Writing goals in a notebook
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Financial Goals

Set real goals to see real results

Help your clients set, track, and achieve their financial goals.

  • Situational vs. holistic financial wellness
  • Personal finance playbooks
  • S.M.A.R.T. goals
  • Financial goal worksheet
  • Tracking goals
  • Celebrating wins

Many, if not most, people who engage financial coaches are not doing so out of a general desire to improve their finances. Rather, they go see a financial coach because they have a particular goal they want to achieve. That may be to get out of debt, improve their credit score, buy a home, or pay for their child’s to go to college.

Only 40% of Americans feel they are on track to meet their financial goals and only 62% plan ahead financially.

Common Financial Goals

Financial health indicator 2022
Spending is less than or equal to income 79%
Pay all bills on time 70%
Have enough savings to cover at least three months of living expenses 58%
Are confident they are on track to meet long-term financial goals 40%
Have a manageable amount of debt or no debt 74%
Have a prime credit score 70%
Are confident their insurance policies will cover them in an emergency 57%
Agree with the statement: “My household plans ahead financially.” 62%

Financial Health Pulse® 2022 U.S. Trends Report

Situational vs Holistic Financial Wellness

Personal finances are incredibly holistic in that what you spend at the grocery store today can have a minute impact on your retirement income if you were to invest the difference between the beef tenderloin you wanted to buy and the pork tenderloin you ended up buying. However, you may see eyes glaze over when you are discussing taking advantage of the Roth option in their 401(k) plans while they are looking to get their credit score over 700 in order to get approved for a mortgage as quickly as possible.

While your advice may result in more post-tax income in their retirement years, it will be frustrating for them and they may feel like you are not listening. So, rather than put your client relationship at risk, take the approach of situational financial wellness instead of holistic financial wellness.

They want your advice on their finances but what they really want is to solve their immediate problem (or at least what they perceive that to be).

Personal Finance Playbook

When creating a client’s personal finance playbook, help them first solve the problem they came to you about. Any other approach will likely end with them finding someone else who promises them a solution.

Map out the solution step-by-step with each step being a small, easy to accomplish task. I personally like checking off boxes so my financial coach would do well to literally have a printed list of small steps for me to do that I can keep on my desk (or post on my fridge) and check off with a pen when I finish one.

Don’t make me think about what I need to do next. Make it as simple as possible. (The K.I.S.S. approach is often the right approach.) Keep me focused on doing.

As clients make progress towards their first goal, it will create a positive feedback loop which will make them more excited about hitting the rest of the holistic financial plan. Frame the conversations about the rest of their goals as the logical, and inevitable, next steps after their immediate goal. “Once you close on your new home you will up your 401(k) contributions again.”

Have a series of personal finance playbook templates for common financial goals that you can then personalize for each client. Modifying the playbook while you are meeting with them, and explaining your logic while doing so, will help your clients better understand the details of the plan as well as how it fits into their larger personal financial picture.

If you are creating a debt payment plan for a client, ask them for each account balance, interest rate, and what led to that debt. That helps you, as their financial coach, understand what circumstances and decisions that brought them to their current point and will help you have the conversation in a respectful way where you don't accidentally pass judgement on something outside their control. It also provides a baseline frame of reference to refer back to throughout your coaching engagement.

When discussing forward-looking savings plans, do not assume anything as to your client's financial knowledge. I have had many conversations about investing for retirement where I led by explaining what stocks and bonds are before ever talking about asset allocation. People will politely nod along, but you need to help them understand what they are investing in due to its critical importance to their future.

S.M.A.R.T. Financial Goals

A popular goal-setting framework is S.M.A.R.T. goals. Goals should meet the following criteria:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Assignable
  • Realistic
  • Time-related

Many people have vague goals such as “get out of debt” and “save for retirement”. Both of those are good goals to have but neither meet the S.M.A.R.T. criteria.

There is no question about “get out of debt” as far as what it means and how to measure it. The statement is missing a time-frame and, depending on the time-frame, may or may not be realistic. “Get out of debt by 12/31/24 by putting another $100/month towards my debt payment plan. That will allow me to pay off my lowest balance credit card in three months at which point I will apply what I am paying there towards my next lowest balance credit card.”

It is said that “a goal without a plan is just a hope” and we have turned “get out of debt” from a hope into an actionable and realistic plan.

“Save for retirement” isn’t measurable and time-related in so far as you have picked your retirement date. It also could be more specific as far as the way you are saving for retirement. 401(k)? IRA? Brokerage?

“Save $6,000 in my Roth IRA this year by contributing $500/month in addition to my 401(k) contribution of 8% of my paycheck (which is more than required to get the full match).”

That turns a plan to retire into a retirement plan!

Identifying Goals

You may have meetings with clients who haven’t identified any goals. They may say, “We just want to make sure we are on the right track.” or “We just want a checkup.” That is absolutely okay but my suspicion is that they are really looking to come out of that meeting with some goals and a plan to achieve them rather than just a pat on the back.

Financial Goals Worksheet

My favorite methods in this situation is to use a technique from Tim Ferris called the Dreamline. Here you ask the client (and their partner separately):

  • What are three things you want to have in the next five years?
  • What are three things you want to do in the next five years?
  • What are three things you want to be in the next five years?

Their answers are always insightful and often surprising–not just to you but to their partners as well. There may be some deep conversations between partners after this meeting.

What comes out of this is a set of goals that may have direct financial considerations while others will indirectly require monetary resources. The client can then prioritize these goals while you work them into their financial plan.

Financial Goals Worksheet
Use the Wallet1000 Financial Goals Worksheet to help your clients identify and prioritize their goals.

Tracking goal progress

In my experience, one is significantly more likely to achieve a goal if they track their progress along the way. Actively and visibly is the way to go. That can be in different forms. I mentioned that I like checking boxes and I break my goals down into smaller, actionable steps and write them down. (I use a bullet journal for this.) Each step gets X’d once it is complete.

Financial coaching software can help with tracking financial goals for both the client and yourself. MoneyGuidePro, eMoney, and Wallet1000 all offer a client portal as well as an advisor back-end. Clients can use Mint or other personal finance apps and websites that automatically pull in their account data.

For busy people (and who isn’t?) it is helpful to schedule a time each week to do a mini-personal finance checkup. Review budget and spending, write down account balances, and check in with the partner.


A great financial coach wants their clients to achieve their goals almost as much as the client wants to. To that end, the coach needs to be proactive about checking in with the client and providing timely guidance or even just acting as a sounding board.

Use a CRM to track client interactions and to set follow-up reminders. Regular check-ins will help your clients keep their next steps front of mind.

Dealing with setbacks

Rarely is the path forward an easy one for people in regard to their personal finances. There will be appliances that break, bones that break, and cars that breakdown. Help your clients accept and navigate these setbacks without getting discouraged. In fact, prepare them ahead of time for this by work-shopping a couple of these scenarios. (At Wallet1000 we call them Personal Finance Stress Tests.)

A natural response when a setback occurs is to abandon the plan and to focus all attention and resources on navigating the disaster. It is possible for the latter (focusing on the disaster) to happen without the former (abandoning the plan). Have a conversation with your clients where you say exactly that. “You are working on this issue and let me know if there is anything I can do to help. We should take a moment to revise your financial plan to account for this. You can still achieve your financial goals but let’s push back these dates a bit so that this does not add to your stress.”

Of course, the best way to deal with setbacks is to have an emergency fund in place which is always a good conversation to have.

Celebrating wins

Personal finances are as psychological as they are numerical–perhaps more so. Everything we have touched on so far (identifying goals, breaking them down into actionable steps, tracking progress, regular check-ins) is to make a goal achievable and the client more likely to do just that. At it’s core, financial coaching is about inspiring action. One last way to do that is to celebrate the wins. When a client hits a milestone be sure to send them a note or a postcard that recognizes their accomplishment and the effort they have put in.

Building a positive feedback loop for your clients will increase their dedication and the speed at which they hit each step of the financial plan.

One of the best ways to grow your business is from referrals from clients who no longer need you because you have helped them accomplish not just their immediate goal but also put them on the path to prosperity. When celebrating the wins, you can gently remind your clients that you can help their friends and family succeed financially as well.

Situational to Complete Financial Planning

After your client has achieved the initial goal that your coaching started with, you can use that as the springboard for helping put them on the financial wellness path. Take the opportunity to build them a complete financial plan from A to Z which covers not only the goals that came out of the Dreamline exercise but other common goals as well (college, child’s wedding, new cars, vacation home, etc.). Schedule regular check-ins (never leave a meeting without getting the next one on the calendar) and use a CRM to help you stay on top of all of your client interactions as your business grows. Part of your success as a financial coach is to keep things personal–where you are invested in your client’s success and they know that to be the case.

The initial problem is an opportunity for them to be introduced to the power of financial coaching and for you to build a long-term relationship with a client.

Will Johnson

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