Every time one of my kids walks down the stairs I’m always sure to blurt out “Be careful!” I have two little girls at home, ages seven and four.
I watch them wobble down the stairs with toys and blankets (and whatever else they can grab) in their hands so they can keep playing. At their age, there is still a small danger of them getting distracted and missing a step and really hurting themselves.
As adults, though, when was the last time you actually thought about the action you were taking when you started walking up the stairs? My guess is you really haven’t thought about it.
Walking up stairs is mostly habitual in nature by the time you get to be an adult.
That means, for most of us, it’s easy. What if you were to treat your financial goals the same way?
This is where reverse engineering your goals comes in.
The term “reverse engineer” sounds complicated but it really isn’t. Essentially, there are only four steps to reverse engineering your financial goals.
But before we get to that—and how it relates to your financial goals—let’s take a look a little bit deeper into what you need to consider when reverse engineering your goals.
Reverse Engineering Your Goals
When reverse engineering your goals, there are several parts to think about. They are:
Your Actual Goal. This is where you want to be—your end state. It’s where you would consider your goal achieved. If you set a goal to pay off your credit card, this would be when you’re finished paying it off.
Your Starting Point. This is where you are at right now. Again, if your goal is to pay off a credit card, this is the amount you have on your credit card at this very moment.
Your Method. This is the journey you are taking to realize your goal—the steps you are taking to change your financial situation.
Your Milestones. Milestones are little markers along your journey that remind you of how far you’ve come. They are almost like mini goals where you can celebrate and reflect on what’s going well and what’s not going well. If you’re paying off a $5,000, you might consider every $1,000 paid off as a milestone.
These are the four main areas of your goals and are all necessary things to know before you start this method. The actual goal and the starting point are usually thought about, but take a little bit of time to think about what method you’re going to use to reach your goal and the milestones you’re going to set to celebrate the small wins.
Before we get into how to use this method, what do your financial goals have to do with stairs? Well, to reverse engineer your goals, try and think of them like climbing stairs.
Most staircases or stairwells have a flight of stairs followed by a landing. It looks something like this.
Notice the flat spot between flights that allows the stairs to turn and also allows you to rest if you need it. This is how our financial goals should look as well.
Each of the four parts of your goal (mentioned above) represent a different part of the staircase. Everything from the top floor, through each flight, all the way down to ground level is represented.
Let’s take a deeper look.
The Top Floor = Your Goal
What is your financial goal? Is it to pay off all of your debt? Are you looking to save $40,000 for a downpayment on a house? You could also be looking at retiring early and have figured out a dollar amount for that to happen.
Your financial goal, your endgame, is represented by the top floor or the roof of the building. You can’t get any higher because you’ve reached the top.
Once you’re at the top, you’ve achieved your goal.
The Ground Floor = Your Starting Point
This is where it all begins. Your starting point. For savings goals, it’s a $0. You’re working your way up to that down payment on a house or financial independence number. There’s nowhere to go but up.
Never feel bad for starting from zero. Everyone starts at this point—even if it feels like you aren’t starting from scratch.
For example, if you’re saving for a $40,000 house down payment and someone gives you $20,000, that doesn’t mean you started from $20,000. You still started at zero. You just were able to take the elevator up half way to your goal. Some people aren’t able to do that.
If you’re trying to pay off debt, your starting point would be the total amount of debt you currently have. You’re still starting at the ground floor, only you’re working your way “up to zero” rather than start at zero.
You may not know what you’re doing and you still may have a lot to learn, but everyone starts at the bottom.
The Steps Themselves = Your Journey
Each step you take gets you closer to the top. It gets you closer to your goal.
Your journey represents everything you do to get toward your financial goal. Every time you tweak your budget you take a step. For every credit card you pay off, that’s another step (or five).
Even education can be a few steps toward your goal. Taking an online class to learn to code to get a higher paying job is taking a step up to your goal. Reading blogs like this one and learning how to manage your finances better is the same as continuing your journey up those stairs.
The steps are what you are doing to reach your goal. They are the methods you are using to manage your money.
Keep stepping up!
The Landings = Your Milestones
You’ll notice on most stairs there is a landing after a certain number of stairs. In some cases, I’m sure it’s just an aesthetic choice, but they are functional as well.
It can be a place to stop and rest or to admire the view. It can also be a chance for the stairs to turn and head the other direction so it isn’t one long stairwell going in one direction. This allows the steps to take up much less space.
If you’ve done any research on goals, you’ll know that everyone always suggests to break up your goals into smaller, more manageable chunks. These smaller “goals” are commonly referred to as milestones.
I strongly advise doing this as well. This is what you use the landings for in the step method. Each landing represents a milestone for your goal. It’s a chance to rest, regroup, and review.
If you set a goal of paying off your one credit card with $5,000 and set your milestones (the landings) at $1,000, every time you hit $1,000 paid off, stop and see if you need to change methods. Maybe you’re able to add to the amount you’re paying each month to get it paid off quicker. Maybe something happened and you need a little breathing room. It might be time to regroup.
Use these landings or milestones to examine how things are going and see if anything needs to change. Most importantly, make sure you reward yourself.
How to Use this Method
Now, that you know what each part of the staircase represents, let’s talk about how to use this method.
Step 1: Pick Your Goal
Sorry to be Captain Obvious over here, but to get started, you have to pick your goal.
Remember, this is the end game or where you want to be at the end—the top floor. Some examples can be paying off debt, saving for a down payment on a house, having enough money to retire early, or saving for a dream vacation (to Disney World, obviously ;)).
In order to pick a good goal, I recommend using the SMART framework. SMART stands for:
Studies show that specific goals are achieved much more often than generic goals so you want to be sure you are as specific as possible. You also want to make sure your goal is measurable and achievable. In other words, don’t set your goal of making $1 million in 6 months if you’re living off a salary of $40,000 a year.
Relevant refers to your goal actually helping with your end game. If you want to be financially free, don’t pick a goal the involves taking on more debt. Time-bound simply means that you set yourself a date. You might say “in 18 months I want to have all of my debt paid off.”
Picking a good goal informs the next step.
Step 2: Determine Your Milestones
As I mentioned, Milestones are the landings—a chance to review and pivot if need be. It’s also a chance to reward yourself.
Pick where your milestones are going to be in this step. If you have a goal of paying off eight credit cards, reward yourself when you pay off one or two at a time. For house downpayments, reward yourself with a nice dinner or something for every $5,000 you put away. Break down your goals into smaller more manageable chunks and reward yourself when you hit those milestones.
These are just examples for you. Your milestones will differ from other people’s milestones because you are different than them. Use what will motivate you.
Again, every time you hit these milestones, rewarding yourself isn’t the only thing you should do. Take a little bit of time to review how things went. Remember, sometimes the landings on a staircase have the stairs going in a completely different direction. If you made it to your milestone but have discovered a better way to do things, it’s completely ok to pivot!
Step 3: Set Your Steps
The steps are the practical application of where you’re going—your journey. This is what “steps” you are going to take to reach your goals.
Again, if you’re paying off debt, choose a payoff method. You could use the debt snowball method or focus on the high-interest debts first. You could even combine the two!
This part may also include setting up automatic payments to pay off debt or automatic transfers to save more. Set things up so you don’t even have to think about it to move toward your goals.
It also may involve going over your budget with a fine tooth comb to see where you can cut things out.
Pick your method and try it out for a while. Your method will be the steps you take to starting moving toward your goal.
Step 4: Start the Climb
Here’s the most important part of it all. It also may very well be the hardest.
People fail and people succeed. If you start, neither will happen. Start your journey up the staircase that leads to your goal and see how things go. If you fall or trip, get back up. If you reach an impasse or the top of the staircase your on is a dead end, switch methods.
Just make sure you start.
If you want to reach your financial goals easier, reverse engineer your goals like a stairwell. Start at the top and work your down. Set yourself milestones and methods. Using financial “stairs” will help make reaching your goals more habitual in nature—like walking up real stairs—rather than a laborious journey.
What goal are you currently looking to reach?