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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Dear Tori: How to reach financial goals when barely making ends meet

Dear Tori: How to reach financial goals when barely making ends meet

Tori Dunlap

Dear Tori,

Recently, I’ve focused a lot on learning about personal finance, but the problem I am now having is figuring out how to save and invest when I’m barely making ends meet. It’s hard to feel like I’m making any real savings or debt-payoff progress when there is so little money left over after all my necessary expenses. I feel like I must be doing something wrong. How do I reach my financial goals when there’s no money left at the end of the month?

I do my best to provide accurate, accessible, and realistic financial information, always with the hope that by doing so I will help other people meet their money goals, regardless of their financial situation. But the reality is that my financial insight only goes so far when there are so many factors at play. Sure, saying “automate your savings” can be helpful, but only if there is money available to save.

Something that I firmly believe is that personal finance is 10% personal choices and 90% circumstances, and some of us have been dealt really challenging financial hands. I don’t know your personal circumstances, but I do know how hard – or even altogether impossible – it can feel to reach your financial goals when there are only pennies (or even debt) left at the end of every month. It can be discouraging to feel like you are working so hard to “do everything right” only to not see it pay off.

While it can be discouraging, there are ways you can reach your financial goals with some planning, discipline, and a whole lot of self-love.

First things first, show yourself some grace

You mentioned feeling like you are “doing something wrong” since you haven’t been able to reach your financial goals despite working so hard to do so. This is a sentiment I hear frequently from people experiencing a similar financial situation – they work hard to provide for themselves and their families, they are trying to develop financial literacy and make all the right money decisions, while also taking care of their loved ones and homes, and then they spend so much energy beating themselves up for…

…past financial mistakes.

…not working hard enough.

…not having enough money in the bank.

…not being able to afford X, Y, or Z.

It’s exhausting, and it’s really unfair, and it’s got to stop.

I don’t know the specifics of your situation. As a money coach, I want to assure you that you deserve a lot of grace and not one bit of the shame and guilt you are experiencing.

You are doing your best, and that is what matters. You might not be exactly where you want to be financially just yet, but you are taking steps – huge steps – in the right direction. It may not feel like it right now, but someday when you reach a major financial milestone, you will look back on your journey and see that it was the daily decisions, persistent practices, and small money habits that were built during the toughest days that helped you reach that goal.

Give yourself some grace. You deserve it, and it will help sustain you as you work toward where you want to be.

Next, reassess your financial goals

Sometimes the reason we feel like we aren’t making progress on our financial goals is simply because those goals may be unrealistic for where we are right now.

For example: saying that you are going to save 70% of your income sounds great in theory, but this goal probably isn’t very realistic for most people, and while setting a super ambitious financial goal can seem harmless, the reality is that it can actually do more harm than good because we are setting ourselves up for disappointment if we don’t reach that impossible goal. And what happens when we consistently fail to reach our goals? We become more and more disappointed and frustrated and discouraged, and become more and more likely to abandon the goal altogether.

You know how they say “Rome wasn’t built in a day?” Well, the same goes for our financial life – reaching those goals takes time. The key to reaching them as quickly as possible is to stick to them.

So write down your existing financial goals and assess whether they are:

  1. Realistic
  2. Sustainable

If any of your goals don’t fit into these categories, adjust those goals appropriately until they do.

Now, let’s figure out why you are struggling to reach your financial goals

I know what you’re thinking – Tori, I already know why I’m not reaching my financial goals. There’s not enough money at the end of the month after my essential expenses. You’re absolutely right, but I want you to understand your finances on a deeper level and really figure out the nitty gritty of why you don’t have as much money at the end of the month as you would like to.

Sit down with a pen and paper and take some time to journal about the specifics of your finances that are preventing you from reaching your financial goals and ask yourself questions like these:

  • How am I spending my money going on a monthly basis?
  • What are my essential monthly expenses? What are my non-essential monthly expenses?
  • Am I being compensated fairly for my work?
  • Is a lack of time, energy, or other resources preventing me from earning as much as I should?
  • Are there additional factors at play that are preventing me from reaching my financial goals (i.e. a family emergency, a sudden unexpected expense, loss of a job, etc.)?

Next, let’s come up with a game plan

Now that you have more clarity on the various factors that are preventing you from reaching your financial goals, it’s time to come up with a plan for how to change those factors. Using your journaling exercise from above, start to ideate on ways that you can change your financial strategy to better reach your money goals.

Did you realize that your monthly spending is maxing out your budget? Ask yourself, where can I trim my monthly spending? If so, how much can I reduce?

Maybe you realized that you are being undercompensated in your current role. Ask yourself, is there the potential to earn more money in my current role? Is it time to negotiate for a raise? Time to look for another job?

Maybe your situation is that your earning potential is limited by a lack of time due to being in school or having to work on your kids’ schedule. Ask yourself, would a job with a different schedule better work with my lifestyle and improve my earning potential? Does it make sense for me to take on a side hustle in my spare time? Would working remotely make more sense for my lifestyle and financial goals?

Perhaps you realized that there are other, extraneous circumstances that are preventing you from reaching your financial goals, like a recent family emergency, the loss of a job, or a cross-country move. Ask yourself, is this season of financial strain temporary? When do I anticipate it ending? Is there anything I can do to speed up that process? Should I cut myself more slack for not reaching my financial goals perfectly during this season? (Hint: the answer is yes!)

I know how easy it can be to feel “stuck” and hopeless when you are experiencing financial strain, but this exercise can help you identify clear, actionable steps to get yourself “unstuck” and heading in the right direction.

Finally, don’t be afraid to explore all your options

I know this can be a lot easier said than done. But using all of the “tools in your toolbelt” can make the difference between having extra money at the end of the month – or having too much month at the end of your money. From asking for help to utilizing free online financial tools, there are often resources available to us that can help us reach our financial goals and reduce our financial strain.

Have a bill with a due date approaching and no money to pay for it? Reach out to the lender and ask for a payment extension or if you can skip one payment and tack it onto the end of your payment cycle. Many institutions will offer some flexibility if you have a previous standing of consistent payments.

Need specific financial advice but don’t have the money available to pay a professional? Utilize Empower’s comprehensive library of free financial resources.

Wish you had more time available to focus on your side hustle? Ask friends and family members if they could watch your kids for a few hours so you can get some extra work done.

Know that you’re undercompensated at work but don’t have the opportunity to get a raise? Ask your community if they have leads for places that are hiring and reach out to past employers and coworkers for letters of recommendation.

Remember, it may take time to reach your financial goals and the journey won’t always be linear. But with clarity, consistency, and grace, you will start reaching your financial goals and learn important financial skills that will serve you for a lifetime.


Tori Dunlap

Tori Dunlap


Tori Dunlap is a millennial money and career expert. After saving $100,000 at age 25, Tori founded Her First $100K to fight financial inequality by giving women actionable resources to better their money. A Plutus award winner, her work has been featured on Good Morning America, New York Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, and more. An honors graduate of the University of Portland, Tori currently lives in Seattle, where she enjoys eating fried chicken, going to barre classes, and attempting to naturally work John Mulaney bits into conversation.


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