Six ways to deal with overwhelming financial goals

Last year one of my financial goals was to consolidate all my pension pots.

It was something I’d done once before but just hadn’t quite found the time to organise since. I signed up to PensionBee, clicked the required buttons, provided the necessary details, sat back and felt good about a job well done. For a couple of weeks anyway. Because when the transfers went through and I realised how much I had in combined pension pots, suddenly I felt overwhelmed in a way that wasn’t quite so pleasant.

Despite nearly a decade of contributions, I discovered that the amount I have in my pension pot barely scrapes what I’d like to have when I retire. According to one calculator, I’d only have 17% of what I need to retire by the time I reach 60, saving at the rate I currently am. The same calculator suggested I’d need to save around £2500 more per month to reach my goal for my retirement pot.

Faced with the numbers, it was easy to feel panicked.

More than panicked.

Overwhelmed.

Anxious even.

Because even though I know I’m saving well for my age in other ways — growing my wealth through different forms of investment — and even though my pension will no doubt grow exponentially as I’m entering my prime earning years, it was definitely a stark reminder of how far there is to go.

The problem with something like a pension is how nebulous and far away it can feel on the one hand, whilst on the other hand, there are these huge and overwhelming numbers. Look too hard and retirement can seem impossible.

And it’s not the only financial goal that can leave us on the borderline of giving up.

When saving for a first home, it’s easy to be caught up in the stress, to feel defeated by how long it looks like it’ll take to save. If you’re getting married and your dream wedding or honeymoon is something a little more luxurious, then those numbers can soon add up to spiralling costs that appear out of reach. And then there are other things you might be dreaming of: taking an extended career break, starting a family, upsizing or renovating your home.

Smaller purchases can also start to feel like staggeringly high costs in the right (or rather wrong) circumstances. Say, for example, you’ve been saving for a new laptop but then your car breaks down or your roof starts leaking or a pandemic happens. Very quickly something that you thought was a short-term financial goal that would take a few months to afford, moves out in your timeline, sometimes over and over again. It can be disheartening, undermining your financial self-confidence.

But financial goals don’t have to be stressful — not even the really huge or very long-term ones.

From breaking things down into more manageable chunks to taking a step back to review what’s really overwhelming you, there are simple steps you can take to help feel more in control of your money and your future.

That’s why we’ve spoken to two brilliant financial coaches about ways to overcome the overwhelm.

Whether you’re struggling with long-term or short-term goals, here are six steps from the experts on how you can shift your mindset and really focus on your financial wellbeing.

1. Start by breaking the goal down into its parts

Ellie Austin-Williams, founder of This Girl Talks Money, a financial education community, says the first and most important thing is to look at ways to make your financial goals feel more approachable.

“I would always say if you’re feeling overwhelmed then start by breaking down the goal,” says Ellie. “What’s often scary with a financial goal is staring at a big number, especially with things like a pension or retirement. But if you break it down then it’s much more manageable. Instead of looking at the very end of the line, which could be years away, reconsider the time scale and think about your goal in terms of what you can achieve each week or each month instead.”

Say, for example, you’ve been saving for your dream wedding. You can break down the ‘wedding’ into its constituent parts: the venue, the dress, the suits, the hen/stag-do, the honeymoon, the catering. Individually, each cost is much more approachable than the overall sum of the event itself. Similarly, doing this may also reveal ways for you to cut costs or tighten your budget in certain areas, helping you reach your goal faster.

2. Focus on what you can control

For financial wellbeing coach, Emma Maslin (AKA The Money Whisperer), one of the best things you can do when you’re facing goals that seem insurmountable is to focus only on the aspects that you can control yourself.

“You can’t control everything that happens to you and around you, but you can control the way that you respond,” says Emma. “If you focus on the things within your control, you can expand the circles of control and influence to decrease the impact of the circle of concern.”

It’s about remembering to hold onto your objectivity and removing yourself from the centre of the ‘problem’. Like with your overall financial resilience, often when you’re stressed about your money, shifting your perspective can really help — and in this case, means reflecting on what you can do now vs what is out of your hands. It’s ok to take a step back and focus on the smaller details.

As Emma comments, “By focusing on what you can control, you can reduce any unwanted feelings of overwhelm and anxiety around money which might creep in. Instead of being drawn into the big picture, focus on just one small choice within your circle of control to move you forward in a positive way.”

3. Turn financial goals into personal motivations

Ellie from This Girl Talks Money, recommends that when you’re approaching your financial goals, it can help to focus on the why rather than the what of them.

“Don’t dig into the number, dig into the motivation,” Ellie says. “Think about why you’ve got that number in your head. Sometimes we haven’t really worked out what we really need in terms of money — we get fixated on a figure and then panic about not reaching it. Going through the process of planning in more detail, it’s useful to think about what the motivation is for saving.”

At the end of the day, there’s a reason why our money is called personal finance — your decisions come from a personal place. It’s essential to recognise and hold onto your core values and motivations when you’re saving or creating a financial goal. This can help to remind you of what you want to achieve, ensuing you face any panic moments whilst holding onto what matters to you.

“I’m a huge fan of money apps for visualising your goals,” adds Ellie. “You can really make the most of them, especially if you’re a visual learner. It’s all about those little everyday reminders — like a picture on a savings pot in your banking app or photos on your computer or phone background. Vision boards and mood boards can also really help you visualise as well. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, set up those little moments to remind you of what you’re aiming for, so it feels more tangible than getting stuck in your head.”

4. Focus on habits rather than goals

Another way to deal with overwhelm is to reflect on the day-to-day habits you have and how they’re helping (or hindering) your ability to reach your goals.

“Become aware of the financial habits that you have and if these aren’t serving your longer-term goals — like emotional shopping on Instagram when you are trying to save for a house deposit,” says Emma from The Money Whisperer. “Work on changing your habits. Start really, really tiny with habit change. In this instance, it might be putting your phone in another room if you know you are prone to boredom scrolling on the sofa in the evening, leading to online purchasing. The cumulative effect of lots of small changes is a meaningful impact.”

Other small and helpful tools could be to turn on instant notifications on your mobile banking app, so you always know when you’re spending money (this may also alert you to subscriptions you’d forgotten about and such). Or to start practicing mindful money habits like delaying any bigger purchases by twenty-four hours to avoid impulse purchases.

5. Take a step back when needed

Sometimes to build an action plan, you first have to take a breath and step away from the situation. When you’re facing a crisis, it can feel like everything is spiralling out of control — but managing your money and planning for your financial future isn’t something that should feel insurmountable.

If you have reached that point, Ellie recommends that you take time away from the issue. It’s not about being an ostrich ignoring the problem but allowing yourself space for some self-care so you can come back with fresh eyes.

“It can be really easy to stay stuck in the overwhelm,” says Ellie. “Sometimes you need to take time away and come back later. You don’t want to spiral and if you can’t get an objective approach, breathe, walk away, then come back with a fresh perspective.”

Ellie adds, “Talk about money if you can too — with a coach or a friend or family or even an accountant — especially if you find numbers quite intimidating. Overwhelm is exactly what they can help with and give you an action plan to work through.”

6. Stay honest and realistic with yourself

At the end of the day, the best thing you can do for yourself is to be entirely honest with yourself about your finances.

That might mean breaking things down from the very beginning so there’s nowhere to hide, no doubt about where you stand — reviewing your incomings and outgoings, doing a proper audit of your current situation and then putting together a fresh budget that aligns with the goals you want to achieve.

It could also mean simply being completely realistic about the goals you’re setting yourself.

“It’s important to be realistic,” says Ellie, “If you go through the process of planning in more detail — breaking it down and creating smaller targets to achieve — it should make you really think about what you need. For example, whether you need £500 or £5000 to reach your dream holiday goal. But if the figure still feels overwhelming, then it could be good to reassess the decision. This is particularly the case with big purchases like buying or moving house. If you’re looking at the figure for a deposit and feel overwhelmed no matter how you approach it, then maybe you’re looking somewhere unrealistic. Maybe consider somewhere more affordable.”

Always remember: looking after your money is an act of self-care

When it comes to managing your money and setting financial goals, a lot of the time it can feel very aspirational. There are things you want to do, places you want to visit, experiences you want to have — they just often come with a price tag.

As Ellie explains, “Clear your debt, look at creating an emergency fund, consider things like investing or paying off bigger debts like a mortgage. There’s always something more you can do to make your money work for you.”

Because the thing is — making financial goals should help you achieve what you want from life. Rather than becoming a source of stress, they can be approached as an act of self-care. Setting goals, breaking them down into an achievable roadmap, seeing yourself reach those milestones a little at a time — all of this can grow your confidence, boost your overall wellbeing. Sometimes there will be days where those ambitions might feel intense but as long as you’re working towards your financial goals, you’re on the right track to achieve them.

Authors: Harriet Allner and ikigai

Harriet Allner is a writer, blogger and fintech specialist. She cares about stories that matter and is passionate about promoting conversation around money positivity and financial feminism.

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