I got a message from a friend recently, asking me if I could recommend a financial planner.  This friend, let’s call her Gemma, is 27 years old, a few years out of uni and in PR – all of which suggested to me that she isn’t on the big bucks (yet!).

I said hey, why don’t you come over and have a planning session with me. If all you need is some goal setting, then the only cost is that you have to be a case study on the blog. If you need the real deal, then no worries.

She came over, we gossiped about everyone in PR, then we finally sat down with some coloured pens and blank paper (which I effing love!). What follows is of the bones of our conversation.

Let me preface it by saying I’m not a planner. All I am is a person who knows how to ask questions, provide life advice and use a smartphone calculator. The latter one, not even very competently.

But this is the kind of session many people never really do. I had a similar one over cake and coffee about 18 months ago with a mate from work. Sure, he is the head of a Wealth business, but really, he just helped me frame some goals and put some numbers around them. And it was massively useful – it led me to buying my current home … which I bloody love.

Question 1 – What are your goals?

Gemma had helpfully come prepared with these! One short-term goal was to ‘enjoy my lifestyle’, which sounds vague, but seemed to translate to ‘please don’t stop me buying a coffee every day’.

This is where mindful spending comes in. If you really, really love that coffee, and it’s the one thing standing between you and the despair of the working world, then cool. Build it in. Take some other cost out.

Other goals were to move overseas in a couple of years, and to buy a property in her mid-30s. So are these goals do-able? Let’s see.

Question 2. How much are you earning and spending? 

This wasn’t the most exacting process. Ideal world, you’d track every purchase for a month or two, and/or go through your bank statements. But we broke it down enough to get a sense of money in and money out.

This step is so damn critical, but people have a strong aversion to it. They seem scared to look their money dead in the eye, as if it will reach out and punch them.

But actually it’s the opposite most times. Stare that balance sheet down, and it will give you clarity and power.

We worked out that Gemma would have roughly $700 to spare every month, after expenses.

That surplus amount is where all the magic happens. Whether you want to save or invest, you need to play around with incomings and outgoings til you end up with an amount of money you can put to work.

If you are struggling to get to that point, you have two choices: earn more or spend less. So, get a second job, start a side hustle, sell some of your stuff etc. Or go through your spending and work out what you really need, and what you can live without.

Question 3 – How will you allocate your surplus? 

This is where it comes down to timing and priorities. Yeah, you probably can’t do everything you want.

So, what’s most important now, in a year, in five? If you’re looking at goals within those timeframes, putting it in the bank can be the best option, or maybe a low-risk investment  like an enhanced cash product.

That’s because anything less than five years means you don’t have time to ride out the ups and downs of markets.

If it’s longer than that, you can look at higher-risk things like shares and managed funds. This is where it can make sense to see a financial planner, because sifting your way through products is a bit of a mission.

For our friend Gemma, we decided to put most of it towards medium-term goals like going overseas (so, in the bank).

Question 4: How committed are you to your goals?

Then we looked at the viability of saving to buy a property seven years from now. While the idea of saving $100k (a pretty modest 20% deposit these days) sounds bloody hard, it’s not impossible.

The good thing about Gemma’s situation is that she’s at the start of her career. She is also whip-smart and ambitious AF. So even though she is on pretty crap money now, she is going to keep going up and up. The real trick for her is not to allow too much lifestyle inflation.

What if you avoid lifestyle inflation? Today on the left, future on the right. Stay real and you can do some real saving.

That means not spending more as you earn more. And goddamn that is haaaard.

I’ll confess. I earn pretty good money these days, and do a decent job of saving. I’m smashing my mortgage and stuff. But I have pitfalls. Like, I’m currently in a cycle of Shellac manicures (nothing but a dirty addict).

And it’s hard to talk myself out of the $35 spend when I have money in my account. So I am giving myself a few months of enjoyment. I swear I can give up whenever I want. But anyway, I feel your pain babes. If you have money, it’s natural to want to spend it on sugar hits like clothes and restaurants and make-up.

Anyway, you’re going to have lots of growing expenses if you’re in your 20s or 30s. You have so many decisions to make about what to splash out on. You can’t avoid them all. What you can do is stay mindful, set goals and check in on them regularly.

When we worked it out, Gemma can indeed save for a home if she keeps earning more, but doesn’t give into the temptation of pissing it away on fancy stuff. Too often, anyway.

Goal-setting is like going to the gym

It seems hard and sometimes scary beforehand. Gemma told me as much. It’s like you don’t want to hear bad news.

But just like the high you get walking out of a Spin class, it’s a fantastic feeling to have your goals all mapped in front of you.

So don’t be scared. Get your pens and pencils out babes, and get cracking on your future!

Hot tip: Check out this post for more on goal-setting, and a free worksheet I made for you!