Empty goal syndrome: What to do when your last goal leaves the nest

I shouldn't be admitting this in public, but it's the truth. Hi, I am a staff writer for a personal finance blog, and I'm losing interest in personal finance.

I'm not leaving the blog, and I'm not going crazy with spending. But I need a little shot of espresso in my ho-hum financial life.

This is the first time in my life that I've felt my enthusiasm waning. After all, I've always had goals that required me to manage cash, but my problem is that I have completed most of the things I set out to do. And I'm bored.

To help meet my prior goals, I devoured books and blogs on frugality tips and saving money for years. If you talked to me long enough, money always came up in the conversation. I couldn't help myself. Talking about money with other people gave me some great ideas and kept me focused.

Of course, when my husband and I had student loans, a car payment and two mortgages, I was also motivated to improve our financial picture, because living paycheck to paycheck stinks. And because I was motivated, applying what I had learned was easy… and fun.

But then more quickly than I thought possible, we weren't broke anymore. We started saving for other things. We started a family. We saved for some home-improvement projects. My husband took a pay cut to start his dream job, and as of July 31, I will be taking an indefinite break from full-time employment.

I still have some goals, like learning how to invest, paying off our mortgage, and starting my own business. But I am running out of steam as we coast down to the third stage of finance. All that's between us and being totally debt-free is a mortgage. And those goals I still have left? They're not exciting me at all.

Note: If you're where I was five years ago, and you hear me complaining to me about how boring it is to have all my consumer debt gone or how aimless I feel when there aren't many goals left, you may be frustrated and wish you had my problems. I am not trying to be thoughtless, especially if you're struggling. I am just trying to work out what these unfamiliar feelings actually mean — and how I can get back to my financially enthusiastic self.

When goals aren't good enough

Maybe the reason my remaining goals don't excite me is because they're not good goals. I may sound like Goldilocks, but paying off the mortgage goal is too big and learning to invest is too vague. With a little help, starting my own business could be just right.

A little tweaking of the goals with the SMART goal-setting system will definitely improve them. Take my goal of paying off the mortgage. Everything is wrong with that goal. My husband and I have talked about it several times. Sometimes we want to pay it off, and sometimes we want to pay the minimum and spend our money on other things. With a low interest rate and the fact that we're not underwater, either decision is OK. We just need to decide which path to take. If we don't decide to pay off the mortgage, we won't pay it off early. It's that simple.

But if we do decide to accelerate payments, I need to find a way to break down the big goal into several smaller ones. Based on past experience, $20,000 seems to be an amount that is small enough to inspire me to pay it off, but not too big that I get overwhelmed. I once taped papers together and made a chart as a visual inspiration to pay off the house. Each one-inch square was something like $4,000. With our large balance at the time, there were a lot of squares. The paper chart was huge (and ugly) and snaked around an entire room. I threw it in a closet and never looked at it again before eventually discarding it and bidding farewell to the two pointless hours I spent creating it.

When good goals aren't enough

After clarifying and improving my current goals, what I really need to find some new goals to get me excited again. Is there something fun I would like to save for? A special class, maybe? Or self-development? Maybe something that I can do to help others financially?

I need to find something to make me excited, because I have the best results when I am motivated. But I also know I'm not alone in faltering at this stage. Maybe because the first steps to financial success look almost the same for everyone, and because once you pay off your debts and save up some cash, well, the rest — your goal — is really up to you. Or maybe most people aren't there. I don't know.

I know an older couple who confessed that paying off their mortgage was anticlimactic. “It just wasn't a big deal. We thought it would be so huge to be able to get rid of that monthly payment, but it wasn't. We just have to make a decision on what to do with the money, just like we've always done.”

And I've found this stage of our finances to be the same. Paying off my consumer debt and saving money felt like a big deal. But I've been stuck here for months, and I can't believe how uninspired I am.

It's time to kick things up a notch and do something new.

How about you? How have you kept yourself motivated to stay the course, especially after you paid off consumer debt and learned the basics of personal finance?

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Marsha
Marsha
6 years ago

You don’t mention anything about saving for retirement. I’m assuming you’re putting some money away, but you seem to be only interested in short-term goals. Paying off the mortgage or saving more for retirement may be long term goals and are less exciting for you, but you really need to get out of this short-term mindset. One thing I’ve done when all my long-term goals were on track and I didn’t have any current short-term goals, was to challenge myself to give a certain amount or percentage of income to a favorite charity. It is exciting to stretch myself to… Read more »

Malcom
Malcom
6 years ago
Reply to  Lisa Aberle

I am in your similar situation. Recently paid of debt and now now feel “lost for goals”.

I have no desire to retire early but want the oppertunity. My new goal is to figure out how to grow enough passive income to retire from $0. My first step was to read Your Money or Your Life. My second, and present step is learing how to invest to create passive income.

I look forward to more articles from you.

Rebecca
Rebecca
6 years ago
Reply to  Lisa Aberle

Maybe if you decide to pay extra to the mortgage you should put that on autopay as well?
If it is just a routine bill, higher than before but just as routine, then you won’t have to think about it. Then you can freely select short term goals knowing that the long term is taken care of.

Amanda
Amanda
6 years ago
Reply to  Marsha

One of our goals is to pay off the mortgage before the kids go to college. Tying the two together might make it more eventful.

Simon @Modest Money
Simon @Modest Money
6 years ago

Well, I suppose over the course of our lifetimes goalposts to shift and we might lose the motivation for something we really had the fire for. I think its time for a sit-down, to slowdown and reflect on how far you’ve come and where you want to go, maybe unearth dreams you always had but forgot along the way and now would be a great time to pursue them. I’d also emphasize what Marsha suggests, consider giving back, maybe on a larger scale…touch more lives and help people get where you are now…a worthy goal that might actually provide a… Read more »

ShackleMeNot
ShackleMeNot
6 years ago

I understand your feelings.

I HATE debt. And I attacked it. And I won.

But now I’m not as intense or passionate about savings. The motivation isn’t as focused and it comes and goes.

lmoot
lmoot
6 years ago

I really enjoyed this post, thank you. I’m definitely not where you are yet, but I could see myself going through a financial identity crisis if (hopefully “when”) I too reach all of my money goals. You sound like me with the goal-visualizing. I used a white-board with graphs in my bedroom for sometime before I got frustrated with not seeing the marks go up for savings so I just erased it lol. I may revisit it again. I very much need to be motivated to do something…constantly. So I’m always re-evaluating my life plan, usually around my birthday or… Read more »

Vanessa
Vanessa
6 years ago

This was an interesting post. Thank you for sharing 🙂 I say, put something extra into your savings and travel around the world. Travel is always inspiring and there are so many wonderful things to see out there, harvest the fruit of your achievements. Personal finance is exciting because you become in control of your survival and comfort, but there is much more out there, that is just a tool to help you not worry about money. Saving for meaningful experiences is always exciting and inspiring. I am currently fighting consumer debt but also saving to go explore India and… Read more »

Renee s
Renee s
6 years ago

A goal that inspires me is to increase my net worth. I think the suggestions in these comments are good. What about a new hobby? Once I get to a comfortable place financially I want to learn something new…maybe how to be an awesome bartender? I think that would be fun. There are opportunities everywhere…you gotta seek em out and not become complacent 🙂 I decided recently to open a mary kay business ( http://www.marykay.com/solomon.re —if youre interested :)) It is risky and not guaranteed to be a money maker, but its exciting to take risks and I am in… Read more »

S.P.
S.P.
6 years ago

Hi Lisa! I totally understand where you are coming from…my husband and I are in the same place and its challenging to say focused and excited about all things financial. A few things that have worked for us…we go on one amazing vacation per year and spend a lot of time planning and dreaming (and budgeting). It makes us realize and appreciate why financial independence is so important to us. And to visualize our mortgage payoff, I traced our home’s floor plan onto a sheet of graph paper. I then divided the number of squares by the original loan amount… Read more »

Cindy @ GrowingHerWorth
Cindy @ GrowingHerWorth
6 years ago
Reply to  S.P.

I love that idea! That definitely is an awesome way to break down a large amount, and has a great visual impact!

Beth
Beth
6 years ago
Reply to  S.P.

We are doing something similar! I have set up our mortgage (our only debt) to resemble the layout of the game CandyLand. Every $1,000 increment gets a square, and it gets colored in along the way.

To make it fun, I added little perks at every $10,000 increment, like “Go out for a great dinner” or “Shopping spree of $100 each.” It keeps it fun while also serving as a visual reminder of our goal. It also has the benefit of breaking up our debt into smaller pieces as well as smaller goals along the way to being debt-free.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
6 years ago
Reply to  S.P.

I love that idea! I don’t have a mortgage yet, but I can see using the coloured squares for a downpayment. Any money I can set aside is money I don’t have to borrow or pay interest on.

I might try this strategy with saving up for a car (if I continue to drive that is!)

Brian @ Luke1428
Brian @ Luke1428
6 years ago

Love your thoughts here Lisa! I stay motivated in two ways: 1) focusing on leaving a legacy though my children and seeing my wealth impact our family for generations and 2) figuring out ways I can help others with my money or with my knowledge. At some point, it’s not about me anymore – it’s about impacting others.

Carol
Carol
6 years ago

I think choosing a very important charity could be a good motivator. There are some great causes out there that need all the support they can get. Pick a cause near and dear to you…..and either volunteer or raise some cash for them!

Debt Blag
Debt Blag
6 years ago

I’m sure that all of your “goals” will have goals of their own soon enough, that you can spoil to their little goal-hearts’ contents 🙂

Matt @ Your Living Body
Matt @ Your Living Body
6 years ago

Never stop dreaming – that’s one way to stay motivated. Then write down those dreams and come up with short term goals to help keep you motivated for the bigger picture.

Mrs. Waste Not
Mrs. Waste Not
6 years ago

Great post with lots of honesty! I think we keep ourselves motivated with a small reward system. When part of our mortgage gets paid off we reward ourselves with something we normally wouldn’t do – a fancy dinner, a nice bottle of wine or a weekend getaway. It gives us something to look forward too rather than just numbers.

Rebecca
Rebecca
6 years ago

While learning about investing was interesting to me in its own right, I had added family motivation to learn. My father had always done the investing for my parents and he was ill at the time. My mother had no interest in learning. I needed to learn about investing both to plan my own investments as well as to ensure that she was in appropriate ones as well after he passed away.

My Financial Independence Journey
My Financial Independence Journey
6 years ago

Most of personal finance becomes boring the minute you master the basics – building a budget, saving money, paying off debt, etc. You could go the minimalism route and find ways to cut as much out of your life as possible. But personally, I don’t really see the point unless you like bragging about how little you spend. IMHO, the real fun starts when you work on building real wealth. Not mundane stuff like buying a house or saving for retirement. But rather building portfolios of assets that produce real income right now. Some people like real estate. I’m big… Read more »

Anne
Anne
6 years ago

I can totally relate to this as husband and I are retired and the house is paid off. In the three years of our mutual retirement we haven’t had to touch one penny of savings, we live nicely on social security and his pension. We take three major trips a year and we give a nice chunk monthly to charities. I even get to indulge my love of clothes (at bargain price stores.)

I’m still frugal because it’s ingrained, but feel definitely aimless about financial goals.

Phoebe@www.allyouneedisenough.com
6 years ago

I totally understand how you feel! After I paid off my debt I let go of the reigns a bit and just wasn’t as focused. Finally I got my zip back by plotting out our future financial projections, realizing that we can retire at age 37 if we work at it. we’re currently 29 so this goal is just 8 years away and helps me to stay focused and driven. Good luck!

David S
David S
6 years ago

First figure out what you want to do? For myself and after a lot of reflection, that is to spend time with my family. Now how can I do that? Well I would need passive income to replace my current active income. So that is my goal.

By then seeing how much I get in interest, dividends and/or rents each month, I get excited as that monthly passive income grows.

Jake @ Common Cents Wealth
Jake @ Common Cents Wealth
6 years ago

I totally understand what you’re saying. My wife and I just recently finished paying off all of our debt and are now wondering what to do. We have some goals for the rest of the year and long-term, but they don’t really have the reward of being debt-free attached to it. I think we’re going to just have to find something we’re passionate about to strive towards and make that our new big goal.

Derek - MoneyAhoy.com
Derek - MoneyAhoy.com
6 years ago

I think the issue is that the goals that you’ve developed aren’t linked to dreams that you have.

What are you really passionate about in life that you’d like to do more of? Link your SMART goals to this, and you’ll find yourself moving forward on all cylinders!

It sounds like you’ve just developed goals, but they aren’t really linked to anything meaningful in your life…

mike
mike
6 years ago

I don’t know how big the family is you just started, but the cost of a 4 year tuition to a public school could be close 200k 18 years from now if things don’t get reined, over that if you include room and board. Its close to 100k now with room and board. Private school would be over 400k factoring tuition hikes.
I don’t know if this is sustainable for another 20 years, but college can be a fortune now.

Monica @MonicaOnMoney
Monica @MonicaOnMoney
6 years ago

Good point! I’m working on paying my mortgage and its very intimidating with such a large amount. Seems like an unatainable goal without specific goals. Mine is to pay $200 extra per month.

Charlotte
Charlotte
6 years ago

This is exactly my thoughts the last few weeks. We are moving into the third stage of personal finance but losing steam. After our debt was paid off and we started saving, all we have left are big goals such as a paid off house and retirement. Do you have any travel goals? That is a good short-term goal. We like to travel but struggling with questions like: “Do we want to go to such place for $3K-$5K or put that towards the house?” It is an interesting stage. We have enough in savings to sleep well at night but… Read more »

celyg
celyg
6 years ago

I’m in the same boat. Right now, I’m focused on paying down my mortgage. I use each 10K increment as a goal — if the balance is 167K, I focus on dropping into the 150s, etc. I can’t WAIT to drop below 100K!

Graham
Graham
6 years ago

I can see your dilemma. I’m 25 and just paid off my student loan, and in hindsight, I won’t say it was a bad idea, but I should not have done it. Not only does it not make that big of a difference making the monthly payment, but it also dinged my credit score for paying it off early! But on a more grandiose scale, I’d recommend tracking your net worth and keeping tabs on your personal P&L statement to keep you going. Sure, you have more money than you had last month. But when I look at my personal… Read more »

Georgina
Georgina
6 years ago

Yeah, I sympathize but the home loan still remains on my subconscious mind. I am interested in your ideas. The trouble (or not) is that I am retired from a profession and a business and going back to either is not an option for me. Any suggestions?

Carrie
Carrie
6 years ago

I have experienced lack of motivation twice in my financial journey: first when transitioning from paying off debt to building my emergency fund and a second time when transitioning to paying off my mortgage early. Building an emergency fund just didn’t feel that exciting, but after going through a slow season in freelance work, I was so thankful that I was able to push through the boredom and get that money in the bank! It was much easier to re-fund the bank account after needing to draw from it in order to make my mortgage payment! After saving for the… Read more »

jim
jim
6 years ago

I kind of get where you’re coming from. Sometimes, when things are just on auto-pilot you lose your enthusiasm. Right now, we’re in the “pay off the mortgage, save for retirement and save for FUN/traveling”. What is keeping us motivated right now is the fact that our son is going to law school and that child is going to be flat-ass broke when he does it (even with a scholarship). So, in a show of solidarity, we have decided that we will live like broke law students too for the next 3 years (or 4 if you count the time… Read more »

Frugal Coconut
Frugal Coconut
6 years ago

Thank you for writing about this perspective. I can definitely relate. Last year I was full steam ahead for paying off the mortgage on my primary residence (DONE). Then I was frantically saving up for a refinance on my investment property (DONE). I should be funneling any extra money into reserves but for now I’m still playing catch-up on funding my retirement accounts to maximum contribution levels. Either way it’s boring. I like watching my net worth increase but it’s futile to pay attention to short-term fluctuations because I still have several more years remaining until my planned early retirement.

Michael | The Student Loan Sherpa
Michael | The Student Loan Sherpa
6 years ago

If you are looking for a new goal, please allow me to suggest one: Pay off my student loans. It is challenging and you will part of an awesome team.

Eryka Peskin
Eryka Peskin
6 years ago

First of all, “goal” is a terribly uninspiring word, as far as I’m concerned. Plus they change. All the time. So there’s not a whole lot of consistency, which makes it hard to stay motivated. I prefer WHYs and desires. These are things that keep me motivated and are part of my vision for my life. These tend to be less likely to change. Like, a goal might have been to finish grad school…but the desire is to educate myself so I can help others and myself. And then the WHYs, which are basically my mission in life; how I… Read more »

Nina
Nina
6 years ago

Hi Lisa! Thank you for the post. Wish we will all get to where you are sooner or later! I read your post and got to thinking.. Why do you need another goal? Why not just let things be for now, until something comes along the way and makes you motivated again? I am at the point where I’ve got rid of debt and don’t have another goal. Instead of trying to come up with a new goal, I’ve relaxed my attitude a bit to enjoy life more. Finally I have the chance to do all the things I could… Read more »

Alex Gadd
Alex Gadd
6 years ago

What you mention here in this post is so true: I have known several times in my life where I strived to achieve something and on doing so, found myself to be in a bit of an anti-climax, aka bored. I remember when in uni learning how when an organism is not growing it is dying. This would explain why when many high career fliers retire, they often kick the bucket within 2 years due to not doing anything anymore. Hence it is true that we need to alway have goals to achieve beyond the initial goals which we set… Read more »

Vicky
Vicky
6 years ago

I find my inspiration in helping others, sharing what I have learned; seeing the frown in their faces full of financial fears and worries turn into smiles of hope and looks of wonder and almost happiness knowing that there might be a way out is immensely rewarding!!

L@Dandelion Cabal
6 years ago

I find long goals hard to keep interested in as well… I find the thing that motivates me most for saving money is to set up a graph in Excel. At the end of every month, I update all the numbers, and see the lines go up on the graph. I have both an “estimated” line and an “actual” line, and find it fun to try to beat the estimated savings amount every month. Another thing I’ve seen done, but not tried, is to divide your retirement goal into sections: Basics, Travel, Hobbies,etc. So you could figure out you wanted… Read more »

William Cowie
William Cowie
6 years ago

Very well thought out and articulated, Lisa. There is one medium term issue you might want to set your sights on, and that’s the next recession. No, this isn’t alarmist hype, but there WILL be a next recession… there always is. The good news is you have a few years to get ready. Ready for what? Ahhh… THAT’s the fun part. Fun? Yep. That’s when you get time shares for 5 cents on the dollar, Caribbean cruises for less than half price — in other words, really fun stuff you feel you can’t (or shouldn’t) afford. The key of course… Read more »

Monica
Monica
6 years ago

If you’re looking for a new goal- maybe help someone else with their fundraising goal? I’m obviously biased since I’m currently fundraising for my husband’s lung transplant, but I would suggest cota.org. You could help a family in your community!

Jamie@SoyMilkMustache
6 years ago

It sounds like your Bucket List could use some updating! Dude and I are almost debt-free, but we’ll always have short-term savings goals. We put aside money in a Pet Fund for the kitty. We put money into the Travel Fund for annual international vacations. We have the Fun Fund for two majorly expensive dinners every year (joint birthday and anniversary), a Car Fund, multiple retirement funds, and of course the ever-growing Emergency Fund. But if/when we still consistently find ourselves with extra money each month, we’ll sit down and talk about our home, or our relationship, or our families,… Read more »

Kraig - Young Cheap Living
Kraig - Young Cheap Living
6 years ago

Lisa, It is tough when you’ve been working on a goal for a long time and then bam, you achieve it, or in some cases, change directions and make that goal irrelevant. I’ve found it’s always good to have multiple goals and sometimes, they may be in conflict with one another. An example of this for me is striving for financial independence and entrepreneurship at the same time. Ultimately, these goals are in alignment with each other, but in the short term, I decided to take a cut in pay, delaying FI, but making the entrepreneurship thing happen now. Take… Read more »

imnotyetdead
imnotyetdead
6 years ago

This is an interesting topic to write about. My interest and focus on my money definitely peak when I have specific goals that I’m excited about. I think this is a good thing to some extent, though I can sometimes get wrapped up about planning for future goals and forget about the present. At the same time, it can be easy to lose track of where your money goes or how well your financial plan is working if you don’t keep track of it. Regardless, it’s always good to have something about the future that you’re excited about, whether or… Read more »

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