31 Days to Financial Independence (Day 29): Handling Changing Goals

31 Days to Financial Independence” is an ongoing series that appears every Thursday on The Simple Dollar. You might want to start this series from the beginning!

Last time, we discussed the “long valley” – the period when the “honeymoon” wears off during a personal change yet you’re still far from your goal. That period can be incredibly psychologically trying, so having tools in place to help you deal with that long and often unexciting journey is incredibly important.

Today, we’re going to take a deep look at a major problem that often happens when you’re journeying through the “long valley” – a change in goals. What exactly do you do if you’re well into your financial journey and you suddenly realize that you no longer want to achieve the goal you’ve been approaching for so long? What about all of your progress? How do you reset?

I’ll share a bit of my own story in this regard. In about 2004 or 2005, I honestly believed I’d be working in a research lab for the rest of my life. I genuinely, truly loved the work that I was doing and the people I was working with at the time. I was planning my life accordingly by building lots of good relationships with people in the field. I was considering going to graduate school while working in that lab, too, and actually had a plan in place to finish my master’s degree and even work toward a doctorate.

Over the next three or four years, everything changed.

For starters, my wife and I had a child, then another child. I suddenly became far more aware of my travel and how much time I was spending away from my children.

The nature of my work changed, too. The level of bureaucracy rose substantially as the amount of maintenance involved with my project went up and the relative level of innovation went down. I enjoyed the innovation part; I didn’t enjoy the maintenance part.

The Simple Dollar also happened. I started it as a complete side gig in 2006 to chronicle my own financial journey and something about it clicked with an audience. That meant it was bringing in some solid revenue, if not enough to replace my normal income, within a couple of years.

When 2008 rolled around, I began to realize that my long-term goals were drastically changing. My goals were now very oriented around my children and around building The Simple Dollar and retiring early, rather than around what was presumably my main career at the time. My financial goals had shifted from having a super house to things like financial independence.

How did I deal with those changes? Well, let’s talk about what I learned from that experience.

Exercise #29: Handling Changing Goals

People change over time. We have new experiences. The contours of our life change. People come in and people go out. We learn new things. The world changes a little – or sometimes a lot.

In the midst of all of that change, it’s not surprising that our goals sometimes change. The things we viewed as central goals a few years ago might drift away. They may still seem important, but other things have become the central priority.

This happened with me when my children were born. They became a higher priority for me than many things that had existed before in my life. That change wasn’t immediately clear, but it came into focus slowly over their infancy and toddler years. My family began to supercede my career path, in other words.

Those kinds of changes are wonderful, but they can also be very challenging when they clearly represent a change in goals you’ve been working hard to achieve over the past several years. I worked hard to build a strong reputation and foundation for a career. Would it all just go away?

What good is working toward a big goal if it will just change and fade away as I grow?

Here’s how to tackle that conundrum.

Reassess your goals frequently. A month in your life should not pass without spending some time thinking deeply about your goals. Where do you want to be a year from now? Five years from now? Ten years from now?

Much of the first part of this 31-day process was centered around the process of figuring out and defining goals, but that’s not just a single one-time process. It’s a process that needs to be revisited regularly. It’s not something you just “do” once and then walk away from it. It’s something that you think about and come back to and keep in touch with.

Why is this kind of reassessment so important? It allows you to really deeply understand your goals and feel strongly motivated by them, for starters. The more time you spend without thinking deeply about your goals, the less relevant they become and the easier it becomes to start living life without any direction in mind.

Perhaps even more important, however, is how such reassessment helps you be aware of how your life is changing and enables you to start tweaking and even changing your goals so that they remain relevant in your life. Part of the reason that goals become stale without regular reflection is that those older goals are actually just the goals of an older version of yourself, not the version of yourself that you see today. The more time you wait, the greater the difference beween the person who defined those goals and the person you are right now.

So, here’s your action point. At least once a month (and hopefully more frequently), spend some significant time thinking about your goals and whether they still make sense. You don’t have to sit at home in some meditative state to do this. Just do it when you’re commuting or when you’re waiting at the doctor’s office. However, it should be real time and not just a cursory thought. Ask yourself what you want your life to look like in the future at various points, and whether you’re doing things that make sense with regards to that picture.

If you sense your goals are changing, that’s okay. It is quite possible to transition the progress for most goals into something useful for your new goals.

Another key element of this is to understand the key elements and values in your life to which your goals are anchored. In other words, what values have you held true for your entire life? What has remained important to you during that entire process?

For me, two things have really remained as solid values throughout my entire life.

One is strong family ties. I still feel really close to my parents and value time spent with them and the wisdom they impart. Even as a child, I wanted to have a strong close-knit family around me, a feeling that has never wavered and is stronger than ever.

The other is self-learning. I have loved to learn new things, ever since I was tiny. Some of my earliest memories are of reading books or learning things from my parents. I relish self-education and self-improvement and I do not view a day as really complete unless I’m engaging my mind in learning something new or fleshing out a skill. Again, this has held true throughout my life.

If I look at my life through those lenses, almost every goal I have ever held for myself has been anchored firmly by those two values. My career choices, my personal choices, and almost everything else have been oriented around my love for close family ties and my love for self-learning and self-improvement. I can’t see them ever changing (though they might morph a little bit over time).

Knowing that, I know that I am pretty safe when I do things that are oriented toward stronger family ties and that are oriented toward self-learning and self-improvement. Almost any goal that I choose for myself in life will be strongly tied to those factors going forward, so when I choose to strengthen those things, I know I’ll continue to appreciate that choice in the coming years, even if the specifics of my goals change.

So, here’s another action point for you. What are your anchor values? What things have you really held to be true and important for you throughout your life? They should not be things that other people expect from you or things that feel like burdens. They should be things that you feel naturally, magnetically drawn to. They should be things that you feel are unquestionably true for you. They should be things that you have always felt as true and have never wavered in that. They should be things that keep popping up again and again in your choices, even if it wasn’t intentional.

Whatever those things are, you know that you have a strong foundation for understanding what all of your life goals have in common, now and in the future, and you know what elements of your life you can always work on and develop regardless of how the specifics happen to change in your life.

As you’re planning for any goal – and taking actions to make that goal successful – keep in mind that the best steps you can take early on in working toward a goal are transferable steps.

What are “transferable steps”? They’re the elements of a plan that can easily be used to provide equal progress toward other goals. Some things you do in life are very transferable, whereas other actions aren’t nearly as transferable.

When you figure out what your goals are, one of the first things you’re going to ask yourself is what you can start doing right now to achieve that goal. There will usually be lots of options before you. It’s smart to prioritize the choice that will apply well to lots of other goals.

Again, I think an example makes a great deal of sense.

Let’s roll the clock back to 2003 or 2004, when I was really focused on the dream of building a career in my particular research field. What things could I be doing to build that career? Obviously, earning a higher degree in that particular area of research would be one powerful step. Making lots of friends within the field is another powerful step.

There are lots of additional steps, too. If I’m looking at graduate school as an middle-term goal for myself, then saving up some money for graduate school is a smart move. Keeping myself educated on changes in my field is a smart move, too, and it offers the additional benefit of sharpening my self-education and lifetime learning skills.

(I could list a lot of potential things I could do, but this handful is enough to illustrate the point.)

At the time, I put a strong priority on building relationships within my field. I joined some professional organizations and scored a really nice committee spot that helped me build some great relationships with some real leaders in my field.

However, that step didn’t provide a whole lot of help with my goals when they started to change. It helped me build some communication and relationship-building skills, but the actual relationships weren’t particularly valuable when our life paths started to move in different directions.

Instead, what I should have done is put a high priority on the things that would have transferred well. I should have focused on getting myself financially ready for a few years in graduate school, because the financial preparation and money that I saved would have been very useful regardless of what I chose to do. I should have focused on keeping on top of changes in my field, as that would have sharply honed my lifetime learning skills, which have been useful in almost every transition in my life.

In short, actually spending less than you earn and improving your financial state is a killer preparation step regardless of your specific goal. You are almost never going to fail your future by getting rid of debt and putting aside money. There is almost no goal you could have going forward that doesn’t shoot off like a rocket due to having that in hand.

In general, the more specific you get with your savings strategy, the less useful it becomes to shifting goals. If you’re saving for education or retirement, for example, and lock your money into education or retirement accounts, you’ll face a financial penalty if your goals change. That’s not to say you can’t do this, but generally such specific accounts offer tax benefits for using the money in that account toward that specific goal and tax penalties for using that same money toward other goals. So, in general, it’s a good idea to focus on things like debt repayment during the early steps of progressing toward a goal because debt freedom helps with almost every goal under the sun. If you’re ready to save, give some priority to more flexible savings options. Yes, you might miss out on some tax advantages, but you’ll avoid some big tax disadvantages. Don’t lock into advantaged accounts until you’re strongly confident of your direction.

Similarly, steps that build transferable skills are always strong preparation steps regardless of where your goals may lead you. Transferable skills include things like knowing how to teach yourself a new topic, time management skills, information management skills, personal organization, self-motivation, writing skills, public speaking skills, relationship building, conversational skills, and so on. You’ll use those skills in almost everything you do in life.

What about relationships? Relationships can be valuable, but the most valuable relationships you can build are with people who have stature in multiple communities that you’re connected to. For example, if you know someone who has a strong presence in your workplace and also participates in a civic group that you’re in, that’s a person to build a relationship with. If you know someone who is active in your house of worship and also active in another group that you’re in, get to know that person well. If you see someone popping up in the community a lot under different contexts, reach out and start building a relationship. Those relationships will continue to have value even as your goals transition.

You can find these people by getting more involved in diverse groups. Don’t put all of your social eggs into one basket. If all of your relationships are related to your current career path, you’re in a bad situation if your goals shift away from that career path. If all of your relationships are connected to your house of worship, you’re in a pickle if your beliefs begin to change. Take the time to join a variety of groups. Be involved in groups connected to your profession, as well as groups in your physical community. Join a civic group and check out groups on Meetup related to your personal interests.

So, here’s another action point. Look at your goal through the lens of transferable steps, and take action on those steps first. What things can you do that move you toward your goal but will still be helpful if your goal changes over time? Make those things your first steps.

Pay off your debts. Optimize your bills. Save in ordinary accounts that can be used for any purpose without penalty. Build up transferable skills. Build relationships with people that have stature in lots of communities. Get involved in lots of groups so that you can build relationships with people that you have multiple things in common with. Those steps will help you no matter what your specific goals happen to be.

If you take those steps in accord with goals that are well-anchored in your life, you’re going to find that you’re ready for anything that happens. As your goals change – and they will – you will start to have this strong sense that you’re already halfway there with regards to that goal, because you are halfway there.

I like to think of these steps as building a strong foundation. You can build all kinds of different houses on a really well built foundation, and if you ever decide you want a different house, you can continue to rely on that foundation. It means that half the work is already done and half of the cost is already invested in that new house.

On the other hand, if you take actions that are all about the house and not about the foundation, when you decide you want something new, you have to start from scratch all over again.

Start with the foundation. You’ll make real progress toward your goals, but just as important, you’ll make real progress toward any goal you might have going forward.

Next time, we’ll take a look at getting your partner and your family on board with financial change.

31 Days to Financial Independence: The Complete Series

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.