I love hiking for long distances. When I’m out on the trail for a full day, a weekend, or even longer, careful management of my food and water supplies is essential. But there’s one thing that’s even more critical to my survival: my plan.

There’s a lot to think about to ensure that I’ll emerge successfully at the trail’s end. I study the weather, assess terrain conditions, monitor the temperature, and determine when civil twilight will force me to put on my headlamp so I can keep charging ahead. I map out primary and secondary routes and manage check-in points on my trail maps along the way. I even let someone know my “float plan” if I’m going it alone (at least when I remember to do so … sorry, Mom).

The same preparedness mindset that serves so well out in the wilderness also applies to thinking about retirement. In both endeavors it’s vital to a have a well-thought-out plan. Without one, you risk not completing what you set out to accomplish.

What makes retirement planning unique?

I don’t mean to be blunt, but the answer is nothing. In order to reach the summit of your financial goals, you need to put some things into motion now to better prepare for success later.

Putting a plan together involves prioritizing the steps and decisions that will establish an actionable framework for the goal. A plan doesn’t necessarily need to be an official signed document—it can be as simple as jotting down your goals on a piece of paper, sticky note, or smartphone app. In fact, studies have shown you’ll be 42% more likely to achieve your goals simply by writing them down on a regular basis.* Of course, revisiting these goals on an annual basis to check on your progress and adjust if necessary is just as important as the initial plan itself.

In the financial planning realm, writing down a goal first requires articulating what you want to achieve. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help define your goals:

  • Am I adequately preparing (or prepared) for retirement?
  • Do I want to buy a house or make some other large purchase in the future?
  • Do I want to strike out on my own, either professionally or personally?
  • Do I want to set money aside for a child or a dependent? For education or something else?
  • How important is building a financial legacy I can pass along to future generations?

Use these questions to come up with specific, measureable goals. For example, if you’re saving for a house in the future, your goal can be to save 10% of your annual income for the next 5 years to put toward a down payment.

Once your goals are established, you can begin to make your plan to achieve them. I encourage you to create a plan that’s personally meaningful to you. After all, it’s your skin that’s in the game.

I’ve never put a plan together. Where do I even begin?

When we need advice and wisdom, we instinctively tend to seek help from our closest friends and family. I know I do—quite often might I add. Why? I trust them. My friends are often going through the same situations I face, while my family has years of wisdom and life lessons to pass down. Above all, it’s trust that plays a major role in who we let influence our decision-making process.

If you’re confident in your own ability, or comfortable placing your trust with a family member or friend to assist you with financial planning, here are some tips to help keep you on the trail:

  • Remember that paying off debt can be just as valuable as building an investment portfolio.
  • Start saving meaningful amounts sooner rather than later. Let the magic of compounding work in your favor.
  • Control the things that are within your control (e.g., your asset mix, investment costs, etc.). The rest—especially market performance—is out of your hands.
  • Manage how much risk you’re exposed to. Select the appropriate mix of investments for each goal.
  • Seek balance. Maintaining balance is a guiding principle that applies well to investing. In other words, be realistic. Don’t set goals that are too aggressive to achieve. Consider breaking large goals into smaller goals so you can feel a sense of accomplishment as you make progress each step of the way.

Maybe you already do have a plan

That’s great! Has it been vetted? Or better yet, implemented? If not, what’s the next step?

If you lack the time, willingness, or ability to create, implement, and monitor an investment plan, you can still create (and stick to) a plan with the help of an advisor. As an advisor myself, I think I provide the most value to clients by assisting with:

  • Establishing goals. If you’re struggling to articulate your goal, a good advisor will ask the right questions to help you define what’s important to you.
  • Behavioral coaching. By providing a buffer between your emotions and your portfolio, an advisor can make investment decisions feel less like an emotional roller coaster.
  • Serving as a trusted fiduciary. Partnering with someone that has your best interest in mind is a vital ingredient to long-term success.
  • Sharing insight about tax and investment strategies and opportunities. Financial planning is a craft. Good advisors aim to adapt their craft to meet the personal needs of every client.

Team up with a personal advisor

The good news is that beyond your family and friends, who you probably trust the most, there are plenty of genuinely interested and qualified financial advisors who can help you build a plan.

Partnering with a Vanguard advisor can help you reach your goals

A whole new year ahead …

As we all move into a new year and begin making plans, our to-do lists (as well as our bucket lists) will likely get rewritten more than once. At least I know mine will. With regard to my finances, I’ll be evaluating how much I’ve saved in my “retirement” bucket compared with my “first home” bucket. Once I reexamine my budget, I’ll adjust my monthly automatic investment plan to manage both goals.

As far as my bucket list, a client of mine recently recommended that I add the Black Forest Trail in Pennsylvania to my resume. The 43-mile loop located in the Tiadaghton State Forest is filled with stunning vistas and will require a few nights to complete. I’ll be sure to start working on my “float plan” as soon as the weather breaks in my favor. As Confucius once said, “A man who does not plan long ahead will find trouble at his door.”

*Source: The Huffington Post, The Power of Writing Down Your Goals and Dreams, 2017.