Make Visual Reminders of Your Personal Finance Goals

A long time ago, I wrote a brief article about creating a visual debt reminder, something that will help motivate you towards getting rid of debt. Since then, I’ve found myself using such reminders all the time for keeping my finances in order.

The Psychology of the Reminder
A reminder? If a goal is really important to us, why would we need a reminder?

It’s simple. Most of us have really busy lives, and in order to actually make those lives work, we have to adopt some serious routines. If you have only thirty minutes after you wake up and before you’re leaving for work, those thirty minutes are going to have to involve some serious routine – showering, brushing your teeth, eating a quick breakfast, doing one or two other little things, then bolting out the door.

Similarly, any person with children knows how many routines have to go into their life in order to prevent complete chaos from breaking out. There’s a meal routine, a nap routine, a bedtime routine, and so on.

Even our lives out and about are filled with routines – we shop at certain places, get gas at certain places, use the same routes to get places, and so on.

The real kicker is that breaking these routines is hard. Often, it’s not so much the individual act that’s the problem – it’s remembering that individual act and finding a place for it in that busy routine.

For example, I’m trying to find space in my daily routine to (slowly) work up to being able to run a 5K. The problem is, with a thriving writing career, two young children, a marriage that needs care and feeding, a number of other commitments, and personal interests as well, it’s hard to find space for the training.

So I’m using a reminder. I have a single bright note right on my desktop where I can’t miss it that says, “Have you worked towards the 5K today?” I look at it several times a day and, usually the first time I see it, it motivates me to get up and do something to get myself in better shape.

Ten Great Reminders
Different reminders work well for different people and different situations, though. Here are ten things you might want to use in your own situation.

progress1. The Progress Bar
This works great if you have a specific numerical goal in mind – for example, you have a certain dollar amount that you’re wanting to save, a certain amount of debt that you’re looking to repay, or a certain weight that you’d like to reach.

It’s simple: just bust out a piece of graph paper (like this one). Figure out what number you’re targeting and what number you’re at now. Then, break the difference between the two down into equal pieces. So, let’s say you have $17,000 in debt and want to pay it all off. You might break it into 17 pieces – $1,000 each – or 34 pieces – $500 each – or 85 pieces – $200 each. Let’s say you want to go from 214 pounds to 180 pounds. You might break that into 34 pieces – 1 pound each. You get the idea.

Then count out a line of that many squares in the middle of the paper, then draw a big box around those squares, similar to what you see on the right here. Write the starting number on the left or bottom of the bar, then the finishing number on the top or right of the bar. You can even write in the increments if you want, or just note what each square is worth.

Then put this reminder somewhere where you’ll see it all the time – on the fridge, for example. It’ll serve as a reminder of your progress – plus, it’ll be quite fun when you make some forward progress and get to fill in a square on that bar.

2. The Pointed Note
This is the technique I’m using for my 5K goal. Just write yourself a very pointed note – “What have you done today to move forward on X?” and put it somewhere where you’re going to bump into it over and over again.

This is perfect for a goal where you need to make a bit of active effort each day – like athletic training. It might be easy at first to simply forget about it during a busy day, but that note forces it into the forefront of your mind.

The key is to make the note pointed – it needs to prod you into taking action – and put it in a place where you’ll be reminded of it with ease every day – or at least each day that you’ll need the reminder.

Some ideas for this kind of reminder: a reminder to network, a reminder to engage in athletic activity, a reminder to take another discrete step on a big project.

Pensilvania farm.  Photo by chefranden.3. The Big Picture
One of my biggest goals in life is to own a house out in the country on a few acres. I’d like a good-sized yard with plenty of room for a vegetable and herb garden and a small barn in the back somewhere to effectively function as a large shed. I might even raise a few chickens on it – who knows!

To keep this in mind, my desktop wallpaper is an image of a nice house in the country with a small barn and a windmill. Whenever I see it, I know what my big goal is.

This can work for any big goal that requires continual multi-dimensional effort to reach. It might be a country home, or it might be any number of other things – a great career, an amazing car, or a happy marriage. Find a picture that signifies exactly what you want, then put it in places where you’ll be reminded of it time and time again.

That little boost will push you, more often than not, just when you need it.

4. The Effort Tracker
As I start jogging more and more, I find that keeping careful track of my efforts and recording them somewhere is very powerful. I have a Nike+ iPod setup that makes it very easy to record my efforts, keeping track of each run in very careful detail, as well as my best mile and my overall averages.

This type of data is incredibly psychologically powerful. When I finish a jog, I can’t wait to go look at my data. Did I get a new “best mile”? Did my average go up (it usually does)? Did I manage to maintain a steady pace?

Putting this “effort tracker” front and center makes it easy to keep up with my goal. The same is true for any such tracker. Perhaps you use Quicken to monitor your money? Have it start when you start up your computer. Maybe you use a spreadsheet to keep track of your weight? Have that spreadsheet appear on startup. That way, you’re faced with all of that data and all of that forward progress – and psychologically, you want to keep it going.

5. The Public Notice
Constant peer pressure can be a very effective reminder of your goals. If everyone around you knows that you’re attempting to quit smoking, they themselves will become reminders, encouraging you to quit, complimenting you on your good choices, and so on.

Thus, one way to create some powerful reminders around you for your goal is to simply email as many people as you can and tell them in detail about your goal. Tell them what you want to achieve and ask them for their help in getting you there. Ask them to steer you straight if they see you having problems, and apologize in advance if you don’t handle their help well (since such goals can be psychologically stressing).

Once you’ve done this, everyone knows about your goal and you’ve given them all permission to be your reminders. Thus, their mere presence becomes a reminder of what you want to achieve.

You can take this another step and combine the goal tracking with your public notice. Create a blog or a Twitter account to talk about your goal in detail, mentioning your progress with specific data, then ship the URL for that blog or Twitter account to your friends so they can keep tab on your progress (and leave positive comments).

6. The Pestering Email
Another way to keep you on focus is to have an automatic email service pester you with reminders by email of your goals. I do this myself, with Google Calendar. I set various target dates in my calendar, then order the calendar to remind me by email of these goals. Sure enough, they pop right into my email inbox, reminding me quite clearly to keep up with a particular project.

For example, let’s say you want to really grow your professional network. Go into Google Calendar, schedule an entry on Friday to “send an email to an old work associate,” then add a reminder 4 days, 3 days, 2 days, one day, and one hour in advance. Then, schedule it to repeat. Each day, you’ll have a reminder telling you to send an email to a work associate – and when you follow through, you’re achieving your big goal.

For people who live out of their email inbox (as I often do), this can be a great way to keep your goal in mind – and keep moving forward on it, bit by bit.

7. The Buddy
Having a buddy who is also trying to move forward with a similar goal as yours can be a wonderful constant reminder of your own personal goal.

Let’s say you’re attempting to eliminate all of your credit card debt. You announce it to a few friends and you learn that one of your friends is actually attempting to do the same thing. Suggest to that person that you buddy up to motivate each other, share tips, and share your progress along the way.

When you hang out together, you can swap stories about how you’re moving forward. You can give each other tips on how to better accomplish that big goal. You can actually engage in the activities together – jogging in the evening, for example, or going to free events together instead of spending money.

That buddy becomes a walking, talking reminder of your goal and, in a fun way, pushes you to achieving more than you thought possible.

Baby disaster8. The Inspirational Picture
My family inspires me to make almost every good choice I make in my life. They inspired me to take charge of my money. They inspired me to start getting in better shape. They inspired me to take a real swing at writing for a career.

Keeping a simple photograph of my wife and children with me helps keep me motivated to continue making good choices. I have three photographs of them on my desk and I often look at them when I’m having some trouble getting motivated to write. Their faces always help.

Some people get their inspiration from motivational posters. For me, all I really need to do is look at my family and suddenly I’ve got my eye back on the prize.

9. The Repetitive Post-It
When I first made a serious effort to cut my spending, I found it was very hard to break my old routines. I would simply wheel into the bookstore without thinking about it at all and the next thing I knew, I’d be standing in line holding some books.

What really helped was repetitive reminders, which took the form of Post-It notes. I wrote on each one: “Don’t spend anything.” I put them all over. I put one on my dash and one on my rear view mirror. I put one on my computer monitor. I put one on my wallet so I’d see it when I got started in the morning.

Those constant reminders kept the big picture firmly in my head, mostly because the message was nearly inescapable. I saw it all the time and that meant it bubbled up to the top of my mind when I needed it much more often than before. Before long, that reminder was burned into my brain – and the Post-Its had done their job.

10. The Tool Disfigurement
There were times when I would still fall short and find myself on the verge of spending anyway. I’d have an item up there to buy. I’d reach for my wallet, pull out my credit card, and ….

Right there in front of me was all I really needed to see. I’d put the item back and walk out of the store.

What was there? Wrapped around my credit cards was a picture of my son. Yes, the inspirational picture had found its way directly to the tools I used to undermine that inspiration. Seeing my little boy – and reflecting for just a second on him and the good choices I needed to make as a parent – made me step back just long enough for sense to take hold of me.

If you find yourself constantly turning to a tool of some sort to continue a habit you’re trying to break – a bong, a credit card, anything like that – put an inspirational picture there. Put that picture of your kid right on that item and attach it firmly. Make it so that you have to give that reminder a look before you commit that act – and you’ll likely find yourself turning away at the last minute.

Now get out there and achieve something great.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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