How to Save Without Goals


If you’ve ever spoken to a financial planner or read a personal finance article, you’ll know that it’s critical to have goals. A person without goals — if you believe the experts — is like a rudderless boat, going nowhere in calm waters, tossed around in stormy weather, and sinking well before reaching shore. (See also: Setting Great Goals...and Achieving Them)

But I believe you can save and invest without goals, successfully with these basic and slightly-more-than-basic plans.

I could never articulate my life goals to a financial planner or advisor. My desire to have shelter, clothes, food, and money for incidental expenses along with time to pursue my interests seemed too simple to be classified as a worthy goal. My dream of becoming a published author seemed too ambitious and unlikely. A proper goal for a financial-planning discussion, I thought, would be to build a real estate empire or retire on a Caribbean island before I turned 30.

How basic survival and high aspirations could combine to shape a financial plan was foreign to me. Really, though, I didn’t grasp how spelling out my goals could yield a plan far superior to my longstanding one of saving, investing, and trying to live within my means.

In the years following my early encounters with financial planners, I’ve learned about life goals and financial plans:

  • Lack of goals doesn’t portend financial disaster (despite my inability to establish financial plan-worthy goals, I have a net worth well above the national average).
  • Goals aren’t always reached in logical, sequential order.
  • Priorities can shift dramatically from year to year, and opportunities can surface and appear erratically.
  • Goals can influence better, but not perfect, decision making about personal finances.
  • Great planning doesn’t override the need for following good personal finance habits of saving, investing, minimizing or avoiding unnecessary debt, and living below one’s means.

So, if you haven’t yet finalized your life’s to-do list (or if you’re not ready to share your dreams with a financial advisor), here are starter plans.


Basic Plan

  • Open a savings account and put $25 in the account each month.
  • Save money for your retirement: contribute to your company’s 401(k) plan so that you can get matching funds (if available); open and fund a Roth IRA, up to the legal maximum each year.
  • Get health insurance, either through your employer or purchased on your own, and buy life insurance if you have a family (or plan to have a family).
  • Pay off debt. Start with credit card debt and then pay off car loans, student loans, and mortgages. 
  • Buy some stocks or bonds with any extra money you might have.


Slightly-More-Than-Basic Plan

Savings Accounts

  • Open a savings account and set up direct deposits of $25 each month. If you can’t afford $25, then start with $10; if you can afford more, go to $50 or $100.
  • Save for non-monthly expenses. Start putting funds aside for these bills, which will probably include car insurance, life insurance, and vacations. You’ll need $100-300 per month or possibly more.
  • Save for major purchases, such as a new (or used) car or home improvement project. Set aside a few hundred dollars each month.
  • Build an emergency savings fund of at least $1,000 up to $5,000 or more to an amount that equals monthly expenses multiplied by six months.  

Retirement Accounts

  • Open and fund a Roth IRA, up to the legal maximum each year. Set up an account with an online discount brokerage firm such as TD Ameritrade or E*Trade.
  • Make contributions to your 401(k), if your company offers one. Scrutinizing investment options and administrative costs is useful, but optional for this slightly-more-than-basic plan. Contribute the maximum amount or whatever will reap the full company match.
  • Open and fund a traditional IRA, up to the legal maximum each year.


  • If you’re just getting started, don’t spend all your money on personal insurance but cover the basics.
  • Get health insurance so that an accident or sudden illness won’t incur huge bills that may take years to pay. Buy coverage through your employer or consider a high-deductible plan that keeps monthly expenses low. But pay attention to the policy limit to make sure you are really protected from a crisis.
  • Buy some life insurance worth 5-10 times your annual income, if you have family members who depend on your income.


  • Tackle credit card debt first, as this type of debt usually carries the highest interest rate. Even if you have a great rate now, teaser rates expire and often skyrocket to really high rates (20-29%) later. You’ll also want to keep a low balance or even a zero balance so that you can possibly use your card for unexpected expenses. 
  • Make payments on car loans and student loans on time but don’t feel pressured to pay them off early, especially if you have a low interest rate.
  • Get settled personally and professionally before buying a house and taking on a mortgage. Don’t rush to pay off this loan either, though paying a bit extra on the principal can speed up the payoff.
  • Realize that what matters most about debt is not how quickly you pay off loans but whether debt temporarily sustains an unaffordable lifestyle.


If you've got extra money to save and invest,

This pseudo plan is a placeholder, which can be modified to your particular needs…until you have defined your goals and can see how life goals should mesh with financial plans.

To learn about ways that goals can influence financial planning, see these articles:

Have you succeeded or floundered with or without a plan?

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Guest's picture

I believe that one should get out of debt outside of credit cards as soon as possible.

Yes, car loans and student loans have the lowest interest, in most cases. I realize that.

But, if your car is paid for then it can't be repossessed, can it?

If your student loan is paid off, then you won't incur late fees and extra interest when times are hard, will you?

Getting out of debt as much as possible and as fast as possible reduces risk.

Once the car payment(s) and student loans are paid for, then you will have more money to invest in 401k's, etc.

I haven't carried any debt since paying it all off, minus the house, since December 2007. I have had two layoffs since then as a single mom. Having no debt outside of the house enabled a sense of peace.

I didn't have anyone calling me telling me my car payment was late. I had no student loans to put on deferral. Nothing of that type.

I had a years worth of the basics in my savings account. I didn't have to worry about making the mortgage payment while I hunted for and found a new job.

In this economy with such high unemployment, it would behoove most people to pay off as much debt as soon as possible and built a strong savings account.

What is owned cannot be taken away, except in very unusual circumstances.

Julie Rains's picture

Excellent points, esp. about car loans as having reliable transportation is essential to getting and keeping a job.

Guest's picture

Ours certainly have in the last few years. We've made several international moves. I'm looking at a career change and we're hoping to have kids. That's a lot of shifting. We're happy now that we didn't get too 'set' in planning for any one financial goal because this allows us flexibility.

Guest's picture

You're completely right about goals changing. We have friends who had a surprise baby at 40 and 45. Luckily, they had the savings to provide for the child, and the flexibility to reconfigure their lives.

For the majority of us who don't have pensions coming, the simple goal of "not live in a box when I'm old" is a pretty good motivator. It's not one most of us articulate, though.

Nora Dunn's picture

I think these are great tips, and fabulous basic financial manouvers for anybody to focus on if they can't articulate their desires. When I was a financial planner, I encouraged my clients to dream. Want to be a published author? Great! Tell me about it! I might not be able to create a tangible plan to get you there, but knowing that your income sources and structures might change down the road is an important thing to know and plan for. 

And I also recognize that goals - and plans - change. Just because you tell your financial planner you want to do "A" in your first meeting, doesn't mean you have to stick by it for the rest of your life! My life is a perfect example of rolling with the punches and changing and evolving with opportunities. I've made numerous lifestyle changes, and my current life as a full-time traveler is all about constant change. I am a true planner inside and out, and although I may have some plane tickets booked and volunteer gigs lined up for a few months from now, I also barely know what next week will hold. What I do know is exactly what I'm financially ready for (and able to take advantage of) - now, and in the future. 

So don't be afraid to set goals and to plan for them. Any good financial plan is built to evolve with you and your goals, not to constrain you. Sometimes having a goal - a dream - to hang on to can give you a little more motivation to go through the basic steps as outlined above, rather than simply doing something because you think it's the thing to do.