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Inflation rose

5.6% from July 2007 to July 2008, so your money is buying a lot less these days. Pair that news with stagnant wages, and the average American consumer is finding it ever harder to make ends meet. Setting a specific goal, whether for an emergency fund, retirement or an HD-TV, can help keep you focused when it comes to saving -- and spending -- your money.

The online

Savings Goal calculator

from can help you see how quickly you'll reach that goal as you vary the amount you save each month.

The calculator requires you to enter the amount you need to save, how much you've saved so far, how long you have left to save and how much you expect to be able to set aside each month. You'll also need to input the interest rate you'll get on whatever account you use to stash your cash. If you are starting from scratch, you may want to consider stashing your cash in a regular savings account. But as soon as you have enough to meet the minimum balance requirements for

money market accounts

(MMAs) you should consider transferring that money in order to take advantage of the higher interest rates. Your money will grow quicker, and with the limited number of transactions per month, you'll be less likely to dip into the account before you have reached your goal.

Say you're saving for a week-long diving vacation in the Caribbean. You expect the trip to cost $5,000 to $6,000. If you give yourself two years to save $6,000, and you stash it in an MMA at about 2.5%, you'll have to set aside about $244 a month in order to take that trip debt-free. If you can bump up your monthly amount to $250, you could afford that vacation just one month earlier.

The longer your savings timeline, however, the faster you can get there based on slight changes to your monthly savings.

Instead of a vacation, say you wanted to save $20,000 for a down payment on a home and had five or six years to set aside the money. If you start saving with $2,000 already in your MMA, you'd have to set aside $228 a month to reach your goal in six years. If instead you could find $250 -- not even $25 more -- to save each month, you'd reach your goal six months faster.

A specific savings goal can be a powerful motivator. For example, you might be less likely to splurge on an impulse purchase like a new golf club or flat-screen TV if you realize how that might delay your Caribbean vacation or your dreams of owning a home.

By using the calculator to adjust the monthly savings amounts, you can see how much sooner you can reach your goals by changing the amount you contribute each month.

Even better? By setting a savings goal and sticking to it, you don't have to feel guilty about spending all that money on a vacation or a new car. And by paying it off beforehand, you'll avoid putting yourself into debt by carrying the balance on a credit card with rates as high as 15% to 20%. The absence of guilt and debt makes sitting on the beach or swimming in the ocean a lot more enjoyable.

Peter McDougall is a freelance writer who lives in Freeport, Maine, with his wife and their dog.