Everyone knows that saving money is important, whether it’s for retirement, for emergencies, or just for a rainy day. But if we don’t know why we’re saving money or what we’re saving for, savings strategies become increasingly ineffective. It’s easy to raid your savings when you need extra cash if the money is sitting there without purpose.

“A lot of people put the cart before the horse,” said Jeffrey Strain, owner of SavingAdvice.com. “They know they’re supposed to save, but they don’t know why they’re doing it.”

The first step toward effective savings is simple: figure out why you’re saving.

Start with some soul searching

“I think the best thing anybody can do for their finances—even though it doesn’t seem like it’s financial-related—is to sit down and figure out what makes you happy and what you like to do,” Strain said.

Identify how you want to live your life and on what things you want or need to spend your money to live that life: Would a new car improve your life, or can you get a few years out of the one you have now? Do you want to start a family in your very own home, or would you prefer to see more of the world before settling down with a mortgage? Would paying off your debt bring you the peace of mind you desire?

Prioritize your goals

Once you know what you want, it’s time to prioritize. There are plenty of ways to prioritize your savings goals; one option that has proven effective is to apply a debt-payment method called snowballing to your savings.

If you have several savings goals, recognize which is most important or most urgent to you. Put that at the top of the list. Throw the most money—as much as you can afford—toward your top goal. Then list the rest of your goals and figure out what kind of minimum monthly payment you would be willing to make on each.

As you reach your first savings goal, you can start allocating more resources to the next-most-important goal and move your way down the list. As you go along, you can add new savings goals or put more money toward each goal as your list gets shorter.

There are also online resources that can help you manage your money. Check out Mint.com, a budget manager, or SmartyPig, an online bank that allows you to open multiple savings accounts that earn interest.

Include saving for essentials

While saving for a vacation or a place to call home can motivate you, you need to establish some essential savings as well: a retirement fund and an emergency fund.

An emergency fund is usually spent on necessities, such as car repairs, medical bills, or temporary unemployment. Aim to have between three and six months of living expenses in your fund. If you don’t establish your emergency fund now and you encounter an unexpected payment, you may have to use credit or set up a payment plan to handle it. As a result, you’ll wind up paying back bills with interest, making it harder to get back on track.

When you’re considering your retirement savings, again think about your saving goals. Will you travel? Do you want hobbies? Will you want space for your grandkids or space for your pets? For added motivation, remember that the more you save now, the earlier you can quit the workforce.

Stay organized and motivated and you’ll quickly see your savings pile up.

Ilyce Glink is a best-selling author, real estate columnist, and web series host. She is the managing editor of the Equifax Finance Blog and CEO of Think Glink Media. Follow her on Twitter: @Glink