Setting Financial Goals

Determining your financial goals is a critical first step when navigating your personal finances. Topics under this page include the components of efficient goal setting, financial benchmarks to plan for, and strategies to bring your goals to reality.

Moving forward with managing your money requires a sense of direction. Goal-setting is a great way to give yourself some guidance, stay accountable, and track your progress as you work to make your financial dreams a reality.

As you begin your personal finance journey, it is important to give yourself direction through tangible, well-articulated goals. These goals can be based off of time, numerical dollar amounts, or actionable behavior changes. Knowing what goals you should aim to achieve will come down to the inner values and life events that are most relevant to you, however there are certain aspects of goal setting that are universal and that you will want to take some time to consider when solidifying your financial goals.

Beginning your personal finance journey means connecting your actions and decision making abilities with what you most hope to achieve. In other words, your financial goals. To truly move forward and make progress in your personal finances, you need to have a sense of direction and a means to evaluate your standing. So, what are your financial goals?  Do you want to minimize the debt you graduate with?  What about how much you spend in a month? Are you trying to save for a car, a vacation, or the down payment on your first home? Whatever your goals are, make sure they are SMART.

When it comes to goal setting, the more detailed you can be and the more structure you can give to your goals, the more likely you will be to take actionable steps to see your financial desires come to fruition. When first creating your goals, think about ways to make them SMART:

Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timebound. 

Visual representation of the SMART Goal Approach that breaks down the SMART acronym


  • Specific:  Write your goal so it's clear and specific --   "I want to have enough in my savings account to cover a surprise car bill or repair"

  • Measurable : How much do you need?  --  Enough to cover repairs to my car, and other unexpected expenses, $1,000.

  • Attainable:  Break your goal down into bite-sized pieces, these are the steps you'll take to reach the goal.  ---  How much will you need to save each month to get to $1,000 within the time frame you have set for yourself?

  • Relevant:  You always want your goals to align with your values as well as the vision you have for your future. Be sure that the goals you are creating support what matters most to you.

  • Time-bound:  Your goals must have an end date. Having deadlines keeps you from putting it off until tomorrow.

Once you have identified the components of your SMART Goal, you have a clearly defined and actionable goal to work towards: "In order to have $1,000 saved up for an emergency car repair within the next 6 months, I will set aside $166 from my monthly income and move it to a separate savings account just for emergencies".


With the SMART Goal method in mind, your next step in the goal setting process is identifying the relevant goals to work towards given your unique financial situation. One of the most common types of goals college students will set is to increase their savings in some capacity. Having robust savings is an important goal for a number of reasons: 

  • College students may not have sufficient income streams to cover unexpected costs, such as a repair or emergency bill 
  • Students are naturally in a state of transition with many major life events to prepare for such as relocation after graduation or working towards the down payment of a first home 

As you reflect on the goals you want to achieve, there are several financial benchmarks to consider that may give you additional clarity into the sorts of goals you may want to set. 

Saving for Emergencies 

You may not want to think about the worst-case scenarios that life can bring us, but when it comes to managing your money, planning for the unknown and being able to weather an emergency or costly situation is one of the best ways you can stay on track financially. In fact, over half of Americans lack the means to cover an unexpected bill of $1,000.

Students should think about emergency preparedness from two distinct aspects: 

  1. Emergency Fund- Money to supplement income in the face of loss of employment 
  2. Rainy Day Fund- Money to cover anticipated bills in the face of a crisis or unexpected event 

Emergency Fund 

Emergency funds are designed to serve as a temporary income stream in the event an individual loses their job and subsequently their means of making a living. Your emergency fund will help you cover your most basic essentials while you look for employment or attempt to establish a new income stream. 

Keep in mind your essentials will include things like rent, utilities, means of transportation, food, and other mandatory payments such as a credit card payment or a phone bill. This may not be as applicable for you while in school, especially if you are living on campus or utilizing student loans to cover your expenses. However, an emergency fund will be something to consider building up upon graduation and when you have entered the workforce. An ideal emergency fund will allow you to cover 3-6 months' worth of essentials. If you are in a profession that may lack stability or is known for being volatile, such as freelancing or the entertainment industry, you could decide to save beyond the 6-month benchmark.

Rainy Day Fund

Similar to an Emergency Fund, a Rainy Day Fund prepares you for the hardships of life. Unlike your Emergency Fund though, your Rainy Day Fund is designed to cover more of the "not if but when" moments you are more likely than not to encounter. For a car owner, this is probably money set aside for an inevitable oil change or car repair. As a pet owner, this could be the equivalent to an upcoming check-up or emergency bill. Students may want to plan their Rainy Day Fund around a laptop repair, last minute plane ticket to see family, or the living expenses needed before financial aid refunds are processed. Identify the 2-3 most applicable rainy day moments for yourself and work towards saving up the dollar amounts needed to cover them if they occurred in one consecutive month. 

Saving for Short-Term Deadlines

Along with saving for emergencies and your rainy day scenarios, another goal type to reflect on is one that prepares you for impending obligations or changes to your financial situation. Students planning for short-term deadlines may set goals related to saving for a study abroad program, moving for a summer internship, a trip during Senior Year, and preparing for relocation after graduation. Setting a goal to meet short-term deadlines will involve having an idea of the total cost needed and comparing that to the amount of time before the deadline will fall. 

For example, if you are looking to set a goal to meet the costs related to relocation, you would want to get an estimate of what that expense looks like. Between a moving truck, apartment application fees and security deposit, and first month's rent alone you could be looking at a goal of close to $3,000. If you had two years to prepare for relocation, your goal might be to set aside $125 in a savings account each month. 


In addition to these types of goals, other objectives that may be applicable to you as a student could include:

  • Increasing your weekly or monthly income 
  • Paying off a certain amount of your loans within 6 months of graduating 
  • Opening an individual retirement arrangement (IRA) while in school 
  • Learning more about Personal Finances by enrolling in a Duke class or house course 

As you accomplish your goals, continue to reflect to see if creating new goals are in order or if it makes sense to repurpose your financial resources elsewhere. For example, if you have met your goals related to building up your savings to prepare for emergencies and short-term deadlines, it may make sense to begin saving for the long term by investing. 

The final step in goal setting is putting your plan into action and getting one step closer to seeing your goals come to fruition! The SMART Goals you created give you the direction to work towards your objectives, but that doesn't mean automatic success.

Oftentimes, when it comes to managing our money, you already know what you should be doing financially. A lack of knowledge isn't necessarily the culprit behind the struggle to make your goals into a reality, but rather the enviornment you find yourself in while trying to establish a new habit or enact changes to your behavior.

The following strategies may help foster success in meeting your goals:

  1. Automate contributions to your savings- Set-up a direct deposit on a weekly or monthly basis to help your savings grow automatically
  2. Create a separate savings account for specific goals- Distance your checking account from your savings by using another bank or credit union to store your savings account
  3. Utilize budgeting or banking apps to establish spending alerts- Apps like PocketGuard or even your own banking institution can allow you to customize spending alerts if you are going over set budgetary limits that you decide.
  4. Track in terms of "number of..." rather than dollar amounts- Limiting what you spend on things like Lyft or Uber Eats can be easier if you turn dollar amounts into number of rides or orders placed in a given time frame. 
  5. Use cash strategically- Sometimes sticking with cash can be a helpful strategy to prevent overspending when out with friends or getting something to eat- you can't overspend what you don't have on you!
  6. Block ads or accounts that influence your spending- In the digital age, consumers are hit with marketing and advertisements like never before. Limit the influence ads and content creators have on you by blocking or unfollowing accounts and ads that tempt you to spend...out of sight, out of mind. 
  7. Track previous spending and look for patterns- Knowledge is power. Look at past transactions and identify patterns like typical spending categories to see where you might be able to implement changes in behavior that can support your financial goals.

Additional Goal Setting Resources

Your Money and Your Mind

Check out this 3 minute video from behavioral scientist, Wendy De La Rosa, on one of the key issues behind making your financial goals happen- controlling your environment!

Smart goals worksheet

Download this PDF worksheet and create your own SMART Goals to work towards. 

accountability worksheet

Download this worksheet to brainstorm ways you can follow through with your financial goals