6 Strategies Successful Savers Use to Reach Their Frugal Goals

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6 strategies for achieving frugal goals. From ‘NICE’ goal-setting to dopamine hacks and resistance-busters, these proven strategies will help.

man writing goals down on pad of paper

Setting goals is surprisingly important for our happiness and satisfaction in life.

The pursuit of meaningful goals, or working towards something that resonates with us on a personal level, leads to feeling fulfilled and content.

We thrive when we’re challenged and excited. When we work hard towards something meaningful, we are rewarded with a job well done.

Here’s the cool thing.

Working towards our goals can change our self-identity – how we see ourselves.

Consider two scenarios.

Person A and B, let’s call them Jo and Flo, are both wanting to stick to their budget and reach their goals. Flo sees themselves as money-savvy and believes themselves to be good savers. On the other hand, Jo sees themselves as a ‘spender’ who gives into temptation easily.

Who do you think will stick to their budget more?

But just say Jo says no to the temptation to buy something. Maybe they put that money into their savings account instead. Suddenly there’s evidence they ARE someone who can save money. Their self-identity slowly changes as new habits form, thanks to the goals they set.

In the following article, I share six strategies that help you reach your frugal goals:

  • Goal setting the right way
  • Write, review, roster
  • Reverse engineer
  • Responsibility to an accountability partner
  • Reward and rewire
  • Eliminate resistance

(I was trying to be fancy with the ‘r’ words. How’d I do?)

1. Write the Right Goals

You’ve probably heard of SMART goals (Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timely) a thousand times before, but have you heard of NICE Goals?

In his book Feel Good Productivity (Amazon link), Ali Abdaal describes his NICE goal-setting method that focuses more on the journey to achieving goals rather than the outcome.

NICE stands for:

  • Near-term. Rather than being overwhelmed by the big picture, near-term focus helps us concentrate on just the next steps we need to take. Daily or weekly actionable steps are more manageable than big goals (see section 3 below).
  • Input-based. Input-based goals are those focused on what we DO rather than what we get or the outcome. An example would be ‘transfer $50 to a savings account each payday’ (input – something we can do) versus ‘buy a house’ (outcome goal).
  • Controllable. Controllable goals are realistic goals. Actions we can take given our personal circumstances. We might want to buy a $5.5 million house, but what can we realistically afford to repay each month?
  • Energising. We’re more likely to stick to our plans if we find them fun, motivating or energising. Is there a way to integrate play or gamify your goals? Can you create a challenge to motivate yourself? Can you work towards your goals with someone else for accountability and companionship?

You still need to look at big-picture outcome goals sometimes, but focusing on input goals makes the process more manageable, and you succeed every time you complete a micro-goal. Each success can change how you see yourself (i.e., someone who does save consistently, even if it is only a couple of dollars).

I’ve read a bazillion productivity books, and it’s hard to find good, relevant advice, particularly as a woman and mother.

However, Feel Good Productivity (Amazon link) is one book where I’ve practically highlighted every single page. I found it that good. If you’re interested in productivity, I recommend this book.

Side Note: Practical Steps to Goal Setting

That’s the theory; here’s how I put this into practice.

I use Notion to write my goals for the year. I try to write most of them as NICE goals. For example, rather than write, ‘read 12 books this year’, I might write, ‘read one book per month’.

I then break these goals down further into actionable steps. For instance, I set a reminder in my task manager to ‘read for 15 minutes during my afternoon tea break’. This is a small, actionable habit that is realistic for my time and linked to an enjoyable habit I already have.

The average non-fiction book is between 100 and 250 pages long. The average person can read about 10 pages in 15 minutes. That equals about 12 books a year read in small, 15-minute increments.

2. Write, Review, and Roster Your Goals

According to a study from the Dominican University in California, people who write down their goals accomplish significantly more than those who don’t.

Writing your goals makes them more concrete. There’s something magical about the act of writing that takes the ideas floating around in your brain and makes them real.

It’s an act of creation. It’s the start of turning dreams into reality.

Writing your goals down isn’t enough, however. It’s easy to forget your dreams as you get on with everyday living.

This is why referring to your actionable input-based goals regularly and scheduling them into your calendar is imperative for success.

In his book, Getting Things Done (Amazon link), David Allen talks about the Weekly Review – time spent every week reviewing your schedule, tasks, filing and a whole bunch of other things.

For our purpose, the weekly review is the perfect time to go over your goals and schedule in time to do them.

For example, if you’re trying to save money on work lunches, you can schedule some meal prep time, create a meal plan, and write a grocery list during your weekly review.

This 5-minute task of regularly reviewing your goals, rostering your action steps, and creating reminders so you don’t forget will help you work towards your goals consistently throughout the year.

Side note: a year is a long time, and goals can change. If, as part of your weekly review, you find your goals no longer relevant, it’s ok to change them. Some people prefer to work in 12-week stretches rather than set year-long goals so that their goals are relevant.

3. Reverse-Engineer and Take Positive Action

There are two things you need to know to totally rock your action plan and ensure you reach your goals. They are:

  1. How to reverse engineer your goals
  2. How to work out the right positive action steps (because negative ones don’t work)

To reverse engineer your goals, you take your end goal and work out the smaller milestones along the way to reaching your goal.

For example, if your end goal is to save $5,000 for a holiday, then that equals saving $416 a month or $90 a week.

Saving $90 a week seems more manageable than finding a spare $5,000, right?

Here’s what our reverse-engineered goal would look like (it doesn’t include interest; I like to consider the interest a bonus):

Savings Table

Once you’ve reverse-engineered your goal, you need to work out exactly what positive actions you’re going to take to reach that smaller target.

Here’s a bad example of an action step:

‘I’m not going to buy lunches at work to save money.’

The problem here is you’re avoiding an action rather than taking an action. And when we don’t take positive action, we’re doomed to fail the first time we get hungry.

Here’s a better action step:

‘I’m going to cook a little extra dinner and pack up the leftovers as soon as dinner is cooked so there’s an easy lunch in the fridge to grab in the morning.’

This is a positive action that you can take, and it solves the problem of ‘what am I going to eat for lunch?’ ensuring you save money.

(There are other options for taking lunch to work; this is just one example of a positive action.)

But let’s back up the train a little.

Every one of our current daily actions addresses a problem. For example:

Problem: I’m hungry at work, I buy food and can’t save.

Deeper problem: I eat out at work because mornings are hectic, and there’s nothing to take to work for lunch.

See how our leftover solution gets at the real problem here.

To reach our goals, we can’t just take any old positive action. We need to identify our underlying problems, motivations, and barriers and take the right positive action that addresses those problems in a better way.

4. Be Responsible with an Accountability Partner

Peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing.

The Dominican Uni study also found accountability to be a powerful motivator for achieving goals.

Those in the study who regularly checked in with a friend and gave them a progress update on their goals were way more likely to reach their goals.

Sharing goals at the beginning of the year is not enough. You need to regularly update your accountability partner with your latest progress.

I have a friend who is a naturally great accountability partner. If I even mention I’m working on something, she’s sure to ask me how I’m progressing next time I see her.

And because it sucks to say, ‘Well, I haven’t done anything towards that goal, actually’, it keeps me motivated to get off my butt and do the work.

So, consider finding a friend who is also setting goals for the year and make a pact to check in with each other once a month. Support and be supported, and you’ll help each other reach your goals.

5. Reward and Rewire Your Brain

Forget reward charts or special treats for reaching milestones; the best reward system is inside your brain.

And it’s called dopamine.

(Although if you’re looking for an excuse to treat yourself, a little chocolate never hurts!)

Dopamine is a complex little character, but it’s commonly known as the brain’s pleasure neurotransmitter. Dopamine spikes when we partake in something pleasurable.

But interestingly, it also spikes in moments of high stress.

In fact, dopamine fires before we feel pleasure or experience something stressful because its role is to motivate us to reach for that triple chocolate cheesecake reward or avoid something bad.

We can use this knowledge to hack our internal reward system to achieve long-term goals, and the secret lies in small wins.

Every time you enjoy a small success, your brain releases dopamine, which motivates you to re-experience the activity again, driving you to the next small win.

(This is basically how every game app like Candy Crush keeps us addictively playing. Gamifying your goals with small wins uses the same psychology.)

Even though long-term goals are big and exciting (like a holiday), they aren’t motivating enough because they’re not firing up the dopamine train.

When we repeatedly achieve small mini-milestones (and therefore drip-feed our brains dopamine), we wire ourselves to stay motivated until the big goal is reached.

The brain can be trained to feed off bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences. [source]

This is exactly what we do when we break down our bigger goals into smaller, positive action steps that we can tick off each time we do them.

Literally, in fact. Ticking them off a to-do list gives you the YES! moment to stay motivated.

I think of this as the double-tick strategy to success.

When I worked as an accountant, my colleague would put a double tick on her bank reconciliations.

Why? I eventually asked.

She explained that seeing all those debits and credits balance nicely to zero was the most satisfying part of bookkeeping and demanded two ticks, not just one.

(This was before it was all automated, of course – showing my age!)

Think of the double-tick as an accountant’s way of fist-pumping the air.

And that’s exactly what it feels like when you tick the action step off your daily to-do list that takes you one step closer to reaching your goal.

There’s a rush of euphoria that just screams two ticks (sometimes even a big black line through the item with a Sharpie).

And maybe a fist pump.

This is what it might look like for our $5,000 savings example.

We reverse engineered our goal to $90 a week and saw how that adds up over the course of a year.

But we can break that down even further, taking very specific positive action steps that result in the following savings:

weekly savings
I first made this image in 2015. Almost a decade later, coffees are around $6)

And there’s that satisfying double-tick as we transfer the $90 into our savings account.

6. Eliminate Resistance

After spruiking the benefits of ticking off a to-do list, I’m going to burst that bubble a little by saying that the problem with to-do lists is they don’t actually get the work done.

Don’t get me wrong; to-do lists are essential for being proactive with your time. But YOU still have to do the work.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a killer to-do list, imagined how amazingly productive I was going to be, and then promptly picked up a book and passed the whole day in an alternate reality.

One of the main causes of resistance (at least for me) is overwhelm – the feeling that working towards your goal is just too darn hard.

It’s too hard to get up early to exercise. It’s too hard to prepare lunch the night before.

The more we think about it, the bigger and harder things become and before we know it, we’re scrolling through Instagram or TikTok to get our dopamine hit the easy way.

There are two tricks I’ve found useful for overcoming resistance:

  1. Reduce resistance by making it as easy as possible to take action
  2. Allow yourself to take just the first small step only

Apparently, we only have so much willpower before our prefrontal cortex stops dead in its tracks, stamps its foot and demands Haagen-Dazs (although this is now debated).

Instead of using our willpower like a full-forward barging through the opposition for the whole game, we want to keep it on the bench for the times when we really need it (I hope that metaphor worked, I don’t watch much footy).

We don’t want to fight the opposition; we want to eliminate it. We want to watch that intimidating frontline flutter off in a little pink tutu at the flick of a finger.

Here’s an example of overcoming resistance by avoiding it altogether: when it comes to saving money, the best way to reduce resistance is to pay yourself first and automate your savings.

When it comes to getting more exercise, you might have a sticky note on your bathroom mirror to remind yourself to do 20 Kegels and squats while you’re brushing your teeth.

Or if you want to eat healthier, you get rid of every unhealthy food in your kitchen, so you have no choice but to eat healthily.

In other words, you want to change your environment to set yourself up for success and reduce resistance.

The other trick to overcoming resistance is to just start.

I know, I know, easier said than done. I mean, if we did that, we wouldn’t be experiencing resistance, right?!

But the point here is to only start. That’s it. Take the first small step and nothing else.

Rather than go to the gym, just put on your gym gear. That’s it.

Rather than go on a diet, just cut up some carrot sticks.

Or promise yourself you only have to spend 5 minutes on a task. Just 5 minutes of jump rope. Or 5 minutes of decluttering. 5 minutes of piano practice.

It doesn’t seem like much, but something happens when you take the first step. More often than not, your brain says, ‘Well, I’ve come this far; I may as well do more.’

And your dopamine reward system is also kicking in. Your brain starts saying ‘yay, you made it out of bed. Let’s see how good putting your shoes on feels!’

(Not always, and if it doesn’t that’s ok, you can tick your 5-minute start off your list and try again tomorrow.)

Remember at the beginning of the article when I mentioned that new habits could change our self-identity? A string of these mini successes can do wonders for how we feel about ourselves and build positive change towards the goals we set.

I hope I landed the five ‘R’s’. I’ve found the above tips to really help me set and work towards goals, especially the baby steps and the weekly reviews. As mentioned, I have my goals in Notion and do my weekly reviews there. If you use Notion and are interested in how I set it up for goal planning, let me know in the comments below, and I’ll share more in another article.


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