More than half of American workers say they’re behind on saving for retirement, according to a recent Bankrate survey. For many people, retirement is the ultimate financial goal, so why do so many fall short? One reason may be a failure to set clear investment goals and stick with them over time.

It’s hard to reach your goals if you don’t know what they are in the first place. While it might be intimidating for some new investors to get started, identifying your top goals helps make it more likely that you’ll achieve them.

Here are four tips for establishing investment goals and choosing investments that will help you achieve them.

Know what matters the most to you

Before you start setting specific investment goals, you’ll want to spend some time thinking about what’s important to you. Do you plan to have kids? When do you see yourself retiring? Thinking through questions like these will help you determine what matters to you and what doesn’t.

From there, you can start identifying your investment goals, which is any event in your life that you’ll need to save and invest for in order to meet. Buying a house, weddings, having children and retirement are all common examples of investment goals. Here are some steps to help you identify and achieve your goals.

1. Decide what your top goals are

Everyone’s goals will be slightly different based on their unique circumstances. Identifying what yours are will help you prioritize your savings toward the most important areas of your life.

One popular way to think through goal setting uses the acronym of SMART. Here’s how it works.

  • S – Specific: Goals should be detailed and clear.
  • M – Measurable: Makes goals easier to track and determine if you’re on target or falling short.
  • A – Achievable: You should have the ability to reach the goals.
  • R – Realistic: Goals shouldn’t be far-fetched dreams.
  • T – Time-based: When do you expect to meet your goals?

2. Group your goals based on how far out into the future they might go

Once you’ve identified your most important goals, it’s helpful to segment them into different time horizons, which will help you select which investments fit best with each goal.

Short-term goals: Goals that fall into this category are likely to be things like a vacation, down payment on a car, or other events likely to occur in the next couple of years.

Medium-term goals: These goals are likely to be a bit larger and may require more time in order to meet them. Goals that are in this category might include a down payment on a house or even a wedding, depending on how big you want it to be.

Long-term goals: This category of investment goals includes what most people think of when they think about investing: retirement. If you’re just starting out in your career, retirement is likely 30 to 40 years in the future, making it the ultimate long-term goal. Saving for a child’s education would also fall into this category if you have young children and are saving for their future college expenses.

3. Choose investments that align with your goals

Once you’ve identified the time horizon for your goals, you’ll need to determine the best investments for each goal. Using the same investment strategy for different goals won’t make sense because the goals have different time frames. Here are the investments that tend to work best for different goals.

Investments for short-term goals

When you’re investing for events that are going to happen in a few years or even sooner, you’ll want to focus more on preserving your money than growing it aggressively. Money-market funds and high-yield savings accounts are some of the best low-risk investments you can make for short-term goals. You won’t make a lot of extra money, but you can be sure that it will be there when you need it while also maximizing your interest rate compared to what is available through traditional bank savings accounts.

Investments for medium-term goals

For goals that are a little bit further in the future — say three to five years — you might be able to take more risk, depending on your overall risk tolerance. Some may prefer sticking with safer investments like money-market funds and high-yield savings accounts. But for those with a higher risk tolerance, you might be able to earn better returns by allocating a small amount of your portfolio to high-quality stocks through an exchange traded fund, or ETF. Having a portion of your funds in dividend-paying stocks could also help you achieve your goals, but beware that even high-quality stocks can lose value.

Investments for long-term goals

Goals that are beyond five years should be considered long-term, which will allow you to take on additional risk in your investments. Some long-term goals, like retirement, may be decades in the future, which will give you plenty of time to make up for any losses that might occur. For these reasons, stocks are usually the best investment for long-term goals as part of a diversified portfolio.

The easiest way for most people to invest in stocks is through an online broker, which allows you to purchase a number of different securities. You can invest in a basket of stocks through mutual funds and ETFs, but be careful not to pay too much in fees. Index funds that track broad market indexes such as the S&P 500 have proven to be solid long-term investments, earning roughly 10 percent annualized returns, historically.

Target-date funds can also be a good fit for goals with specific dates in mind. These funds are labeled with the desired year in which the goal will be met and then invested with that time horizon in mind. For example, a 2050 target-date fund will be invested relatively aggressively today and then gradually shift its asset allocation to more conservative investments as time passes and that targeted end date gets closer. These can make sense for retirement goals or saving for a child’s college education.

4. Do an investment goal check-in periodically

Make sure to review your investment goals occasionally and make sure they still line up with your future plans. It’s normal to have goals change and you’ll want to adjust your investments when that happens.

It’s also important to adjust your investments as time passes and what were once medium or long-term goals become short-term goals. It doesn’t make sense to have all your money in stocks if you’re planning to retire in a couple of years. This periodic review can help make sure your portfolio is properly aligned with your goals and ability to take risks.

Bottom line

Figuring out your investment goals is an important first step toward achieving them. Think through what you see for yourself in both the short- and long-term and then invest based on those time horizons. Remember to review your goals at least once a year and adjust your portfolio accordingly. Staying disciplined and sticking to your plan is a great way to ensure your goals are met.

For those who prefer to let someone else handle their investments, robo-advisors can be a great way to access top-notch portfolio management at a reasonable cost well below that of traditional financial advisors. You can even get features like automatic portfolio rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting.