Another piece of the puzzle is your time horizon. Some goals come with a set time frame, such as education.
"Once you have a baby you know you have 18 years until the first year of college hits," says Shashin Shah, a Chartered Financial Analyst, Certified Financial Planner and president of SGS Wealth Management in Dallas.
Other goals don't have an expiration date, but can depend instead on your financial wherewithal: when to retire, for example, or moving into a bigger house.
"If someone starts with nothing at 35 and wants to retire at 50, they'll either need to achieve a 20 percent return on their investments, work longer or back off their goal savings amount," he says. "They'll need to find out what they are willing to do to achieve their goals."
You don't want investments to get eaten up by taxes, but before funneling every extra penny into tax-deferred investments such as a 401(k) plan or IRA, consider carefully if you might need the money for some other purpose before retirement. Otherwise, you'll feel the bite of penalties.
"This is a little known fact for mainstream America," says John Pallaria, adjunct professor in the Certified Financial Planner program at Boston University, "but if they are under 59½ and tap a 401(k) or its equivalent to pay for education, they'll be hit with taxes and a 10 percent penalty on the amount of withdrawal."
Dipping into IRAs early is admissible in some circumstances, including education: "They can actually tap IRA products before 59½ and pay taxes but no penalty when using the funds for education," he says.