning process can help you understand if you are headed in the right direction. It also identifies ways to reach goals more easily and quickly, whether it is cleaning up your investment allocation, finding ways to save money in taxes, or ensuring your estate plan does what it is designed to do. It can uncover opportunities we didn’t know existed.
And as we continue to do planning over time, it is fun to celebrate the progress. We can shout “Keel!” together as we enjoy well deserved chocolate malts in the vacation home in Arizona you always wanted.
DID YOU ENJOY THESE MUSINGS?
Subscribe to our monthly client newsletter to have future posts delivered to your inbox.