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Got goals? These simple actions will help you get the things you want

Key Points
  • Don’t forget about the skills you need to learn to achieve your goals.
  • The building blocks of a healthy financial life are essential, and they start with simple, basic skills.
Todd Kunsman
Source: Todd Kunsman

Everyone's got money goals.

We want houses, vacations, healthy bank accounts — the things that make life worth living.

You probably know people with great salaries who have all these things. But don't let your smaller salary or lack of knowledge stand in your way. You can have them, too.

It just takes learning some skills to achieve those goals.

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Don't despair of making progress. Other people made changes to move their own financial needle. That means you can, too.

Todd Kunsman, 31, got tired of living paycheck to paycheck.

Nicholas Hartford, 33, realized out-of-control spending was holding him back.

They looked around to see how they could change, and today they are both happy they made the effort.

1. Change your mindset

Hartford, a field service engineer in Maryville, Tennessee, learned some early money lessons from his dad, but they weren't serving him that well.

Out-of-control spending was a major problem.

"My father spent money however he wanted," said Hartford. "He always said, 'This is my money. I'll do whatever I want to.'" When Hartford grew up, he also spent freely on whatever caught his eye.

Nicholas Hartford
Source: Nicholas Hartford

At age 28, Hartford got tired of money woes. "I realized I don't always have to be broke," he said. After reading some popular personal finance books, Hartford slowly began changing his view on his finances.

Before, nothing could have convinced him to save. "I thought I was right, and I couldn't see any other way," Hartford said.

Today, Hartford budgets carefully, and he and wife only buy things that will have a return on investment. His side gig is making wood furniture. "We are really trying to save and start investing, instead of just hoping our savings will be enough," he said.

How he got there: reading, learning and seeing the results of more careful spending.

2. Track spending

The best way to start is to analyze everything, says Kunsman, who used to live paycheck to paycheck on a slim salary. Today, he's head of marketing for a software company in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, and blogs about personal finance.

When Kunsman got serious about making financial changes, he wrote down everything in a spreadsheet to see where all his money was going. "Writing it down is really helpful," he said, "because it's easy to overspend without realizing it."

It's easy to overspend without realizing it.
Todd Kunsman

What Kunsman learned from tracking: His gym membership could go ("I wasn't really using it"). A particular bill wasn't due till later in the month, so he could save first and pay the bill later. He really wasn't making enough to comfortably meet his car payment, student loans and rent. "It propelled me to make career changes so I'd earn more," he said.

3. Pay yourself first

Here's a simple thing that's easy to overlook. "The common thing is to pay your bills and loans on time," Kunsman said. "Nothing wrong with that, but I forgot about the savings part."

After paying bills, Kunsman found he might have a spare $10 or $20. "That's not enough to be OK in an emergency," he said. Instead, he reversed the two actions and began focusing on saving first at a certain percentage, which snowballed over time.

4. Embrace learning

Hartford took a do-it-yourself approach to financial learning, starting with popular books such as "Rich Dad, Poor Dad."

He likes podcasts and blogs, and recommends immersing yourself in as much information about investments as you can. "Knowledge is really critical to developing good habits," he said.

5. Be patient

Time management and patience are key, Kunsman says. You think you don't have time, but you could be wasting a few hours an evening on Netflix. He suggests taking just half an hour in the evening to read up on personal finance. Books, online articles, groups — just take the time to start learning more.

Be patient about seeing results. "It just takes time even if you think you're not saving much," he said. "You don't realize until six months or a year how much you've been able to save up."

"It takes some time to rebuild after bad decisions," Hartford said. When you're learning new ways and better practices, give yourself time to develop expertise.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.