You Need a Budget! (Review)

Thanks to a post by Tim Challies, Sarah and I decided to download and try a trial of a software product called You Need a Budget, or YNAB. We are now in love with this product.

You Need a Budget

The premise of YNAB is simple: (1) everyone needs to budget, and (2) no other software products out there on the market really get it quite right. I still remember clearly a moment when I was a kid, probably around middle school age, when somebody made a statement to the effect of “Oh, well, the [family name]s have to live on a budget,” with the clear implication that this was a lamentable condition. My reaction was that this was an absurd way to think—even the wealthiest individuals would be better off budgeting. So, I was already sold on YNAB’s first premise. As for the second, we have been doing our budgeting using a combination of Quicken 2011 Premier and a complicated Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. (We had also been using Mint, but abandoned it after it proved to be entirely unreliable—it would show that we had spent huge amounts of money in categories without a single transaction, or very little in categories with relatively huge amounts of turnover, like groceries.)

This was a pain to maintain and made it very hard to track how well we were doing on a month-to-month or longer-term basis. Quicken would routinely panic if we paid our car insurance in the last week of July, for example, rather than in the first week of August, and the Excel spreadsheet made month-to-month comparisons nearly meaningless. After all, what did it really mean if we had $X in the bank at the end of June and only $X-100 at the end of July, if we had also made a large, planned-for, one-time purchase in June? Or if we came out with more money than we anticipated, but had also received a gift or some other one-time income? This system worked in the sense that we were able to make sure we didn’t over-spend, but it wasn’t exactly transparent. So, we came to YNAB with open minds.

YNAB is based on four simple rules:

1. Give every dollar a job. Every dollar should have a job, and “not budgeted” doesn’t count. This is where Quicken falls short the most noticeably—the built-in budgeting features in Quicken just tell you what’s left, encouraging you to go spend it somehow. We worked around this by using Quicken with a series of spreadsheets that I cooked up, but this was not a user-friendly way to do things, and it required a lot of maintenance.

2. Save for a rainy day. This concept starts with the emergency fund that everyone should have (a la Dave Ramsey), but goes further: YNAB is intended to help you smooth out the financial ups and downs of your life by helping you budget for lumpy expenses (car insurance, property taxes, or anything else that doesn’t hit every month, or hits in variable amounts).

3. Roll with the punches. This rule is all about accountability. If you overspend a category in your budget in YNAB, it doesn’t let you just shrug it off and try again. It forces you to figure out how to make up the difference, whether by spending less in that category next month or allocating additional money to that category from somewhere else.

4. Stop living paycheck to paycheck. This is the real goal of YNAB: to live off of last month’s income. In YNAB terms, this is a “buffer” (and having acheived it is affectionately called being in “bufferland”). Because there is no “perfect” month when it comes to budgeting, the idea of the buffer is to smooth out the bumps of life, especially for people with irregular income or every-other-week rather than twice-a-month pay schedules.

YNAB is entirely built around these four rules, with the result that you can easily see at a glance (1) how you are doing this month, (2) what effect, if anything, your spending this month will have on next month’s budget, and (3) how you have done over time. To help with this at-a-glance summary of your finances, YNAB also includes some very handy reporting functions that let you get both reports and graphs on the fly. Of course, for any of this to work, you have to get your information into YNAB. While YNAB does not have “direct connect” functionality to download your transactions for you, it does make it very easy to work with standard .QFX files from your bank (or exported from Quicken).

As I said, we love YNAB. I would strongly recommend it to literally anyone.

[Update & Disclaimer: When I originally posted this review in August 2011, I did not receive any compensation for this article or for any traffic to youneedabudget.com from this blog; I just really like this product!  As of July 2012, I have added a special link to this post; I will receive a small commission for any sales made through that link.]