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Financial planning

How to choose long-term financial goals—and plan for them

Illustration of a figure jumping over hurdles on a track.

Time is your ally when it comes to achieving your financial dreams. Many goals that would be out of reach if you tried to accomplish them within a year or two can be attainable if you work toward them steadily over a longer stretch of time. The first step is identifying your personal long-term financial goals, then establishing a plan.

Choose financial goals for the long run

When you think about setting good long-term financial goals for yourself, try to come up with ones that will benefit you or others further down the road. Once you have a few different ideas, ask yourself these questions about each one to help you weigh whether you think they're worth committing to.

  • Is this a goal that will push you? Set your sights on things that you're strongly motivated to pursue.
  • Will you care about this goal in the future? Things that seem important now might be just an afterthought in 15 or 20 years. For instance, you might not be interested in owning a bigger home once your kids have grown up and moved out.
  • Is this goal in line with your values? Listen to your heart, and don't pick a goal based solely on what others are doing or what statistical averages might suggest.
  • Can you realistically achieve it? Consider how long it might take to reach your objective. If a goal would require you to keep working full-time into your 90s, it's probably not something you want to count on. Similarly, if you couldn't achieve a goal unless there are dramatic changes in the economy or the stock market, it's likely too risky.
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Take action: Six common goals and tactics

After identifying a goal, you're ready to come up with a plan and take action. It's okay to only take small steps at first. Pursuing long-term financial goals is all about staying dedicated to your vision for your future and making progress bit by bit.

Financial priorities are highly personal, and how you go about attaining them will be, too. But common ones include:

  • Paying off a mortage.
  • Managing your debt.
  • Saving for retirement.
  • Sending kids to college.
  • Giving to charity.
  • Protecting yourself and loved ones with insurance.

Here's a look at a few different tactics for achieving those and similar money goals you may have in mind.

1. Early mortgage payoff

Paying off your mortgage sooner than scheduled allows you to build equity faster. Plus, once you get to the finish line of fully owning your home, you no longer have to make mortgage payments, and you can put that money toward another purpose. Just make sure your lender doesn't charge a prepayment penalty. That's a fee when you pay all or part of your mortgage off early.

Once you get the green light, you have a few strategies to choose from. One is to pay extra each month. Ask your lender to apply your extra payments to the loan principal, and you'll gradually chip away at what you owe. This won't dramatically cut your loan balance, but it's a doable method of paying off your mortgage a little more rapidly.

Another possibility is to refinance to a mortgage with a shorter term. This requires paying closing costs on a new home loan, which will typically add up to 3%–6% of the amount you still owe on your mortgage. So it makes sense to do this at a point in time when you can get a better interest rate, like when rates are low throughout the economy or your credit score has gone up.

2. Debt paydown

You may want to try to lower your debt so you have less interest to pay and more money for other things.

It's a good idea to find out the interest rates on any credit cards you have and on any student loans, auto loans or personal loans you hold. Consider paying down the credit lines with the highest interest rates—your most expensive debt—by prioritizing the minimum monthly payments on those accounts. Whenever you're able, pay above the minimum. This snowball debt payment calculator can show you how extra dollars toward your payments can help you reach your goal. Also, look for ways to save on interest. For example, you might get a better rate by refinancing an auto loan, or you could consolidate some high-interest accounts with a less expensive personal loan.

If you get any unexpected funds, like a tax refund or a cash gift, take the opportunity to pay down your principal balances even further.

Most importantly, try to avoid taking on more credit card debt while you're working to bring your balances down. Look at your spending categories, and check whether you're using your cards wisely.

3. Money for retirement

If you build up an adequate nest egg, you could have more money to spend on travel or hobbies in your retirement years. Sufficiently funding your retirement can also give you more of a cushion in case you have unexpected medical bills or have to pay for caregiving as you age.

Use a retirement income calculator to figure out how much you'll need after you stop working. Keep in mind that the average person's retirement lasts 20 years and that you'll likely want to replace 70%–90% of your preretirement income.

Make sure you're enrolled in a 401(k) plan if your employer offers it, or think about opening an individual 401(k) if you're a solopreneur. And consider setting up an individual retirement account (IRA) to further grow your savings. You can contribute up to $6,000 each year to an IRA, or $7,000 if you are above age 50. But even if you can't put in the full amount, contributing a little each year toward your retirement gives you the benefit of compound earnings that add up over time.

Aim to build a balanced retirement portfolio that's split among different assets, like exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and bonds. If you hold diverse investments, you don't face as much risk to your savings when one of them dips in value.

And try to resist the temptation to tap into your retirement savings early. Ideally, you want your money to stay in a designated account so you reap tax advantages, avoid paying penalties and get to watch your funds earn a rate of return.

4. Saving for college

Saving for a child's college education can help them get a good financial start in life. If you begin when they're young and contribute toward this goal each year, you could have some solid savings tucked away by the time they're ready to move into a dorm.

Consider opening a 529 account, which is an educational savings account that offers tax advantages. Every state sponsors a 529 plan, and these programs typically give you a choice of investments like ETFs and mutual funds.

Another option is using a Coverdell education savings account, which can make gearing up to pay college tuition a bit easier. You can put up to $2,000 a year into a child's Coverdell account, and you don't have to pay taxes on investment earnings or withdrawals as long as you only take the money out for an approved educational purpose.

5. Charitable support

Donating to charity or spending a significant amount of time volunteering might be meaningful goals to work toward. Putting your values into action helps others and can give you a sense of fulfillment that transcends dollars and cents. While you may already be supporting causes you care about, larger gestures like significant donations might take some time to achieve.

Start by identifying a cause you'd like to support, and think about how you could make a difference that lasts into the future. You might want to save up to make a larger monetary donation or donate property like a used car. Another option is to contribute with your time. For example, you could consider planning to retire three months early and spending those last three months of your career in a full-time volunteer role.

Figure out how much money you'd need to set aside each year to bring your dream to fruition, and see how that fits into your budget. Think about whether there's anything you're willing to postpone or do without so you can make it happen. For instance, you might want to take a staycation rather than a trip across the country and put the money you save toward your charitable goal.

In addition, you may want to set up a dedicated savings account just for this purpose.

6. Insurance coverage

It's hard to guess what life will bring over the years, but you can strive to stay prepared for whatever comes your way. Take stock of your insurance policies, and make sure you've covered the basics. In addition to mandatory coverage like auto insurance, you may need to buy health insurance, disability insurance, homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance. If your loved ones are counting on you financially, buying life insurance is a good way to set up a safety net for them in the event you're no longer here for them. And depending on your lifestyle, you might want other types of policies such as pet care insurance, motorcycle insurance or small-business insurance.

Your insurance needs can change over time, so it's best to review your policies regularly and see if you're missing anything important. For example, you may want to buy term life insurance in your 20s or 30s while setting a goal to purchase long-term care insurance later in middle age.

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Plan—it's worth it

Choosing long-term goals that make sense for you may take some thought, but it's well worth it to make the effort and pave the way for greater financial well-being later in life. Consider connecting with a financial advisor who can help you identify good long-term goals and show you strategies for achieving them.

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