I got engaged in December of my Junior year in college. My then-boyfriend (and now-husband) led me to believe that my Christmas present that year was a pair of socks. I’m sure he gets a chuckle out of that to this day. Being that I was now an engaged dual-major in Finance and CPA Accounting, it stands to reason that the first thing I did after the holidays was start a savings plan. Newlyweds, after all, need a place to live! And I had it in my head that buying a home was better than renting (though, we all know how that turned out!).

My income during college was both modest and overextended. I had managed to put some savings away, but I had a long way to go to afford a down-payment. To be honest, I wasn’t at all sure that I’d be able to save enough money to meet my goal of buying a home by the time I tied the knot. But that didn’t stop me from trying.

In the end, I did meet my goal. Following our nuptials, we moved right into the condo that we called home for the next 8 years.

The idea of buying a home – right out of college! – was a BHAG (or, a “big, hairy, audacious goal” – a term coined by Jim Collins in his book Built to Last). How did I end up achieving it? It required sticking to a budget, yes. But just as importantly, it required the right mindset. And I’ll share my secret weapon up front: Just Start Saving!

Here are my suggestions for taking down your own BHAG.

Set Mini-Goals for Early Success

From bagels to M&Ms, mini-everything is better. OK – you can disagree with me on the miniature foods. But when it comes to financial goals, mini is absolutely the way to go. The more you break down your large goals into small, manageable ones, the more quickly you can relish your first success! Early success is like rocket fuel for your goals.

This isn’t to say that you’ve failed if you fall short of your goals in the beginning. If you define your mini-goals with a values-based mindset, then there will be little opportunity for failure. A mini-goal could be, for example, “Open a new savings account,” or, “Deposit at least $1 more than last month.” The key here is not to set your goals based on magnitude, bur rather to conceptualize your goals as trends that you are continuously nudging in the right direction.

The process of aligning your goals with your values can be disruptive. Your daily routine can be viewed as a series of mini-decisions. And it is all too easy to allow your daily routine to be dictated by external forces (our jobs, current culture & trends, the opinion of the Joneses, and so on). However, these external forces should take a back seat to our own individual values. And making decisions in defiance of those external forces is a lot of work. But that is all the more reason to celebrate the small successes.

When you’ve taken a step in the right direction, it’s a win. And wins beget wins.

Compromise to Prioritize

I’m not proud, but I consumed a fair amount of Ramen Noodles during that period of my life. I was also known to attend on-campus meetings that involved free lunches. And there was at least one time that I drifted through empty classrooms and collected discarded and forgotten Ticonderogas. These were a few of the things that I chose to compromise on during that period in my life. Sure, I preferred to eat more richly. And I’d much rather take notes with the keen point of a mechanical pencil. But in the big picture, those preferences did not even compare to the notion of owning a home.

If you show me a person who never compromises, I’ll show you a miserable human being who never really gets what she wants. Because to participate in society – to be human – to love – is to compromise. And those who deny this are living in delusion, at best. The things in life that are truly meaningful are the most difficult to achieve. The meaningful achievements require not only work, but sacrifice, and tough decisions around our priorities.

It’s OK to compromise. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that you took a good, hard look at what’s really important to you. And it is a confirmation that you are actively taking action toward your most valued goals.

Mix the Possible with the Improbable

Are you like me? Do you get a rush when you achieve something that people say you can’t? For me, saving up for the down-payment on a home was a little bit planning, a ton of aspiration, and a dash of defiance. The improbability of the goal actually helped drive me toward success.

Few things spur my resolve and creative problem-solving like stretching for an achievement that is slightly out of my reach. This was true for me academically, and has continued to be true for me professionally.

So if your goal seems out of reach, that is all the more reason to start pursuing it today. When you are fueled by the early success stemming from the achievement of your mini-goals. And when you are emboldened by making some tough compromises based on your convictions. Living your day passively is the easy path – but rejecting the status quo to actively pursue your goals is the rewarding path. Embrace the defiance that is smouldering in your belly, and let it motivate you.

Just Start Saving!

I left this ’til last – because if you take away only one thing from this article, I hope it’s this.

Just. Start. Saving.

Start before you really have a chance to dwell on the size of your goal. Start before that little voice in your your head has a chance to list reasons not to. Start before your goal starts to seem unachievable or foolish.

Stash your savings in an interest-bearing account – an FDIC-insured account with the highest interest rate you can find. It doesn’t matter if it’s only $20 a month. Just do it! Two important things will then help propel you toward your goal:

  • The positive momentum you reap from achieving your savings goal each month. This ties into the idea of setting mini-goals. Success will breed success. And the continued success will make you bolder.
  • The power of compounding interest! Once you stash any amount of cash in an interest-bearing account, your money begins not only to earn interest, but also to earn interest on that interest. As your account balance grows, this effect will become more pronounced. It’s basically extra savings you don’t have to work for. (You will likely owe taxes on the interest, though, so be prepared to pony up Uncle Sam’s cut each year.)

The bottom line here is this: Don’t hold off when it comes to pursuing your goals. If you wait until next year to start saving, you are voluntarily putting yourself behind. And if you talk yourself out of starting, you will never have a chance to see what you can achieve.

So… Get Started. Now!

If you have a BHAG, maybe you are trying to figure out how to start. Big goals can be overwhelming – so overwhelming, in fact, that we may talk ourselves out of chasing them. But that’s the only sure path to never achieving them. Really, the key is to Just Start Saving.

Sure, you might fall a bit short of your goal. But if you were trying to save $10,000 in 2 years, and you end up at $8,000, can you really call that a failure? I certainly wouldn’t! That’s $8,000 more than you would have had if you never started. Plus a priceless scope of experience that will help you in the next 2 years, and beyond.

So… Start! And just build on your successes.

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