Road Trip: Mastering The Strategic Process Of Action Planning

By: Denise Keiser AFC®, Counseling Programs Manager

Two women use a map to plan their roadtrip

People seek financial counseling because they want things to be different in their financial lives. They are looking for change like relief from surmounting debt, less financial stress, or they have important financial goals to reach like buying a home or saving for retirement. Regardless of the individual’s reason, the counseling process is the same. The process starts with assessing where they are and where they want to go and identifying values and goals, and ends with summarizing strategic action steps.

An effective financial coach is a master of the strategic process of action planning. A simple analogy helps us better understand that process, so let’s take a road trip, shall we?

Creating a strategic client action plan is like making plans for a road trip we want to take. 

Every journey begins with a mission, and our values are highlighted by the priorities we have for traveling—like having a good time, relaxing, or meeting new people along the way. As we prepare for the trip, we plan for what we can’t control like weather or road conditions, and have a back-up plan if we come upon traffic or a roadblock. We assess those things we can control like availability or vacation time, transportation, or how much it will cost. We strategize the routes we will take to get to our destination and plan who will drive. As we reach milestones along the way, we check off the goals we initially set for the trip, things we wanted to see or achieve along the way. Occasionally, we reflect on our progress and the time we made from one milestone to another. If we hit traffic or roadblocks along the way, we find ourselves making adjustments as we continue to our final destination.

Mission, Values, and Vision

A client action plan’s strategy is founded on the client’s mission, values, and vision. More importantly, the planning process requires the coach and client co-develop a roadmap to follow along with the client’s financial journey. The collaborative pair develops milestones from here to there—starting with a financial assessment, uncovering values, and identifying the end financial goal(s). To clarify the client’s desire for change, coaches use valuable questioning skills to explore the following key areas:


Uncover why change is needed. For example, to improve financial health, feel more financially secure, worry less about money, reduce arguments with a spouse, etc. 


Determine the priorities. For example, saving for an emergency while reducing debt to prevent taking on additional debt along the way, etc.


Clarify the end financial goals. For example, to buy a home, to be debt-free, to retire early, etc. 

Things We Can’t Control vs. Those We Can

Life happens and sometimes takes clients on a detour further away from their financial goals. Coaches can help them prepare for those things they can’t control, like when their car breaks down or when an illness leads to lost wages. Including an emergency fund savings goal is key to every successful action plan. Knowing how to get back on track is also important to stay the course in a financial journey.

Budget analysis and tracking spending to uncover spending leaks are a few of the things clients can control and help them progress from one milestone to the next. Adding an action step that commits clients to use a monthly budget and track expenses builds accountability and often invites new ideas for reducing expenses they didn’t think were possible. 

Strategic Milestones

Creating strategic milestones provides clarity in every action step in our client’s financial journey. Applying the SMART method when creating milestones or goals offers direction, metrics, and accountability. Every action step should incorporate the SMART methodology like the example below of becoming debt-free:

Specific Goal

Become debt-free of $10,000 in total debt


Pay an additional $500 per month beginning April 1st


Make a budget reduction of $200 in entertainment and increase income with $300 per month in overtime


Become debt-free to reduce stress and save for retirement


Reach goal in 24 months

Reflect and Adjust

From time to time, as clients approach each milestone, coaches may ask clients to reflect on their progress and acknowledge obstacles that may have slowed their progress. Clients need to know which direction to head, especially if they fall off the trail. Coaches can brainstorm solutions to overcome challenges that help clients build fundamental problem-solving skills for the future and keep them moving forward to achieve their financial goals. 

Reaching the Final Destination

When it comes to achieving financial goals, strategic action planning is the key to success. Furthermore, personal ownership is the most significant level in commitment and successfully impacts the client’s action planning process. Only the client knows what they are willing to do, how they will do it, and when. The client needs to plan the course of action rather than merely complying with efforts put forth by the coach. 

Successfully arriving at the final destination of any road trip requires a strategic roadmap. So too does the success of reaching a financial goal. Setting clearly defined goals, combined with the co-development of strategic action steps, helps clients move toward financial success creating a win-win for both coach and client.

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