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Prioritizing your financial goals when your needs outweigh your resources

Woman balancing as she walks across a log.

How’s your balance these days? Not the physical kind but your ability to manage all the many demands on your finances. Like saving for retirement while managing your day-to-day bills (with inflation) and saving for your children’s education. It can be confusing and overwhelming trying to figure out how to balance your priorities.

“There are going to be conflicting priorities, no matter what stage of life you’re in,” says Myles Huether, a Thrivent financial advisor in Rapid City, South Dakota.

And it will be different for every family, too. You may have a mortgage to pay, donations to make, retirement to save for, music lessons for the kids, and a new car in the not-too-distant future. Your neighbors, however, may want to pay off student loans, build their retirement savings, and put away money for a cabin in the woods.

“The conflicts are usually a case of needing to take care of immediate needs while also saving for long-term ones,” says Matt Huether, Myles’ brother and also a Thrivent financial advisor.

Because you likely have limited resources, you have to make some choices. Here are some ideas to make that process easier.

Define your core priorities

No matter what stage of life you’re in (see “Financial stages of family life,” below), managing conflicting goals starts with deciding what’s most important to you. For many people, that includes several non-negotiable items:

  • Giving. For Myles Huether’s clients Jerry and Tina Rank from Black Hawk, South Dakota, giving always has been a core value, one that’s not negotiable. “We’ve always tithed,” says Jerry. “And we wanted our three kids to see that giving is important as they grew up.”

  • Protecting your family. “Having adequate protection is how you can control the impact of things that occur in life that are out of your control, like an injury from a car accident or needing treatment for cancer,” says Autumn Keller, a Thrivent wealth advisor in Helena, Montana. “You don’t want to slide backward financially when things happen to you.” Protection includes having insurance for your car, health, life and in the case of disability. “Protect as much as you need or want to protect,” says Leslie Talbot, a Thrivent senior product marketing specialist. “The goal is to have enough but not more than you need.”

  • Saving for retirement. Start as early as you can, says Myles Huether, even if you can only put aside a small amount, because there’s a time value when it comes to investments that you can’t get back when you delay. Years ago, Talbot was advised to prioritize retirement savings. Another of her foundational goals was to pay for her children’s education expenses so they wouldn’t be saddled with debt. To make both of these goals happen, Talbot made the conscious decision to work more years, postponing the age at which she planned to retire, and put away money for their education. At the same time, she continued to set aside some money for retirement.

  • Building an emergency fund. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to do this,” says Keller. She encourages all her clients to make saving for an emergency fund part of their foundational priorities. “But how much you have in it is a very personal decision,” she says. “Some people are OK with having $3,000 or $4,000 in it, while others don’t feel comfortable until they have $50,000 set aside.”

Set your current financial goals

When considering your financial goals, identifying them is more important than how many you choose. For example, you might set goals to pay off a student loan, give more to your church or favorite causes, get rid of credit card debt, save for a family vacation, or put money toward retirement.

While you and your partner don’t have to agree on them, finding common ground is key. Your goals should be how you define them, not what someone is trying to force on you. Everyone’s priorities are different.

Jerry and Tina Rank review their goals frequently, including their core ones: tithing, saving for retirement and making it possible for their kids to graduate debt-free from college. In addition, they set a goal of traveling to all 50 states as their kids were growing up. Their youngest is 16, and they’ve visited every U.S. state.

They’ve had conflicts about their goals. “There were times when I wanted to save,” says Tina, “and Jerry wanted to spend.” But they always worked them out and saw their conflict resolution as a blessing, as each helped the other come to the middle ground.

People often get more disciplined about spending when they see the potential power of saving. There’s no substitute for savings, even if it’s a small amount.
Autumn Keller, Thrivent wealth advisor

Find money to save

Once you’ve defined your core priorities and set your current financial goals, Keller recommends taking the next step: Get clarity on your current cash flow by examining the last three months of expenses.

“Look at where your money is going,” she says, “with no judgment.”

Once you know where you’re spending, you can make choices about where you might want to make changes and free up money that you can put toward your current goals. Even small changes that allow you some financial flexibility instill a sense of empowerment around your finances.

“People often get more disciplined about spending when they see the potential power of saving,” says Keller. And when that happens, you might just free up even more money. “There’s no substitute for savings, even if it’s a small amount.”

Decide what financial goals to support

Once you’ve defined your goals and figured out ways you may be able to free up some money, it’s time to decide how you’ll use those funds to support your goals. If you have several, you may not have to choose just one over the others.

“A lot of times people think it’s an either/or situation, such as pay down debt or save for retirement or college,” says Keller. “People hear suggestions that you shouldn’t do this until you do that. And sometimes that’s the case, but it’s not always an either/or. I like to talk with clients about what their goals are—let’s say there are three or four—and then see how we can make them all happen.”

For long-term goals, like retirement or education expenses, there are a variety of ways to save that help maximize your contributions no matter how small they are. Some also may have tax advantages, which could, in essence, free up more money. A financial advisor and tax professional can help you decide what’s best for your situation.

If your goal is to pay down debt—from credit cards and student loans, for example—there are several ways to tackle that. You could pay down the lowest balance first, and then the next lowest, and so on. This appeals to some people because it feels good to see one debt zeroed out. Also, having a bit of success encourages sticking with the goal.

Keller prefers the approach that has you addressing the debt with the highest interest rate first. But it’s a personal choice, and it’s important you do what feels right for your situation, she says. The key is to work toward it and be patient.

If you want to increase your giving or be more consistent about it, there are several options that could accomplish that and provide some potential tax savings (which is another way to free up money). Consider making cash donations, giving stocks or creating a donor-advised fund.

When your efforts can pay off

At some point you may find yourself in another version of the balancing act: what to do with surplus money. It can happen, says Keller, when you’ve reached some of your long-term goals, after your kids have grown up and left home, or when you’ve inherited some money.

“That’s when clients can face another kind of potentially conflicting priorities scenario as they wonder what to do with that surplus,” she says. “For example, should I increase my giving, pay down my mortgage, put more into retirement, take that dream vacation?”

Again, it’s a different answer for each individual. Keller recommends taking two steps before making any decision: Revisit your core values to remind yourself of what’s most important to you and then consider how much of the surplus you want to have in the bank and accessible.

After that, you have the fun of deciding what goals the surplus should support. Keller has guided a number of clients in exploring the possibilities. “We look at options that are tailored to their innate core values, so it’s an extension of what they’ve been working on with their goals.”

While you strive to find the right balance to reach your financial goals for whatever stage you’re in, don’t leave happiness and contentment out of the equation, caution Myles and Matt Huether.

“Sometimes people think they have to use every penny to work toward their goals, like saving for retirement,” says Matt, “and they don’t allow themselves to enjoy life today. That’s when we try to help them understand that it’s also important to live a happy life, and doing so now will help them down the line.”

gold line

Financial stages of family life

As you move in and out of various stages of life, some financial priorities may remain constant. But others may be on or off your radar, depending on your stage of life.

According to Autumn Keller, a Thrivent wealth advisor in Helena, Montana, those stages and the priority conflicts you might face while in them include:                  

Young adults first starting out

You’ve earned your independence, and with that comes responsibility and recurring bills, like rent and utilities. You might have student loans to repay. You may be considering a new car. A new job might offer a retirement savings plan and the opportunity for you to contribute and take advantage of an employer match.

Family with young kids

You may have a mortgage. There are day care costs and escalating food bills. You might need a bigger car or a second car. You hope to take family vacations. And you want to save for future education costs for your kids, retirement and emergencies.     

Family with older kids

Day care costs give way to sports and music camps, family vacations and other enriching life experiences. While enjoying your family and supporting your favorite causes, you’re also saving for education and planning for retirement. At this stage, you also may be providing some financial support to aging parents.                        

Empty nesters

Your kids are grown, your expenses have shifted, and you may feel like you got a raise because you now may be experiencing a bit of surplus. Your priorities might be to pay off debt, save for retirement and maybe take a special vacation. And perhaps you’d like to help your kids get married or purchase their first home. But you also might have aging parents who need some financial support.  
               

Approaching retirement

An exciting time that also can be stressful. You may be working on becoming debt-free or already achieved it, but you’re also coming to the end of your earning years so you’re continuing to build your retirement savings, planning for future tax efficiencies, and thinking about what you can save to leave as a legacy.                      

Retired

As you navigate the sometimes-startling shift from earning to spending, you’re laser-focused on your lifestyle and hopefully doing what you’d dreamed of at this stage. You may experience some surplus as required minimum distributions kick in. And you may have some unexpected expenses, from family members in need to health crises. Your priorities are to protect what you’ve built while still supporting the people and causes you care about.

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How Thrivent can help

Thrivent financial advisors have a variety of resources, including the interactive MoneyGuidePro financial advice tool, which takes information from your unique scenario to give recommendations that can help you reach your financial goals.

If you are looking for help with your finances, consider Money Canvas™, a free one-on-one coaching program offered by Thrivent to help people see their money in a new way and build healthier budgeting, spending and saving habits.

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The client’s experience may not be the same as other clients and does not indicate future performance or success.

Thrivent and its financial advisors and professionals do not provide legal, accounting or tax advice. Consult your attorney or tax professional.
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