It's that time of year when we make new year's resolutions that we hope to carry to fruition in the months to come. Good intentions, however, are usually not enough. Most of us benefit from having a written plan with guidelines that help us stay focused. This article, from Ron Blue's excellent book Storm Shelter, provides both a healthy dose of motivation, as well as some useful and thought-provoking tools, as you plan for 2011. — AP

In my book Master Your Money, I recounted the story of John Goddard, the man who "wanted to do it all." As a fifteen-year-old boy, Goddard made a list of 127 lifetime goals, including exploring the Nile, climbing Mount Everest, visiting the moon, and starring in a Tarzan movie. When Master Your Money was first published, Goddard had completed 106 of his 127 goals.

His approach — thinking big and listing every dream, no matter how impractical or remote — reflects a shotgun strategy.

As you consider your financial future — especially in light of economic uncertainty — you will want to focus your sights on a series of narrower targets. As you weigh your position, ask yourself some difficult questions:

  • Do I need to accelerate debt repayment?
  • Am I financially flexible enough to handle the loss of a job or an investment?
  • Does my spending reflect concern over economic uncertainty — or am I presuming upon the future?
  • How risk-proof are my investments? What do I depend on them for?
  • Have I planned for future taxes? If I needed to sell an investment, could I meet the tax obligations?

Questions like these help sharpen your perspective on your financial circumstances. They also serve as the foundation for the following five-step process that allows you to create a roster of clearly defined, target-oriented goals.

Five steps to good goals

1. List your goals. Psalm 37:4 says, "Delight yourself in the LORD, and He shall give you the desires of your heart." If you trust Him to do so, God promises to put the right desires in your heart.

Working from this perspective, make a list of your financial dreams and goals. Perhaps you want to start your own business or retire in a place near your grandchildren. Maybe you have two children to put through college. Or maybe you want to be able to enjoy a truly relaxing vacation with your spouse. Would you like to get away? What about those piano or tennis lessons the kids want — have you figured out how to pay for them?

Let your imagination wander. Consider which goals are apt to require financial forethought. As you reflect, ask God to help you establish objectives that will give your life purpose and direction. The list of suggestions included in this article may help you think through your needs and desires.

Having prayerfully considered your goals, make a list of everything you would like to achieve, from career hopes to vacation dreams to savings plans.

2. Consolidate and refine. You have made your list; now check it twice. See if there are things that you have unintentionally jotted down more than once. Perhaps you listed "increase savings" and "build liquidity." You may be able to blend these goals into just one objective. The idea is to refine your list so that it reflects a roster of clearly stated, distinct goals.

3. Prioritize. Some of your goals will obviously be more important than others. Using your consolidated list, evaluate each goal and place it into one of the following categories:

  • Indispensable goals. Examples of "must-do" goals include getting out of bankruptcy or providing for a sick child. Economically, and in some cases physically, the items in this category pertain to your very survival.
  • Important goals. These may include objectives such as buying a home, providing for retirement, or sending a child to college. The things on this list will be high priorities, yet they are not absolutely vital to your survival.
  • Likes and wants. This category is for your desires. Perhaps you are eager to increase your giving percentage, or maybe you want to save for a family vacation. Those kinds of goals fit here.
  • Future dreams. This list is your chance to think big. Do you hope to own your own business someday? Is your heart's desire to go into full-time Christian work — even if it means saying good-bye to your salary? Have you always wanted to take an extended tour through Europe? Economic uncertainty may make dreams like these seem remote, but do not discard them — particularly if your dream is one you feel God has put on your heart.
  • Goals that others think you should have. The final grouping on your list is for those things that other people think you need. You may not agree with the life insurance salesman who thinks you should increase your coverage. You may not see the urgency your mother does when she begs you to settle down and buy a home. You may think your wife is just not visionary enough when she advises you to get out of debt and start saving some money. Even so, if the goal seems remotely logical or legitimate to you, write it down for consideration.

Your individual financial structure will indicate how you group your objectives. Someone who has a number of high-risk investments, for example, may need to put debt repayment or liquidity-building into the "indispensable" category, while someone with little or no debt may consider building liquidity merely as an "important" goal. Likewise, buying a new car may be "important" for the woman whose job depends on reliable transportation while the purchase is only a "want" for the man who is just plain tired of driving his ugly, old clunker.

Once you have listed and categorized your goals, pick your top five priorities. Your list may include twenty-five or fifty objectives; you cannot possibly pursue all or even most of them. Narrow your choices to the five most pressing concerns. This selection process forces you to examine your priorities. Your choices will undoubtedly be driven by your value system and your financial circumstances, and thus your decisions may be marked by tension, especially as you juggle short- and long-term goals.

Suppose, for example, that your resources are limited and you want to save a substantial amount to send your child to college. You are also dying to get away for a much-needed weekend alone with your spouse. Both goals are legitimate. One is a long-term objective. The other is a short-term desire...yet the health of your marriage today will have long-term consequences. It is up to you to weigh the options; sacrificing something will almost always be necessary.

4. Quantify your five goals. Once you have selected your five top priorities, define them in numeric terms. A goal may take a certain amount of time or require a set amount of money. If you cannot quantify a goal, you cannot pursue it effectively.

I wanted to learn to snow ski before my fiftieth birthday; that goal established the time frame I had to work in. Likewise, when Judy and I set goals in 1978, we purposed to increase our charitable giving to more than 15 percent of our income each year. By attaching a numerical percentage to our desire to give, we could recognize and press toward the finish line.

If you want to pay for a college education, figure out how much it will cost and how long you have to save the necessary funds. If going into full-time Christian ministry is one of your top priorities, how much — if any — money will you need to make up for a salary cutback? What percentage of your living expenses will need to come from investment income? Be as specific as you can as you quantify and define your goals.

5. Keep your goals visible. Your goals must be seen easily and often if you hope to stay on the right track. I keep a notebook that includes all the goals that Judy and I have ever written. Others post goals on car dashboards, by kitchen sinks, inside checkbook covers — anywhere they will be seen and remembered. Wallace Johnson, the highly successful cofounder of Holiday Inn, always kept a list of his top ten priorities on a three-by-five card attached to his bathroom mirror.

In addition to keeping your goals visible, you must also plan to take an even closer look at them from time to time. A periodic review is necessary to see which goals need to be revised or eliminated, where additions might need to be made, and which goals may be happily checked off the list and moved into the "accomplishments" category.

A tale of two builders

Nehemiah was an able statesman and a patriotic Jew. Upon learning that the wall around Jerusalem had been destroyed, Nehemiah responded immediately with mourning, fasting, and prayer. Then, with the king's permission, he established a timetable and traveled to Jerusalem to see what could be done to repair the city.

Like Joseph when he set out to secure Egypt's survival, Nehemiah began his job with a reconnaissance mission. He kept his inspection of the city a secret, taking only a few men out to examine the damage under the cover of darkness. Then, having accurately assessed the situation, he established a goal and addressed his fellow Jews: "You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach" (Neh. 2:17). Nehemiah's example offers several characteristics of effective goal setting:

  1. Nehemiah began with prayer and continued to seek the Lord's favor and guidance at every juncture.
  2. Nehemiah could not see the final result, nor did he know exactly how the task was to be accomplished, yet he set a goal and got started in a specific direction.
  3. Nehemiah's goal was quantifiable. He told the king exactly how long he planned to be gone, and then he defined the job to exact specifications. He did not say, "Come, let us rebuild as much as we can." Rather, he commissioned his men to "build the wall of Jerusalem."

Openly ridiculed by their enemies, Nehemiah and his workers pressed on to complete their mission — even under the constant threat of an attack by outside troublemakers. Thanks to his careful, prayerful approach, Nehemiah was able to overcome tremendous opposition and succeed where others had failed miserably. As a result, the entire project was completed in an unbelievable fifty-two days.

Nehemiah's accomplishment was remarkable — yet, at first glance, it might seem to pale in comparison to Solomon's building programs. Reputed to be the wisest man alive, Solomon drew crowds from all over the world. People came to hear him speak — and to view his incredible wealth. All of his household goods were made of gold, from the shields to the goblets. His throne was an astonishing work of intricate luxury. His commercial ventures became legendary, and his fleet of trading ships, chariots, and horses spread his fame around the world.

Yet Solomon was not satisfied. Even his greatest enterprise — rebuilding the elaborate temple in Jerusalem — failed to provide any lasting sense of accomplishment.

Table

In the book of Ecclesiastes, which is commonly attributed to Solomon, the oft-repeated refrain is that "Everything is vanity"; in other words, everything is meaningless. Worldly pleasures, hard work, and even great riches amount to nothing, Solomon wrote. "He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase" (Eccles. 5:10).

The truth in these words, written near the end of Solomon's life, indicates that he eventually woke up to his misplaced ambitions. For the majority of his reign, however, Solomon's primary financial focus seemed to be rooted simply in building and accumulating. The building of wealth became an end in itself — and as Solomon ultimately discovered, the pursuit of riches offered no lasting gratification.

Nehemiah had a quantifiable, tangible task. Solomon did not. Nehemiah enjoyed the satisfaction of realizing his goal in a remarkably short time. Solomon, on the other hand, never had a finish line. As wealthy as he was, he floundered in frustration and the futility of meaningless riches.

As Solomon learned, financial security and satisfaction are not rooted in income level or material achievements. Nor are they exclusively a by-product of prosperous or stable economic times. By focusing on the right set of goals, you can build a secure financial future — even if, like Nehemiah, your "Jerusalem" lies, for the moment, in ruins. By establishing a finish line, you will avoid the temptation to pursue the meaningless riches Solomon described as "vanity."

Husbands and wives: come together at a goal-setting weekend

Setting goals is an ongoing process. You will want to make new lists from time to time, and while your values are apt to remain basically unchanged, chances are your financial circumstances will vary. This shift may make certain goals more — or less — attainable. It will create a new set of financial needs, and as a result, your priorities and goals may differ from month to month, year to year, or decade to decade.

Tension can occur when husbands and wives try to agree on the goals they need to pursue jointly. The mere attempt at effective communication is enough to stop many couples at or near the drawing board.

To cope with this inevitable tension, I recommend at least one annual getaway weekend. Goal setting may be the weekend's ultimate purpose, yet the benefits of such a concentrated time together will inevitably spill over into the relationship itself.

For men, the prospect of two or three days devoted primarily to communicating with their wives is often daunting. What seems perfectly natural in a professional environment — setting goals, discussing plans openly with coworkers, even going on retreats to formulate business strategy — suddenly poses an unfamiliar threat in a one-on-one, husband-wife situation. Communication necessitates vulnerability — which means a husband's independence and status may be at stake.

I remember the early years of our marriage before I became a Christian. The last thing I wanted to do was give Judy any control over my life. I guarded my independence fiercely, never announcing in advance my plans to play golf or anything else lest she try to thwart me. I have come to realize that it takes a spiritually and emotionally mature man to risk giving up his own goals for the sake of the couple's goals and the betterment of his marriage. Women, on the other hand, typically welcome the communication opportunity that a goal-setting weekend presents.

For a woman, the discussion of goals provides direction in the marriage, which is a cornerstone of her deepest need for security. Getting her husband to communicate is a giant step toward getting him to assume responsibility and leadership in the household.

Judy and I have worked our way through several goal-setting weekends, and we have learned that we each must be committed to establishing our goals, rather than creating a matching set of his-and-her objectives. We also recognize that, as we brainstorm through our goals, there are no right or wrong suggestions. There is no need to "win"; rather, we try to come to an agreement in those areas where our thoughts and dreams diverge.

While you may fear the differences of opinion or mismatched priorities that will inevitably be spotlighted by a goal-setting weekend, consider the benefits. In acknowledging your spouse's values and priorities, goals that you once overlooked or forgot may come to the fore and captivate your attention. Reluctant as I am to admit it, I never even considered focusing on our children's education as a goal until I saw it on Judy's list. Of course that was a priority — I only wish I had thought of it first!

A suggested schedule

While our weekends are rarely very structured, Judy and I have developed a sort of routine that allows for a good amount of reflection, communication, and relaxation. Here's what a typical weekend would look like, but remember, this is not a hard-and-fast schedule. It is simply a plan that has stood the test of time and experience in our lives. Feel free to make revisions to suit your individual needs, but remember to allow plenty of time for quality communication. (Worksheets for goal setting and planning weekends are available to download here.)

Friday Evening: Start your weekend with an unstructured evening. Make no attempt to start setting goals; instead, just enjoy talking with your spouse over a relaxing dinner, a leisurely walk, or some other communication-fostering activity. Take time to pray together, even if praying with your husband or wife is a new or unfamiliar activity. The goal-setting process must be grounded in prayer; otherwise, it becomes merely an exercise in wishful thinking or selfish dreaming. Make this focus on prayer the backbone of the entire weekend.

Saturday Morning: Take time apart from one another to set goals as outlined in this article. Do it all — from listing your hopes and dreams to categorizing and quantifying the goals. The only step you should omit is selecting your five top-priority goals; this is a step you and your spouse will work on together.

Saturday Afternoon: With your lists in hand, get together with your spouse and compare notes. This can be a real eye-opening time. Judy and I usually agree on 70 to 80 percent of our goals; we tend to spend most of our time in this session discussing the other 20 or 30 percent. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers. Use this time as an opportunity to recognize and appreciate one another's priorities.

Saturday Evening: Relax. You have done a lot of work, and you may feel mentally or emotionally drained. Saturday evening should be a chance for the information you have garnered to "simmer," while you and your spouse take time simply to enjoy one another.

Sunday Morning: This is the fun — and challenging — part. Remembering that a goal-setting weekend is not a time to establish "my" or "your" goals, prepare to come up with a list of "our" goals. Pick no more that ten objectives. Next, be sure that these goals are well defined, and try to quantify them. Whenever possible, set times, dates, or amounts that will let you know when you've accomplished each goal.

Armed with a list of five to ten goals you and your spouse have agreed to pursue together, you are now ready to establish a strategy for accomplishing them. Congratulations: You have already done the hardest part!

I cannot overstate the importance of prioritizing and clearly defining your goals. With a concrete task in mind, you will flourish; without one, you will flounder — regardless of how financially secure your personal picture may appear.

Your goals will keep you on track, and with the direction and motivation they provide, you can look forward to the peace of mind, sense of fulfillment, and ultimate security that come with knowing you have provided a storm shelter for your family's financial future. End

Ron Blue is the president of Kingdom Advisors. Excerpted from Storm Shelter: Protecting Your Personal Finances by Ron Blue. Copyright © 1994 by Ronald W. Blue. Published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.