Americans' Top 10 Financial Goals -- and Why Some of Them Are Shocking

There's a theory that when we put our goals down in writing, we have a greater likelihood of achieving them. This holds true for everything from weight loss to personal organization to finances. And since we're here to focus on the latter, let's cut to the chase and see what the public is focusing on at present. According to a NerdWallet study, here are Americans' most pressing financial goals over the next 10 years:

  1. Paying down debt (58%)
  2. Saving more money (53%)
  3. Avoiding further debt (42%)
  4. Saving for vacation (31%)
  5. Opening a retirement account, or ramping up contributions to an existing one (28%)
  6. Buying or leasing a car (27%)
  7. Buying a home (23%)
  8. Starting a business (10%)
  9. Saving to have children (8%)
  10. Saving for a wedding (8%)

Now some of these aren't particularly shocking. Given that consumer debt has reached an all-time high on a national level, the fact that 58% of adults are intent on paying off debt is fantastic news.

Saving more money is another predictable line item, and a respectable one at that. It's estimated that 57% of U.S. adults have less than $1,000 in savings, while 39% have no savings at all. Since the typical worker needs at least three months' worth of living expenses available for emergencies, and ideally more like six months' worth, it's comforting to see the public acknowledge its collective savings shortfall. But while some of the items on this list are no doubt honorable, a few seem glaringly out of place.

Do we have our priorities straight?

When I first reviewed the above list, I was pleased to see savings, debt elimination, and debt avoidance near the top. But then I scrolled down to the fourth item and did a double take. Sure, vacations offer value beyond instant gratification. For many workers, getting away means recharging and avoiding burnout on the job. But the fact that vacations trump retirement savings is downright mind-blowing.

Then there's buying or leasing a car. This surprised me because 95% of U.S. households already own vehicles, which means that many adults may be planning to upgrade their automobiles and take on more debt in the process (which, incidentally, negates item #3).

And of course, there's one major item missing from this list: saving for college. Given the cost of higher education these days, you'd think more families would be taking steps to set money aside for what's typically a colossal expense. But clearly, more folks intend to save for a vacation or automobile down payment than fund a 529 plan. And that's problematic on so many levels.

Meeting our objectives

Regardless of my opinions on the above list, I'm here to tell you that every single item on it is possible if you're willing to change your spending habits and get creative about money management and income generation. First, make sure you have a budget, because most Americans don't. Without one, you'll have no way of knowing where your money is going, and thus are likely to struggle to manage it effectively. Your budget doesn't need to be anything fancy -- a simple spreadsheet will suffice. Just make sure it's accurate, because if it isn't, it'll do you little good.

After you've mapped out your budget, identify ways to trim the fat. This could mean cutting minor expenses, like the gym membership you rarely use or the morning latte you've come to crave, or it could mean making major changes, like downsizing your living space or getting rid of a car you don't really need.

Once you've freed up more room for savings, make it automatic. Sign up for your company's 401(k), or set up an automatic savings plan at your bank. This way, a portion of your earnings will filter into a separate account before you see it, thus eliminating the option to spend it impulsively.

Finally, consider a side gig if your primary job isn't helping you reach your financial goals quickly enough. Of the estimated 44 million Americans who currently work a side hustle, more than one-third bring in an additional $500 a month from that extra job. And that can go a long way toward paying down debt and building savings.

Regardless of the extent to which your personal goals overlap with the rest of the population's, you should know that they are attainable if you're willing to make the effort. At the same time, think long and hard about your immediate objectives, and whether you really have your priorities properly aligned. A resort vacation or fancy set of wheels might seem nice, but at the end of the day, you really need to contemplate what's most important in the long run.

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