The 5 Burners of Personal Finance & Chasing Financial Goals

There’s an old approach to handling work-life balance called the “Four Burners Theory.”

The idea is simple.

There are four burners that split everyone’s time, energy, and resources into:

  1. Family
  2. Friends
  3. Work
  4. Health

But here’s the problem…

Everyone has limited time available to pursue these important aspects of life and is stretched thin trying to achieve multiple financial goals.

In order to truly be successful I have to 1) Make priorities and 2) Figure out how to manage them.

I first came across the 4 Burners Theory through James Clear and it changed the way I approach managing my time and life priorities.

I want to take the same idea and look at the way I manage my money. I will be showing you how to save for multiple things at once.

Two weeks ago I sat down with a mentor of mine who is a financial advisor and I asked him one question, “What is the biggest advantage of hiring a financial advisor?”

For him, the answer was easy.

“Peace of mind for the client. I think so they don’t have to. I do all the work in balancing their financial goals so they can focus on work and their family.”

He even acknowledged that his clients are not hiring him to get a superior return or to drastically beat the market average. They want the peace of mind of knowing that they’ll be able to take care of themselves in retirement.

Paying an extra 1% a year for peace of mind isn’t cheap. Over a lifetime of investing, you’ll likely end up parting with over $500,000 for someone else to think and plan for you.

Read More: Ultimate Guide to Finding the Best Expense Ratio

How to Balance Multiple Savings Goals

If paying almost half a million dollars for someone to plan for you sounds fine, then please, close out this tab and move along. If the idea of parting with that much for a financial advisor sounds crazy, well… that’s because it is.

Woman with her hands on her face staring into space while sitting in her office

My whole goal here at PF Geeks is to help people take control of their finances.

I want to help you take back control of your money.

The most difficult part in managing your own money is figuring out the best way to allocate the money that you are working so hard to save.

Today I want to outline the 5 burners of personal finance to help you take control of your money to chase after all your multiple goals.

The 5 Burners:

  1. Retirement
  2. Paying off Debt
  3. Other savings goals (Emergency funds, House downpayment, college funds)
  4. Entertainment (fun, travel, etc)
  5. Giving

How do you save for multiple goals without getting overwhelmed?

Here are just a few of the questions people must figure out how to answer:

  • How do you know whether you should invest for retirement or clear debt?
  • Should you prioritize saving for your 403b retirement account or your kids’ college?
  • Is it better to travel in your 20’s when you are young or wait until you are 60 and retired?
  • When is the best time to start giving to causes that you care about?

Now, there definitely isn’t room in this one post to answer each of those, but I hope to provide a small framework to help you start making some of those decisions for yourself.

Want to make a budget that will help you reach your goals? I recommend using a zero sum budget

8 Approaches To Reaching Your Savings Goals

1. Use a Dedicated Savings Account 

I know, this sounds obvious. However, the first rule of savings is ensuring that you put your money in a high-interest savings account, not your checking account.

Fortunately, most savings accounts will allow you to create multiple target savings to address multiple savings goals. This way, you can have all your money in a single savings account. 

The account you choose should not have transaction fees and allow you to withdraw your money without penalties. 

2. Write Your Goals Down

Writing down your multiple goals helps you visualize them, create a savings plan, and easily see your progress. Yes, you could create several accounts and start putting money into them. However, if you want your saving goals to be tangible and motivate yourself to save consistently, you will need to write them down. 

I recommend using an Excel spreadsheet to help you capture several important pieces of info on one page. The spreadsheet should include the following: 

Person writing down on a spreadsheet while dollar bills and a calculator are spread in his table
  • A list of your multiple savings goals 
  • Their deadlines 
  • The amount needed to achieve each savings goal 
  • Saving frequency (E.g, weekly, biweekly or monthly) 

The period and frequency may vary depending on the urgency and the amount you need to save for a particular goal. 

3. Balanced Approach: Divide and Conquer

One way to approach multiple savings goals is a balanced approach where you spread out your monthly surplus between your various priorities.

The great thing about this approach is that you are able to make progress in every area and nothing ends up getting neglected. You have the comfort of not being caught off guard. As you start to reach certain goals, you would then re-allocate.

So while you may not be aggressively paying off your debt, eventually you would have it paid off and you could then put that money towards your other goals.

But it may not be the best approach.

While you might be making some progress in every area, each area will be moving along slowly. This slow progress might end up leading to no progress.

It also may not be the best choice mathematically. If you have high-interest debt, then you may be better off with a different approach. And at some point vacations and travel might have to take a back seat to setting yourself up for the future.

4. Goal Stacking

A second approach is to goal stack. If you’re familiar with debt payoff strategies, this is most similar to the debt avalanche or snowball approach.

The idea here is to focus on certain goals, while neglecting or putting the bare minimum towards others. Ideally, this is done in a way that “stacks” and builds a snowball of success.

This approach is probably best if your primary goal is clearing a large amount of debt, especially if it is higher interest. If you’re stuck with credit card, student loans, or an auto loan that is crushing your monthly budget and limiting your monthly surplus, this is a way to quickly free up cash.

And the sooner you can clear your debt, the sooner you can move on towards other goals like saving cash for retirement or for a home downpayment.

The flexibility here is that you can allocate your monthly cash flow in a way that reflects your priorities and that can build off of each other. As you knock out certain goals, you can move towards one of the other two approaches where you save in a more balanced way.

The huge advantage of goal stacking is the momentum you start to build. When you are able to make great progress on specific goals each month, it will motivate you to work even harder.

The primary disadvantage though is that you might have to neglect certain goals for the sake of others. For instance, you might have to delay saving for retirement while you pay off your debt, but the hope is that once you are debt free, you’ll be able to quickly catch up and get where you need to be.

This isn’t perfect though and there might just be a better way.

5. Embrace Seasons of Life

The third approach is less about picking a single way forward and more about breaking your life into seasons. Instead of trying to be perfectly balanced or all out chasing certain goals, you may want to let your strategy be flexible depending on where you’re at in life.

Piggybank placed on a table

When you’re young, you may need to prioritize clearing debt.

As you begin to have kids, you may need to start focusing on putting aside more money for their college education.

Once you have your bases covered, you can start saving for retirement and travel.

This might seem like a reasonable approach, and I think it’s how most people end up unconsciously allocating their savings, but it has a major pitfall. 

These people spend their whole lives saving, but never for retirement.

They are free of consumer debt, living in a nice house, and the kids are going to make it through college without student loans. All is great until they wake up at 45 or 50 with no retirement savings.

The worst part about this is that they don’t have the timeline to allow for compounding returns to work their magic.

They’ve spent their whole life saving, yet they have nothing saved.

6. Automate Your Savings

It is easy to forget to save. It can be even trickier if you are dealing with multiple savings. That is why you need a savings account to automate your savings goals. 

To do this, you will first need to clearly define how much you are putting toward each of your savings goals. Next, schedule your savings account to automatically deduct cash from your main account based on the frequency you set for each goal. 

7. Creating a Disciplined and Personal Approach

The truth is there is no one perfect system when trying to save for multiple goals. You can follow one or another savings plan but the best option is creating a personal approach that is guided by some absolutes.

The goal here is to find what 1) works for you 2) makes financial sense and 3) is guided by some “money absolutes” or self-imposed rules.

Here is a snapshot:

  1. Save & maintain  2-3 months of rainy day funds
  2. Pay off all high interest debt as fast as possible (4% +)
  3. Interest under 4% is paid with minimums and focused on investment
  4. Once my emergency fund is full, all high-interest debt is paid off, and I have automated my giving, then I can focus on my long-term goals while setting cash aside for travel and vacation.
  5. Long-Term Goals
    1. Retirement: At least 50% of monthly surplus
    2. House downpayment: $500/monthly until I buy
  6. Money absolutes
    1. Give 10% of my income to my church
    2. Invest the minimum to receive employer match
    3. Rules:
      1. I don’t vacation without a rainy day fund.
      2. I don’t vacation if I have high-interest debt.
      3. I don’t vacation unless I am giving 10%.
      4. I don’t take a vacation unless I am meeting my employer match.
Pile of dollar bills spread in a table

My approach involves a mix of the three. I “goal stack” by prioritizing an emergency fund and eliminating all high-interest debt early on. After I finished those two, I was able to turn my focus to saving for retirement and for the house I just bought.

All along the way I have some guiding principles that I call “money absolutes.” No matter where I am at with my income, these are the rules I have for myself. I am always giving to my church and always contribute to receiving my employer matches. 

8. Restrategize When You Accomplish Savings Goals or Add New Ones

Along the way, you will accomplish some of your savings goals and likely add new ones to the list. When you do, ensure you always look at the figures with a fresh eye. 

For example, when you reach one of your savings goals, you can take the amount you were putting towards that savings goal and spread it out to the other savings goals or just put it into one goal. 

On the other hand, if you add a new savings goal, you can use the cash from the accomplished savings goal towards it or reduce the amounts from the other goals. As you do this, make sure to adjust the figures on your spreadsheet accordingly. 

Questions to consider:

  1. How much of an emergency fund do you need?
  2. What interest rate is your “tipping point” for clearing debt instead of investing?
  3. What are your short-term goals?
  4. What are your long-term goals?
  5. How much do you want to give each month/year?
  6. What are some financial absolutes or rules you want to set for yourself?
  7. What season of life are you in right now and what are your priorities?  

Big Fat Takeaway

Regardless of which approach you take, the key is to consistently be living on less than you need. The more money you can funnel into clearing your debt or putting towards your savings goals, the more successful you’ll be.

If you’re struggling to find ways to save money, download my list of 150 Ways to Save Money below. It’s a massive list with detailed strategies to cut your expenses and increase your income.

Join me in the comments:

How have your savings goals changed over time?

What are some of the small habits that have helped you make progress on your long-term goals?

Jared Bauman is the owner and editor of He has started and sold several companies, along with owning several investment properties. His interest in personal finance started as a young kid, developed through his entrepreneurial ventures and real estate investments, and continue through his conversations with friends and colleagues.

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