Americans are casual planners when it comes to their personal finance, according to a recent study from Northwestern Mutual.

So what does a casual financial plan look like? The more than one-third (38 percent) of respondents to the study who described themselves as "informal" said while they have a general idea of their financial goals and how to meet them, they don't have an actual plan in place. 

"Most Americans see the value in setting financial goals, but a large number don’t know how they'll get there," said Greg Oberland, executive vice president of Northwestern Mutual. "Developing a plan to reach your goals is just as important as having a goal in the first place."

Be specific

Many people only have a vague idea of their goals. Before you can draw up a concrete plan, you need to zero in on what exactly it is that you're aiming for. What are the true costs of the goal, in terms of time and effort, as well as money? When do you hope for it to become a reality? Be specific when it comes to goal-setting, and break down your progress into measurable increments so you can keep tabs on how well you're doing.

After you develop a greater understanding of the specifics associated with your goals, you can start putting together a plan. Your plan should be flexible because, guess what? Life happens and you need to be prepared for the ride. As your situation in life changes, you need to be able to mold this schematic accordingly.

Don't forget

Don't forget to include big-ticket purchases, such as houses and cars, in your plan. If you plan to take out personal loans, commercial loans or secure funding in another manner, factor that in as well.

Additionally, don't focus only on saving money. Things such as managing your existing debt, protecting yourself with insurance and looking ahead to retirement should also be incorporated.

Positive indicators

The idea of putting together a financial plan can seem intimidating, but chances are you're taking some positive steps already. According to the Northwestern Mutual study, many Americans are working to pay down their debt (62 percent), develop a budget (61 percent), regularly save a portion of their paycheck (58 percent), put together a rainy day fund (58 percent) and organize their financial documents (56 percent).