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Celebrating inchstones can help you reach your money goals

Why wait for milestones? Break your goals into small steps and stay motivated for success.

June 6, 2024

Written by Lisa Jackson

Illustration of a winding road with a celebratory blue balloon at every bend.

Key takeaways

  • To combat financial stress, some young Canadians are adopting the concept of "inchstones" — breaking down big financial goals into smaller, manageable steps.
  • Inchstones involve celebrating small victories, which can help boost confidence and motivation toward long-term financial goals like buying a house or being debt-free.
  • Start by figuring out what's most important to you, create a budget, break down goals into smaller steps, track progress visually, and automate savings.

Celebrating inchstones can help you reach your money goals

Do money milestones like buying a home or paying down a loan seem further away than ever? It may be time to celebrate your inchstones. 

The high cost of living is leaving many young Canadians feeling discouraged these days, with almost half of Gen Z losing sleep over money worries and some 43% struggling to cover daily expenses, according to the 2024 Scotiabank Worry Index

However, some savvy young people are tapping into a new trend: setting “inchstones.” Inspired by a parenting concept, this money move involves breaking up big financial goals that may feel daunting into small, manageable steps. 

“A lot of us are starting our lives feeling like we’re already ‘behind’ in achieving traditional life milestones, such as buying a house or having a wedding,” says Megan Rafuse, a registered social worker and co-founder of Shift Collab, an online therapy practice. “The idea of inchstones alleviates some of that societal pressure and allows you to progress at your own pace.”

Celebrating small victories, such as saving money or paying off debt, can boost your confidence and motivate you to pursue your long-term financial goals. Here’s how to do it like a pro.

What are money inchstones?

“Inchstones,” sometimes called “mini stones,” are small but significant wins that show you’re moving towards achieving bigger goals. “Setting inchstones” means breaking big goals into smaller steps — like walking forward an inch at a time rather than running a mile.

For instance, “money inchstones” could include reaching a specific savings target (e.g. saving $1,000 in an emergency fund), chipping away at your debt (e.g. paying off one credit card), or hitting specific investment goals (e.g. saving 10% of your income towards an RSP or TFSA). Adopting this “one step at a time” mindset can help you track your progress and stay motivated.

Money milestones versus inchstones

What’s the difference between money inchstones and milestones? Money milestones are significant financial achievements, like paying off a student loan, buying a home, or maxing out your TFSA or RSP. Reaching a money milestone is like (finally!) arriving at your destination after a long road trip. 

On the flip side, money inchstones are like checkpoints on the road. You carve up the long journey into a series of stopovers. For example:

  •  Money inchstone: You want to aggressively repay a $20,000 student loan in five years. You set up monthly payments of $334. Every time you make a payment, you hit an inchstone that takes you one step closer to wiping out the entire debt.
  • Money milestone: Once the entire $20,000 student loan debt is paid off, you’ve reached a milestone. It marks a major step toward financial stability.

Inchstones offer a moment to pause, applaud your progress, and ensure you’re on track to achieving your larger financial goals. Celebrating these wins can help you stay motivated to reach a milestone down the road.

“As a millennial, I wasn’t buying a house in my 20s like my parents did,” says Rafuse. “[Celebrating] inchstones means that I can still have a milestone goal, but I allow myself compassion and smaller steps to getting there. And I get to define what those wins are for me.” 

Illustration of a dollar bill measuring one inch.

Why celebrate your inchstones?

Celebrating your inchstones is more than just a pat on the back — it can also be a powerful motivator and tool for success. Here’s a primer on the psychology behind inchstones and why the approach works. 

It gives a mood boost

Small victories can improve your mood. Some researchers say that tracking, recognizing and celebrating the little wins can help you stay emotionally healthy. That rush that comes with a big win may feel amazing, but it’s also fleeting, whereas getting those mood lifts from your daily routine can have a more lasting impact.

“Achieving that little goal can help boost your confidence, which helps propel you forward,” says Rafuse. “Plus, wins and rewards give our brain dopamine — the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter.”

So, take a moment to applaud your efforts. It can help put you in a positive mental space, boosting your energy and drive to take on even tougher tasks.

It’s a potent motivator

You know the saying, “Keep your eyes on the prize?” That adage may need to be tweaked to align with what the research says. When we perceive our goals as too large, we often become less productive. Our brains get overloaded, making it harder to tackle problems with reason and logic.

“Having smaller goals gives you a sense of accomplishment, which is critical for staying motivated,” explains Rafuse. “We often get stuck in an ‘all or nothing’ mindset—if we face a setback, we see it as a failure. People often quit because they don't set smaller goals emphasizing progress.”

Like a squirrel frozen in the street staring at an oncoming truck, focusing only on big goals can feel overwhelming and stop us dead in our tracks. Celebrating smaller achievements, like inchstones, moves us steadily toward our bigger goals without feeling overwhelmed or stuck.

Likewise, other studies show that people working on complex problems (ahem…you!) need to regularly feel the small wins to stay motivated and productive. So, having a trail of tiny trophies along the path to collecting the Grand Prize can be a secret to success. 

How to create “inchstones” from your money goals

Ready to get started? Here are some steps to take when turning money goals into inchstones.

1. Reflect on your priorities

“To set healthy goals for yourself, especially around finances, it’s important to first understand what you value,” says Rafuse. “What’s important to you?”

Think about what matters most to you and what you want to achieve in the near and distant future. Then, organize your priorities into short-term, medium-term, and long-term financial goals. 

“If we’re unclear about what we want, we may start to chase after shiny objects based on what other people want,” says Rafuse. “But when our goals align with our values, we’re more likely to do the work to achieve them.”

2. Make a budget

Once you’ve listed your goals and the smaller steps needed to reach them, figure out how much money you need for each step and when you want to achieve it. You can use our savings calculator to get a ballpark idea of when you may reach a savings goal.

Next, look at your income and expenses to see how much you can save each month. Figure out how much money you need for necessities (like housing and groceries), how much you can spend on extras like entertainment and dining out, and how much you want to save or use to pay off debts. 

Tangerine’s Left to Spend tool makes this super easy. It uses information from your Tangerine Chequing and Credit Card Accounts, along with details you provide, to calculate your income and expenses and create a simple budget.

READ MORE: A beginner’s guide to budgeting

3. Break up big goals into inchstones — and make them “SMART”

Divide your big goals (e.g. “save for wedding”) into smaller, achievable inchstones. Rafuse says making your goals S.M.A.R.T. — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timebound — can help you stay accountable and on track.

  • Specific: Clearly define the big goal you want to achieve: “Save $10,000 for our wedding in three years.”
  • Measurable: Make sure you can track your progress: “Track monthly savings contributions to ensure reaching the $10,000 goal.”
  • Achievable: Set realistic smaller goals (or inchstones) that are within reach: “Put aside $278 every month.” You can use the Tangerine Savings Calculator to see when you will likely reach your goal.
  • Relevant: Your goals should match your overall financial objective: “Saving $10,000 for our wedding will help us have our dream celebration and keep us out of debt.”
  • Timebound: Set a deadline for achieving your goal. Example: “Reach $10,000 in three years or less.”

Setting inchstones as part of the S.M.A.R.T. goal approach can help make it easier to reach your big money milestones.

4. Track your progress

Use a visual tracker, such as a chart or graph, to monitor your progress toward each inchstone. Visualizing your progress can be incredibly motivating and help you maintain a positive attitude, even when snags arise.

Tangerine's Goals tool gives Clients a simple, automated way to save and track progress toward what they're saving for. 

5. Automate your savings

Automatic transfers are a game-changer for anyone saving for a goal or paying down debt. It’s an easy way for savers to contribute regularly and reach your target faster. If you’re paying off debt, automatic transfers help you consistently chip away at what you owe. It’s a smart strategy for breaking down big objectives into bite-sized pieces.

6. Create a celebration plan

Decide when and how you’ll celebrate each inchstone achievement. When you reach a certain point on your goal tracker, you could treat yourself to a nice dinner, buy something you’ve been wanting (within reason!), or simply take a day off to relax.

“Set aside a ‘fun money’ account so you can afford to celebrate,” says Rafuse. “It doesn't have to be a big purchase — it could be a weekend coffee with friends or going out dancing. These little celebrations can fill your cup.”

Whatever you do, take a timeout to reflect on the hard work and discipline it took to get there and savour the moment. You’re getting closer to your big goal!

illustration of a phone with a simple text-based inchstone tracker on it, organized into Goals and Rewards.

Mindset is everything

It’s not just about counting dollars and cents — your mindset also matters. Believing in yourself and staying laser-focused on your goals, no matter what obstacles fly your way, is your superpower! Here are a few tips to shift your mindset: 

1. Reframe the narrative

Changing how you perceive or talk about a situation can help transform challenges into opportunities. For instance, don't think of saving as a chore—you're paying yourself first. You're not ‘behind’—you’re charting your path.

“Setting inchstones allows us to reframe the situation,” said Rafuse. “For instance, maybe I want to pursue some traditional milestones, like buying a house, but how I get there looks different for me than for my parents or peers.”

2. Enjoy the ride

Make it fun! For instance, the 52-week challenge turns saving into a game you can play with friends, family, or by yourself. Infusing some fun into the challenge will make it easier to stay on track and feel energized to cross the finish line.

3. Expect setbacks

When you’re working towards a goal, setbacks are bound to happen. It’s normal! But how we deal with these hurdles can influence the outcome.

“When challenges happen, we may fall into the ‘all or nothing’ thinking trap — that either I’m perfect and doing everything right, or I’m a failure,” says Rafuse. “This leads us to stop moving towards our goals.”

Instead of dwelling on the negative, Rafuse says to prepare in advance and “build a buffer” for setbacks. For instance, making an emergency fund creates a cash cushion against life’s surprises. But whatever you do, cut yourself some slack whenever you hit a bump. 

“Be flexible and realistic, and you’ll be less stressed,” says Rafuse. “You don’t have to climb a mountain right away. Set up the inchstones first, then build the momentum and skills needed to hit bigger milestones.” 

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