Last fall, I reached a huge goal, years in the making: Thanks to investing, side hustling and prioritizing my debt payments, I increased my net worth from negative $60,000 to $0. I wasn’t out of debt yet, but the money I had saved and invested finally equaled what I owed. I felt really proud to finally have a clean slate.
And yet, I also felt overwhelmed. I’d focused so intently on reaching this particular goal that I hadn’t given much thought to what I wanted to work on next, and spent a few weeks spending more and saving less. Without a clear primary goal, I didn’t have the same drive.
Luckily, thanks to some soul-searching and a little expert advice, I eventually got back on track, and am going full steam ahead on my next big goal: paying off all my student debt. Here's how you can level up after meeting your first big goal, too.
Turns out, the aimlessness I felt was normal and, actually, a good thing. If you just spent months or years working toward something, you’ve earned some downtime. In fact, taking your foot off the pedal every once in a while and celebrating your successes can be the exact thing that keeps you from permanently burning out.
The trick is to not let the break become your new normal. “It’s important to keep moving forward, and reflecting on your successes can help you do that,” says Certified Financial Planner Kristen Euretig. “Ask yourself: What can my next goal be, and how can I apply what I’ve learned through my success in reaching this goal?”
When you’re ready, give some thought to what you’ll put your energy into next. If you’re not sure, think in terms of “root causes” in your money life. For example, if you just finished paying off a hefty credit card bill, consider how you got there in the first place. Was it a lack of emergency savings? Unsustainable spending habits? Pinpointing a root cause can help you land on a new goal that addresses the original issue.
After hitting net-worth zero, I was torn between a desire to wipe out $15,000 of student debt, supercharge my investments and save for a big vacation. But I ultimately realized that the biggest thing holding me back was my debt and that by ridding myself of it, I’d have more room to work on other net-worth-increasing goals, like investing. So I focused on that.
While some research suggests unitasking is the key to reaching a goal, the truth is that life doesn’t stand still while you do it. Certain big goals, like investing for retirement or paying off a mortgage, take decades. You have to regularly work toward them over time while simultaneously tackling shorter-term goals.
What’s more, trying to hit several targets—say, saving for a trip, paying down credit card debt and building up a down payment fund—helps you better understand how one choice, purchase or goal impacts others.
For example, you might realize paying off debt frees up money every month, which you can use to save more for other goals—so you dedicate more there for a while. On the other hand, you might decide your travel plans are counterproductive to other goals right now, and that helps you re-prioritize. Life’s about tradeoffs.
While my primary goal right now is paying off my loans (just $4,000 left now!), that’s not all I’m doing. I’m still regularly investing and adding to my emergency fund. Doing so means it’ll take me longer to pay off my loans, but I know that time is my most valuable asset. Waiting until I’m debt-free to invest more could cost me thousands in the long run.
You’ll be more likely to succeed if you think about goals that are personal and specific to you, as opposed to vague statements like “save more” and “spend less.” Instead of saying “pay off debt,” my goal is to pay off my loans so I can afford a family one day. And I’m not just “saving more money”; I’m saving for a trip to Vietnam. By tying my actions to concrete, personal goals, my commitment level is higher because I know exactly what’s at stake.