How Short-Term Goals Can Help You Stick to Your Budget

One of the things I learned about myself during our get out of debt journey is that sticking to a budget just because is really, really difficult for me.

I need something else.

Eventually, I figured out that for me, that something else is having GOALS.

But not just long-term lofty goals like “retiring with dignity”.

In all my I-want-it-now immaturity, I need tangible, in-my-face, short-term goals. Goals that are even sweeter than my resistance to The Budget.

During Baby Step 1 and Baby Step 2 of our Total Money Makeover, the goals were easy to come by.

Baby Step 1: Save $1,000. Totally measurable, short-term goal. We got “gazelle intense”, as Dave Ramsey says, and killed that goal in a month. Weee, that was fun! Way more fun than blowing a bunch of money on a bunch of junk we probably didn’t need anyway.

Baby Step 2: Pay off our debts, one by one, smallest to largest. We had a huge mountain to climb, but there were many base camps along the way. Instead of gazing into the blinding sun at the top of the mountain, we just set our eyes on the next camp. Each debt that we passed gave us the energy to keep saying no to ourselves and yes to our budget.

We were willing to live with those extremely tight limits because the satisfaction of hitting our short-term goals was so immediate, so tangible and so very satisfying. The budget didn’t feel like an external nay-sayer; all of a sudden it was our means to an awesome ends. I started loving my budget.

Once we paid off the debts, we had another goal set out for us – Baby Step 3, which is to save 3-6 months of expenses in an Emergency Fund. This is the step where a lot of people get distracted. It takes a long time – usually longer than BS2.

And the immediacy of the goal is less obvious. The budget starts to feel like an arbitrary outsider making your life miserable. And so, people start to slip backwards into their old ways of swipe and spend.

We, thank G-d, avoided this mindset pitfall for two reasons. One, I personally was so awed by what we had accomplished in BS2 that the “endorphin high” carried me at least six months into BS3.

And two, in addition to saving for our Emergency Fund, we were simultaneously saving for two short-term goals: Our third baby’s birth and a 5th anniversary trip to Vegas (done on a huge budget, but nonetheless a huge motivator for a couple who hadn’t spent a night away from their kids since they were born).

We were definitely in ‘scrimp, sacrifice and say no’ mode, but we were okay with it. Because we knew that the rewards – our short-term saving goals – would well be worth it.

Which isn’t to say that the Emergency Fund in and of itself isn’t an incredible goal. It is! The security and peace I feel from that savings account is indescribable. But saving for the EF isn’t short-term for most people. And it’s not always very tangible.

Plus, having an Emergency Fund is a grown-up thing to do. That anti-budget voice inside of me is anything but grown-up.

Now that we have finished our EF and are supposed to be saving (15%) for retirement – and putting aside money for kids’ college (Baby Steps 4 and 5) – it gets harder and harder to keep that budget belt tight.

Having short-term goals keeps us focused on our saver’s mentality. Saying no – or letting the budget tell us no – is a lot easier when we have short-term goals to work toward.

Even when a whole host of temptations abound.

Staying motivated by our use of short-term goals has taught me one of the most fundamental lessons of budgeting: Saying no now means being able to say yes later.

And, as we’ve found, the converse is also true: Saving yes now {often} means having to say no later.

So, no, we can’t have everything we want But, we can, eventually, have the most important things.


  1. Rivky W. says

    what was your grocery budget during baby step 2, if you don’t mind my asking? we are in bs2 and have way more debt than you did and less flexibility to make extra money. we love the snowball but i have a hard time with the grocery budget as we eat so many fruits and veg.

    • Our grocery budget was about what it is now – around $500 give or take a month. That was 1/3 of what it had been! The biggest BS2 thing we did was completely and totally cut life-style. We didn’t even buy gifts for birthday parties. It was hard.core. Email me if you want to bounce ideas around – both about cutting back and bringing in more income (can you sell stuff? garage sale? ebay? Craigslist?) I know it’s so hard and the road is long… but you WILL get there!

      • Chasya-Uriel says

        Mara shalom,

        Ok. So, we are going to try to create a grocery budget. I saw you cut your grocery spending to $500/month. How did you do this?

        We are spending over a $1000/month on groceries and I honestly do not see where to cut. I am not willing to compromise on organic foods for my baby and us.

        But mostly I want to know how did you even create a budget? Meaning, how did you know what you could live on? What if you needed food and your $500 was spent?

        Thank you,

        PS: I would love to hear your ideas about making more money.

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