Managing your income and how you spend money will give you an accurate financial picture.
It isn’t about making us feel guilty about how we spend money. It is about being aware of what is going on so we can pursue our long-term goals.
Creating an accurate, updated budget is challenging. You probably have multiple accounts to track, and if you are married, you have various people spending and earning money. If you don’t follow your spending, you risk going into credit card debt or over-drafting your checking account.
I've done reasonably well managing our budget over the years. I’ve tried different budgeting techniques over the years and found You Need a Budget (YNAB) to be the ultimate budgeting tool.
YNAB vs. a Manual Budget
Ever since I graduated high school, I’ve been tracking my income and expenses. I would use a google spreadsheet to know about when bills were due and how much money is available.
But this manual approach had downsides.
- Managing a spreadsheet was time-consuming.
- When I got married, it became even harder to manage our monthly budget.
- Even when the spreadsheet was updated, it was hard to track precisely how much we were spending on different budget categories.
- Managing multiple spending accounts (checking and credit cards) made things more complicated.
- Going into debt for day-to-day purchases on food, gas, etc., happened more frequently, as our budget's details were hard to follow.
- Mistakes are common and sometimes can be costly (credit card debt, over-drafting your checking account, missing a payment, etc.)
Suppose you have a manual system that works for you, great! But every manual approach I tried was time-consuming and challenging to maintain.
At one, I tried Dave Ramsey’s envelope system. But carrying cash is annoying. Plus, you have the risk of losing real money (and finding 20’s in the laundry). I like the concept Dave teaches about spending cash, but I prefer using YNAB to spend income through credit cards. It is easier to manage and track, and you get credit card rewards.
Eventually, I switched to using YNAB in 2014 to manage our budget. It changed our finances dramatically. We started using YNAB exclusively and haven’t changed budgeting methods since.
The main things I love about the YNAB software:
- It pulls in transactions from all of your accounts. So your budget becomes an accurate and updated reflection of your spending.
- Overspending in one category is easier to manage since you can transfer funds from other categories to balance the budget.
- Avoiding and paying off debt becomes more natural. If you have revolving credit card balances, you can view how much you pay down each month.
- Pending transactions, such as checks or bills coming in but have not been settled, can be accounted for immediately.
- When overspending a category, the category balance becomes red and noticeable. You can then transfer funds from other categories to avoid debt (this is optional but recommended).
- The YNAB mobile app makes it simple to view your budget on the go.
- Being able to see the age of your money is helpful. You can see what part of your money is currently available to spend in your budget. We’ll get into this in more detail below, but getting a month ahead with your monthly budget makes budgeting massively easier.
- Their online documentation is excellent for answering questions and viewing tips on how to use their software.
I can open the mobile app or website and know exactly how much funds are available in each category at any point. It now only takes me about 10-15 minutes to update our budget.
When you go to the YNAB website, you will see content relating to the YNAB budgeting method. In addition to the software itself, implementing the YNAB method changed our finances forever.
Below are the core steps of the YNAB method:
- Give each dollar a job: The idea is that every dollar we bring in needs to have a purpose: paying for food, gas, medical bills, debt, utilities, savings, etc. When you define what to do with 100% of your income, you prioritize precisely how you spend and save your money. This prioritization is vital in telling your money what you want to do with it, instead of having your unorganized spending waste money.
- Budget Larger Purchases: Instead of being surprised at having to deal with larger purchases that come up regularly (insurance, medical bills, holidays), we should set aside money every month that becomes available when we need it. Being able to save for large purchases takes a massive amount of stress out of budgeting and helps prevent overspending over the long-term.
- Roll with the punches: When it comes time to budget, having flexibility in spending your income will allow you to roll with life as it happens. Sometimes you might want to increase or decrease spending in specific categories. This budgeting method makes your budget a living organism that will shift over time. Instead of trying to fit your income into a pre-defined peg every month, you decide how you want to use your money.
- Age your money: By spending money in the current month you earned last month, you free up boatloads of stress and headaches. Not only does it add a bit of safety cushion to your regular budget (in addition to your emergency fund), but you no longer have to time monthly expenses with paychecks. This idea is a lifesaver! It takes time to reach this goal, but this will exponentially simplify your life and provide an extra layer of margin in your finances.
How I use You Need a Budget
There are a few options you have on how you use YNAB. I’ve decided to connect all of our spending and savings accounts that we use regularly. These accounts include our main checking account, our income deposits, and our credit card to make most of our purchases.
I highly recommend you link up all accounts that you use for spending and savings. That way, you make sure you create budget categories for all expenses. With that said, I have not linked up to our retirement and investment account since I use Personal Capital for tracking those accounts.
Get One Month Ahead
The way we handle income for our YNAB monthly budget is the following:
- Paycheck on the 15th: This income ends up getting budgeted for the following month.
- Paycheck on the 1st: This income gets used in the current month's budget.
That way, by the 1st of the month, we have 100% of the income we will spend for the month and do not need to time our expenses based on paychecks (just as long as they don’t happen before the 1st). This method saves a massive amount of time and headache and makes budgeting a breeze.
Below are a few YNAB tips and tricks I have implemented in streamlining our monthly budget.
Rainy Day Fund
This account is not to be confused with our primary emergency fund. We “will” use this account for unexpected expenses or category overages that are not normal (once we get out of debt and fill up our long-term emergency fund). Maybe we have an unexpected car repair that requires more cash than we have in our car maintenance budget. Or one month during the holidays we may need more money to handle going out to eat more. This fund is an extra layer of cushion to handle things that require additional cash but don’t justify dipping into our long-term emergency fund.
We found that not having this account makes it hard to handle unexpected non-emergency situations that seem to pop up every few months, no matter how hard we try to plan our budget category amounts. Maybe excessive medical bills because one of our children has to go to the walk-in. Or anything that ends up extending our regular budget.
Anything excess in this account will either get thrown into other categories, invested, or put into our long-term emergency fund at the beginning of the next month.
When saving for a vacation or trip, we create a budget category to plan how much we want to spend on the trip. Creating budget categories for holidays does a few things:
- It helps us figure out how much we need to save each month to pay for the vacation with cash.
- Once we go on vacation, we spend money out of this category and get an accurate reflection on how much we have left during the trip.
For more extended trips, I’ll create multiple categories to organize specific budgets for the vacation. Which usually includes food, transportation, and entertainment budget categories specific to the trip. We took a substantial five-figure vacation last year to Disney World and came under budget because we spent time figuring out how much we wanted to spend and save for the trip.
Similar to vacations, YNAB makes it simple to save for larger purchases. One feature I have not tapped into is the “Category Goals” feature. You can set a goal to collect an amount by a specific date or set a monthly savings goal. Eventually, I want to take an in-depth look at the goals feature since it seems valuable.
Once we get debt free towards the end of this month, we will save our long-term emergency fund. This cash will go into a high-yield online savings account. I’m currently conflicted about whether to have YNAB track this in a category, as I don’t want to have the temptation to dip into that account. But I also want to track how much money is in our emergency fund.
I’m currently leaning towards having an Emergency Fund category and putting it under a “Long-Term Savings” parent category that isn’t mixed in with my other categories (in other words, I would put it at the bottom of the budget). That way, I can get an accurate picture of our money's age and how that balance changes over time. But I keep on going back and forth on whether I want to track our emergency fund in YNAB.
One reason to track your emergency fund in YNAB is to feel the fund's emotional security while you work on your budget. It also makes it easy to immediately see if suspicious activity happens in the account (which hopefully never happens), as those transactions will automatically get pulled in. These two points are what is making me lean towards tracking our emergency fund in YNAB.
We’ve tried to categorize things in a way that makes it simple to manage our budget. We group most things that we would get at a grocery store (Costco, Albertsons, Wal-Mart, etc.) into one category called “Groceries.” We have all utilities coming out of one budget category. Our media types of subscriptions like Netflix and Amazon Prime, come out of the Media category.
We also have budget categories for things that we know will come up. These categories include medical, gifts (birthday parties seem to come up every month), fuel, auto maintenance, etc. The more time you spend creating specific categories, the more likely your budget will account for 98% of your usual expenses. The good news is when creating a new YNAB account, their default categories provide an excellent place to start.
You have full flexibility in creating as many budget categories as you want, and you can group them into top-level categories to organize your budget.
Once you start using YNAB regularly, it will pre-fill specific categories as transactions come in. There are some stores where you will spend money on different budget categories that will require sorting out, but in most cases, this should be a matter of clicking the “approve” button for each transaction that comes in.
As I mentioned above, they also have category goals that you should explore for categories you use for saving money.
Signing up with YNAB and Costs
YNAB has a free 34-day trial (no credit card required) that will let you give it a shot before committing. After the trial ends, it is $6.99/mo.
The signup process for YNAB is simple, but it will take time to add your spending and savings accounts. You don’t want to get lazy during this step. Sitting down and getting everything configured right away will make adjusting to YNAB easier.
Here is the play-by-play to get things set up:
- Create a. You Need a Budget account and log in.
- Once you are logged in, it will first ask you some questions. Do you have any primary goals you are shooting for (debt payoff, large purchases, etc.), and who plans on using your budget (solo or with a partner)? Complete this process.
- You will then see your budget.
- They have pre-entered categories that you can tweak. I suggest modifying these categories and organizing your budget right away. You can make adjustments as you use their software.
- Click the “Add Account” button on the left. You can specify a linked or unlinked account. I suggest linking up all of your spending and savings accounts, so the transactions get automatically imported. If you go with the unlinked option, you can manually import your transactions (not recommended, but it is an option). I’ve imported everything except our investment and retirement accounts.
- If you generally have a consistent amount of income coming in every month, you could add some “testing income transactions” that you can use to determine the amounts in your budget categories. You will want to delete these testing transactions, so you don’t use the income you don’t have yet. I found this useful in helping to plan how to categorize our budget. Check out the YNAB documentation on how they recommend handling each paycheck.
- Iron out how much you want to budget in each category.
- If you are living paycheck-to-paycheck, you may want to organize your categories when you get paid to make budget management simpler in the beginning. The recommended path they suggest is to create your budget for each paycheck and assign the correct budget category amounts at that stage. I found that getting a month ahead of your budget makes planning the full month's expenses more comfortable to manage.
- As transactions get imported into your account, you assign them a specific budget item. If a category has excess funds leftover in a month, it will transfer to the next month and won’t “magically” disappear. Having balances transfer month to month in each category is a massive benefit to their system in saving money.
- If you have revolving credit card payments, the balances will be red in YNAB, and you can see how these balances shrink (hopefully) every month. When you budget money to a credit card account, you can quickly see how much you can pay right now towards that credit card, based on your budget.
Using YNAB becomes a ton more relaxed if you can get a month ahead of your budget (where the income you bring this month goes towards next month). That way, you have 100% of the cash for the whole month on the first of the month. That way, you don’t have to time paychecks for parts of your budget.
Here is a great video walkthrough if you want a more visual idea of the full YNAB set up process:
As long as you have some way of tracking your income and expenses, and you spend less money than you make, I’m not going to give you flack.
But there are budgeting techniques that are easier to manage and provide additional benefits to pursue your long-term budget goals.
You Need a Budget provides the details I am looking for in managing our budget, and it saves us time and energy. Some weeks I am in there every other day, keeping an eye on how the month is playing out. Other times I log in once per week to make sure things are on track. In either case, I know YNAB is accurately tracking my budget.
I anticipate when we fully fund our emergency fund, managing our budget will become easier as we will focus on investing and growing our money. YNAB makes budgeting a breeze, and the monthly/yearly fee is well worth the cost.
Have you used YNAB? How do you manage your monthly budget?