I need a budget

I finally did it.

For months, I have been hearing about You Need a Budget. It’ll change your life, they say. It totally clarifies your vision when it comes to money!

But they also say that there’s a steep learning curve, and it costs money every month, which seems counterproductive. Also, I’ve been using my Google spreadsheet for a decade, and between that and Mint, why would I need anything more? The thought of digging out all my passwords to all my accounts gives me a headache.

Plus, if I’m being honest (spoiler: I’m always honest, it’s kind of irritating, especially if you’re me), I feel like a smart, frugal woman can do these things by herself.

Well, a friend of mine (smartest, frugalest woman I know) went through a minor emergency, and she said “if I hadn’t had YNAB, we wouldn’t have saved up our emergency savings, and instead, this emergency is no big deal.” Hmm. If she finds it to be useful…

On top of that, I heard somebody say that while Mint reflects your situation, YNAB plans your situation. This is intriguing, because I love planning, and that is somewhere that I think Mint doesn’t really work for me.

Also, I’m smart and frugal but it just feels like we are spending way more than we need to, and I couldn’t figure out why.

At any rate, I downloaded it. I connected my accounts and didn’t get a headache. I have not found it to have a steep learning curve at all – it seems basically intuitive to me (I did Google a few things). I’m sure there are aspects I don’t fully understand still, but I like fiddling with it so it’s coming together naturally.

And ho-lee crap. It has my head all turned around and in two short weeks I can see it will make a difference for me. Here’s why:

1) It makes it easy to really break down every category – so instead of “kid activities,” I have a line for piano and one for cheerleading and I even threw preschool in there. There’s no reason I couldn’t do that on my spreadsheet except that it makes the spreadsheet more and more clunky, so I never did. This gives me more clarity than I thought.

2) It reminded me of things I always forget to add in to my spreadsheet – like the YMCA payment that comes out automatically and the “things I forgot to budget” section which I don’t have on my spreadsheet because I’m too smart to forget to budget things except it turns out I forget to budget a lot.

3) It makes me categorize each payment that comes in, so I can’t just put something on the card and be like “eh, I’ll worry about that later.” If it’s on the card, it comes through the app, and I have to count it against a budget. And if I’ve, say, used up all my gift giving money, I HAVE TO CHOOSE ANOTHER BUDGET LINE TO TAKE THAT MONEY FROM. This is not rocket science, it’s how money works. But it’s not how credit cards work, as their specialty is making you think that money you put on there doesn’t count against anything.

4) I love fiddling with it, which means I’m constantly looking at it, which means I’m constantly thinking about budgeting. Which is one part annoying and four parts effective for helping me spend less money.

5) For the first time ever, I have been able to clearly break down each check and see where those dollars go. We get paid pretty much the same amount each month at pretty much the same time, but for whatever reason, I’ve always set up different priorities and some months, the mortgage goes out on the first, sometimes the 15th. I can suddenly see the big picture and plan every dollar that is coming in, way in advance. I’m still figuring it all out, but March, and every month thereafter, is set up clearly.

There’s something about it showing exactly how much of my planned money I still have available for every minor item that is just straightforward and relieving. No, I can’t think about maxing out my 401K. But I CAN keep my grocery bill below a certain amount, and that will allow me to put extra money into short-term savings.

The other thing is that every few days for the past 16 years, when I’m looking over our accounts, I call my husband into the room. “Did you spend $42 at Walmart? What’s this $7.99 subscription fee? Did you eat at Taco Bell?” I’m generally asking to make sure we aren’t charged for things we didn’t buy (it has happened!), and I don’t control what he buys. Still, that increased step in his buying makes him more likely to carefully consider his purchases.

Nobody does that for me. I mean, I check my accounts for fraud, but I don’t have to justify my spending to anybody.

Until now. Each morning, YNAB says, “you spent $12 at Chuck E. Cheese, what budget does that come out of?” And if I don’t have money left in that budget, instead of just shrugging and saying, “okay, you overspent,” it says, “okay, which other budget is that coming from?” I can’t get away with letting money just disappear.

It’s only been about two weeks, but I bet I’ve saved $200 on stupid purchases I haven’t made just because, as my friend said to me at a skating rink when I rented a skater’s helper at a birthday party, “is your app going to yell at you for that?” (It wasn’t, but only because I knew it would, and had pinched pennies beforehand to cover it).

I’m also at a point, two weeks in, where I can almost see how I will be able to use this tool and possibly get rid of it after a few months. I have completely reformatted my Google spreadsheet. I may stick with YNAB forever, but I may also use it to reformat my brain when it comes to my budget, and then graduate to doing it on my own again. We shall see.

Regardless, I’m hooked, and I wish I had done it sooner.

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