Using Reminders as a Shared Grocery List

We’ve been using Apple’s Reminders app as our shared grocery list for years now. We use it for two main reasons:

  • It can be shared between myself and my significant other. This means we can both add things to it throughout the week, and we both have access to the list depending on who actually does the shopping.
  • It syncs with our recipe manager, Paprika.

As Reminders has evolved to include new features, so to has how we use it for our shopping list.

Adding a Link to the Store Ad

At the top of our list, I keep a standing reminder that just includes a link to the weekly store ad for the grocery store we normally shop at, Aldi. This makes it easy to check what’s on sale when I’m making the list.

Using Subtasks to Categorize by Aisle

I’d say the biggest change to how we use our shopping list came with iOS 13’s introduction of subtasks. Because we generally shop at the same store, we have headings for each section of the store (in all caps so they stand out), organized in the order of the store. Actual grocery items are then listed as subtasks. This means that as long as we’re paying attention, we can go through the store in one direction without having to double back for an ingredient.

Using Show Completed When Making the List

When putting together the grocery list, I toggle show completed. This gives me a running list of things we’ve added in the past, making it an easy trigger list to see staples I might have missed. If I see something we need, I’ll uncheck it.

Worth noting here, I tend to add things throughout the week as we run out, so occasionally I end up with two copies of those staples (the completed one, and the incomplete one I added through Siri). In these cases, I delete the duplicate to keep the “Show Completed” from becoming a cluttered mess.

Location-Based Reminders

I mentioned earlier that we primarily shop at Aldi. However, Aldi doesn’t always have everything we need, or we just prefer to buy certain things at other stores. In these cases, I have an “Other” section at the bottom of our list and list those special buys as subtasks. For each subtask I set a location-based reminder so that when we’re near that particular store, say Costco, I get a notification that we need something.

I’m curious, do you use Reminders or another app for your grocery list? Do you just throw things on it like I used to do? Do you have one big list or lists by store? Let me know in the comments.

Improving my Weekly Planning with Things 3

In a recent blog post, I wrote about how I’ve been looking for ways to add more structure to my weeks after finding that switching back and forth between working from home and working in the office was throwing my productivity out of wack.

I’ve spent the last month or so soaking in all the advice I could find online in terms of weekly planning. Special thanks goes out to Peter Akkies and michelleb who I found particularly inspiring during my search.

I’d also like to give a shoutout to the Cultured Code team. I didn’t know it at the time, but what they had in the works for their iPadOS 15 update turned out to be a huge help as well.

So what’s changed with how I’m planning out my tasks?

First things first, let’s talk about what Cultured Code added to Things 3 in their iOS 15 update – namely the extra large “Up Next” widget. This widget shows your to-dos for Today, Tomorrow, and the two days after that. This was actually something I had tried to create on my own in just about every productivity tool (TeuxDeux, Trello, AirTable, Notion, etc) but abandoned because it felt like I was wasting time duplicating content that was already in Things 3. Now that it’s built into Things 3, problem solved.

I’d honestly prefer to see a full week (XXL widgets in iOS 16 maybe?), but three days has worked just fine. Seeing my tasks in listed out for the next few days horizontally makes it easy to see days when I’m overcommitted or, on the rare occasion, not committed enough so that I can go into Things 3 and reschedule some things.

Seeing what’s on my plate this way has led to some other changes in how I approach my planning as well.

I no longer try to schedule additional tasks more than one day ahead. I found that scheduling tasks out for the entire week rarely worked for me. I’m much more likely to accomplish what I set out to do if I plan the night before.

When I am planning out my day the night before, I try not to schedule more than 3 additional (not scheduled/routine) tasks from Anytime for the next day. Three feels like the right number in terms of feeling like I’m making progress without feeling like I’m waking up to a daunting to do list.

I also have a repeating project called “Priorities for the Week” that I use to set three priorities for the upcoming week during my weekly reviews. The priorities I list in this project are tasks that link to other projects or tasks in Things. For instance, one of my priorities for this week, is to finish this blog post, so I have that listed in my priorities project, and the task itself links to the corresponding “Post to Blog” project to make it easy to check off both I do post this blog post, and the priorities project itself is set to start every week on Monday where it then stays in my Today view until I check everything off.

I’ve nested this project within a new area, Goals, which lives at the very top of my areas list so that Priorities for the Week shows up at the top of Today. The goals area also has a project for this year’s goals so I can clearly keep track of them, and I’ve already started on planning 2022’s goals in their own project as well.

Having been using these methods for the past several weeks, I can confidently say they have helped me feel like I’m actually making progress on my goals rather than responding to whatever comes my way.

Using Tags to Plan my Day with Things 3

Working from home during the pandemic has unsurprisingly impacted how I do my work. Back in September I wrote about the first of those changes – namely turning on the preference to group my Today view in Things by project to feel a little less overwhelmed.

A side effect of this setting is that I could no longer manually order my tasks to reflect the order I planned to do them during the day. As I shared in that earlier post, when first made the switch, I thought I’d be fine with this tradeoff because my areas and their respective projects are ordered by priority. This meant my highest priority tasks were always at the top for me to do first thing in the morning.

In theory, this change was great for my workflow. In practice, it was less so.

Sometimes those highest priority tasks weren’t things I could do in the morning. Making a handful of phone calls while the other half is still sound asleep in the next room probably wouldn’t go over well. Similarly, if my morning was full of appointments, I probably wouldn’t have time to handle putting together a report. I also tend to work better on reports in the afternoon anyway.

At the time of making that change, I even noted that I was already finding myself jumping around in the list. Little did I know just how much jumping I would end up doing. Over time, I found myself spending a LOT of mental bandwidth simply scanning through my list multiple times a day to figure out what I could work on next.

Ordering my list manually allowed me to build out a plan for my day every morning, and I no longer had that plan.

My solution ended up being a fairly straightforward method that I adopted from my Erin Condren paper planner days. While there’s now a few different layouts, the original Erin Condren planners I used broke each day down into three blocks, Morning, Afternoon, and Evening.

Things 3 already has a This Evening section, but I’ve manually created tags for This Morning and This Afternoon. (Cultured Code, if you’re listening, an option to have a This Morning or This Afternoon section could be nice.)

On mornings where I’m feeling a little more overwhelmed, I can go through and find all the tasks in my Today view that I need and can do first thing in the morning and tag them with my morning tag and (optionally) do the same with the afternoon tag.

Once I’m done, I can filter my Today list by the This Morning tag which reduces my Today list to only tasks I can do that morning and nothing more.

I’ve been using this method for a few weeks and I’m actually really liking it.

It’s also a bit reminiscent of my days using Omnifocus’s start times which prevented things from showing up until I could truly do them. As an Omnifocus user, I loved start times. Why see a task before you can work on it?

I’ll tell you why.

I’d start my day with no clue of how many tasks were scheduled. I’d check everything off for the day and revel in the feeling that my tasks were done, not knowing another task (or tasks) had a start time later in the day.

In the worst case scenario, I wouldn’t see those tasks until the next day missing them entirely. The more common scenario was that my task list started to seem neverending – “Congratulations! You’ve done all your tasks for the day! Just kidding! Here’s another one at 9PM!”

The lack of start times in Things 3 was actually a good thing for my life, but I still did miss that ability to filter things.

Now by using tags in Things 3, I still see every task I have on my Today list at the start of the day so I know what I’m in for, but I also have the option of breaking it down further if necessary.

One Year with YNAB

This last month marked my one year anniversary of using the app, You Need a Budget, or YNAB, and to say I’ve been dying to share my progress is an understatement.

I figured YNAB would be one of those things to pass the time while stuck at home during the pandemic. At the very least it’d be something to do during the couple weeks I’d be stuck at home. Little did I know, I’d still be here a year later, and little did I know much YNAB would change my finances during that time.

I want to start out by saying I’ve been incredibly lucky to not only keep my job during this past year, but also by being able to work from home this whole time. I truly feel for those who didn’t share my situation.

Regardless of what my situation had been, finding YNAB at the start of the pandemic couldn’t have been better timing. The world was facing the uncertainty of a pandemic, and I was almost $9000 in debt with basically nothing in the bank.

Creating a Plan

My first month of using YNAB was all about creating a plan. It turns out despite using Mint for all these years, I really had no clue what to do with my money. If there was more than $1000 in the bank, I figured it was safe to spend, so I did. Instead, I had a great idea of where my money went in the form of nagging “overspending” alerts, which weren’t all that helpful after I’d spent my money. YNAB flipped Mint’s budgeting model on its head and forced me to create a plan for every dollar (rule 1) before I spent it.

Paying Off Credit Cards

My second month of using YNAB ended up being one of those rare months full of unexpected money (why can’t they all be like that!) – a 3 paycheck month, tax refunds, and a stimulus check. In the past, I would have squandered this extra money on random things from Amazon, but armed with my plan, I put the extra money to work for me towards the goals I had set out.

My first goal was to pay off my credit cards, which I’d been unsuccessful at doing pretty much ever since I got the cards. Thankfully, I never wracked up tons of credit debt, but I always seemed to have some combination of around $2000-4000.

Thanks to the extra income in April, I was able to pay off all three of my credit cards. My initial goal was to pay off 1 card by the end of 2020. I’m also happy to say that thanks to the way YNAB forces you to treat credit cards as if they’re debit cards, I’ve continued to completely pay off my cards each month ever since. Getting paid to use a credit card is a lot better than paying interest.

Paying Off the Car

My second goal was paying off my car. Pre-YNAB this seemed like a goal I’d be able to tackle by December 2021 at the earliest, but I ended up doing it in August of 2020. This was actually an even bigger deal to me because I actually accomplished another goal, of becoming debt-free other than the mortgage by the time I celebrated my 30th birthday which I hadn’t even imagined being possible 2 months prior.

Feeling YNAB Broke

One of the reasons I was consistently over budget using Mint was that I wasn’t planning for what YNAB considers True Expenses (rule 2) – things like that yearly Amazon Prime subscription, a new set of tires, or the appliance that inevitably gives out at the worst time. Every month one or more of these true expenses would pop up, and because I hadn’t planned for them, I’d pull out the credit card to pay for them.

With YNAB, I started setting aside money for those true expenses. As each one came up, I added it to my budget and started saving a little for it each month. Eventually I was able to convert a number of my monthly bills to annual plans saving even more money.

As a result, my bank balances started to climb, which is also around the time I started feeling “YNAB Broke” as YNABers like to say. My bank account had more money in it than I’d ever had, but suddenly all those dollars already had jobs. I didn’t have $10,000 in the bank to spend on whatever I wanted. It was already earmarked for car insurance or Christmas gifts.

As time went on, I stopped noticing my bank balances altogether. Category balances are what I check, and since they rarely have more than a few hundred dollars in them, you feel broke even though you have more money.

Getting a Month Ahead

One of YNAB’s other tenants is to try and break the paycheck to paycheck cycle by getting a month ahead (or in other words, using last month’s income to pay this month’s bills). It’s rule 4 and they call it aging your money.

This was one of those things that seemed a bit overblown to me but turned out to be unexpectedly rewarding. Each month as my debts went down and more of my true expenses were accounted for, paychecks seemed to get me funded a little further down the budget until one day I realized the whole month was funded and I was still expecting another paycheck for the month. It seems simple, but starting the month knowing everything is accounted for has added so much peace of mind to my life.

Building My Emergency Fund

After getting a month ahead, I refocused my sights on my emergency fund. I had saved up $1000 (Dave Ramsey’s Baby Step 1), but my eventual goal is to have 6 months worth of expenses. I currently have around 2 months of expenses saved for this. Paired with being a month ahead and saving for true expenses, I consider this really a 3 month emergency fund, which brings us to today.

My Goals for 2021

Finally feeling secure in my finances for the first time in my life, I pushed pause on increasing my 3 month emergency fund to 6, and set my sights on the future.

I recently opened a Roth IRA with M1 Finance, and pressed paused on the emergency fund because I wanted to max out my Roth IRA for 2020 and knew I only had until April to do this. (The IRS has since extended the deadline to May.) As of this past March, I’ve reached my goal. Going forward, I’ve built monthly contributions of $500 into my budget so that so I won’t need to play catch up to max out my contributions for years going forward.

My other goals for the rest of the year, all of which I’m on track to complete, are as follows:

  • Finish saving for our wedding
  • Refinance our condo to a 15 year mortgage
  • Complete saving a full 6 months worth of expenses in case of an emergency

Looking Back

Prior to finding YNAB, I assumed I just didn’t make enough money and my financial situation doomed unless I got another job. I felt stuck with no way up. It turns out my income wasn’t the problem. It was my behavior.

In just one year, I went from living paycheck to paycheck and $9000 in debt to being debt free. The net worth graph from the past year says it all.

(Note: I’ve excluded my mortgage and retirement in the above graph because they really skew the graph making progress hard to see, but with all my accounts included, my net worth has gone up a total of 90.6%. Also worth noting the red debt you see after 8/20 are just my credit cards, which I pay in full each month, carrying over between months.)

My friends and family think I’m a bit YNAB-obsessed, and truthfully I am constantly singing its praises. I’ve definitely drank the Kool-aid, but honestly, if you’d shown me this graph a year ago and told me it would be mine today, I wouldn’t have believed you. Trying YNAB has truly been one of the best decisions I’ve made and if this is the progress I made in one year, I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future.

And if you want to try YNAB for yourself, the links to it included on this page will get us both an extra free month if you choose to sign up after the 34 day free trial. Did I mention there’s no credit card required to sign up, so it’s totally risk free. They aren’t some sketchy company that will immediately sign you up at the end of the trial.

Onwards and upwards.

State of Notetaking 2020 Edition

Long time readers may know I’ve dabbled here and there with other platforms for my personal knowledge management such as Apple Notes, Agenda, and DevonThink. Time after time, though, I always seem to Evernote.

The reason for my dabbling was due to a feeling of uneasiness when using Evernote. For years, I’ve been increasingly less and less confident in the Evernote’s future or the company’s values, but in the absence of no better alternative, I stuck around hoping the tides would turn.

Suffice to say, the tides haven’t turned, and their recent app updates removed several of my most used features. Sure, Evernote keeps saying that they’ll bring these features back in the future, but this is also the same Evernote who said the new versions would be better than ever. Spoiler alert: They’re not.

One thing that has changed, however, is the world of Evernote competitors. It’s hard to say there are no better alternatives anymore, especially now that my needs have simplified, which is why I started thinking about what I truly needed out of a personal knowledge management system.

Topping the list of must-need features:

  • I need to be able to save important emails easily for reference.
  • I need to be able to add multiple file types.
  • I need to be able to link to notes both within and outside of the system.

My obvious first choice would have been Apple Notes, which I’m already using for sharing notes with my other half. Unfortunately, while it does meet most of my needs, it doesn’t have any sort of integration with my email app. Note links are also quite clunky. You pretty much have to pretend to share the note with someone to get a note link.

The highly-praised Notion was next on my list, but quite honestly I don’t have the patience to set up a database from scratch.

I also tried OneNote, but, my gosh, the interface is “oh-so-Microsoft Office” and seemed way too fiddly for my needs. No thank you.

At this point, I’ve settled with Bear. I’m still getting used to the tag-based structure, but overall, I’ve been liking it a lot more than I expected. This is in part to the simplification of my organizational needs from when I last tried it. There are a few things I do miss, like tables, but those seem to be on the road map so hopefully, the wait won’t be too terribly long. It’s also worth mentioning that Bear’s Pro subscription is around 20% of what a year of Evernote Premium would cost me.

With that said, I really do hope the best for Evernote. As a note-taking service, it’s still a pretty great option for most users, I’m just not sure I’m most users anymore. If they can prove me wrong, I’m still keeping my options open, but for now Bear seems to be my best bet.

Switching Things Up in Things

I’ve been using Things for years at this point, and while my workflow has changed here and there, there is one thing that has remained the same.

I’ve always kept the option to organize my Today list by project turned off, opting, instead, to order my tasks manually.

At least, that was the case until about 2 weeks ago.

With the defined boundaries of my day now gone due to working from home, I started noticing that I was resenting my Today list. Despite being relentless about what I put in my Today list, the list just felt overwhelming, and who needs to be more overwhelmed right now?

So in an effort to bring some control back to my day, I’ve done two things.

The first, of course, was setting my Today list to be grouped by project (Preferences > General > Group to-dos in the Today List by project or area). This meant giving up my ability to reorder my list manually, but with my areas and projects already ordered by priority, my Today list more or less ends up ordered close to how I’d have ordered the tasks on my own. I do have to jump around the list a little bit depending on how late the other half sleeps, but it’s not been terribly difficult to adjust to.

The second change I’ve made is to create a lone project called Daily Tasks above all of my areas. This is where my non-negotiable tasks go – things like exercise and taking a mindfulness break at some point during the day. It also includes the chores I include as part of my daily home reset.

For reasons I can’t explain, separating these daily tasks from my other tasks has removed a great deal of overwhelm. Instead of a sea of endless tasks, my brain has no trouble looking at the list, seeing them front and center, and thinking, “Okay, these are the things I do every day regardless, and these are the other tasks I hope to accomplish.”

I’m not sure whether this change will stick once things get back to a new normal, but for now, it’s a welcome and simple change to my workflow that has helped keep me on track.

Gaming My Impulse Spending

A number of my budget categories in YNAB reflect variable spending. These are things like groceries, gas, household items, personal care, and dining out. These categories also reflect areas where, if not careful, my spending can run amok pretty easily.

To combat this (and to make budgeting easier), I’ve set “Needed for Spending” goals on each of my variable spending categories. YNAB categories are essentially virtual cash envelopes, so the beginning of the month, I start with a capped amount available to be spent. Unlike cash envelopes, however, once the money runs out of a category, I’m not out of money entirely. YNAB still encourages me to “roll with the punches” by moving money from other categories.

Most months, I’m pretty good at staying under the amounts I’ve set. However, some months, I find myself more inclined to fall into a shopping binge and do need to pull from other categories.

In general, I try to limit myself to only pulling from other variable spending categories. I’m okay with pulling some money from my personal care category to cover an impulse bottle of wine on a Friday night. I’m less okay with pulling money from car maintenance to cover one.

How YNAB’s need for spending goals work tends to raise a number of questions and concerns for users because they don’t always work like other goal types. In my opinion, YNAB’s thought process is right though.

In short, when you budget into future months, unlike other goal types, YNAB expects you to budget the full goal amount regardless of how much you have available in the current month. The amount you need to budget doesn’t get reduced. This is because YNAB can’t know whether or not you’ll spend what’s currently available before the month ends. For instance if you have $75 to spend on dining out towards the end of the month, there’s still a possibility you may still spend that money before the month ends. Budgeting $75 less could leave you shorthanded in the next month if you spend that $75 between now and the beginning of the next month.

Some people combat this rollover problem by putting all of next month’s funds into a “next month” category and waiting until the first of the month to budget. I, on the other hand, still prefer to budget as a get paid because, quite frankly, I find “YNABing” fun. The more budgeting I get to do, the better.

In my case, when the first of the month rolls around and my available amounts from the previous month roll over, my categories are usually overfunded, which is actually a pretty good problem to have. I treat the money from any overfunded categories as a sort of mini-payday that I can then rebudget into the future. With my spending being lower due to the pandemic, that mini-payday typically amounts to around $200-$400, which is a pretty sizeable chunk of change.

I find getting my mini payday at the start of the month good enough on its own, but as an added incentive to curtail my impulse spending throughout the month, I go one step further. I set aside 10% of that mini-payday for items in my wish farm. Because of this, throughout the month, I’m constantly thinking, the less I spend on eating out or impulse buys, the sooner I get to buy something on my wishlist.

Overall, it’s only a couple hundred dollars a month, and in reality, it’s not new money. Mentally, though, my mini-payday at the start of each month has really helped reframe whether Chick-Fil-A breakfast for the third day in a row is actually worth more than buying myself a new Mac. (I decided it wasn’t.)

How I Set Up My Budget in YNAB

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In my last post, I shared how YNAB has helped me get a better handle on my finances. Today, I want to share how I’ve organized it.

When you start using YNAB, they pre-populate your budget with a selection of recommended categories. I’ll be honest, I didn’t find them all that helpful. Having not read the book yet, I actually found them confusing because the category group names, like true expenses or quality of life goals, are terms people generally don’t use outside of the YNAB community. Additionally, not all the categories were relevant to me. For these reasons, I deleted them all and started over.

I structure my budget categories and groups in a few ways:

  • Category groups are listed from highest priority to lowest.
  • Category groups are also arranged based on where the money lives (i.e. checking vs. savings).
  • Within each category group, categories are named with and listed in order of their due date.
  • Each category has a goal.

Structuring my budget this way allows for two things:

  1. I can fund my goals from top to bottom as money comes in, always knowing my money is going to the next most important area.
  2. I can verify how much money needs to be in my checking account or should be in my savings account at all times.*
  3. I can use the quick budget feature to not only quickly budget my money when it arrives, but also quickly estimate how much money I need to set aside each month.

*Technically YNAB will tell you that your budget is only a plan for your money and where you keep your money is irrelevant in terms of the budget, but given I don’t want to overdraft my account or miss out on interest I could be earning, I don’t buy into that.

So what are my category groups?

  • Current Baby Step – This is where I put my top priority savings goal according to Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps. Currently, I’m on Baby Step 2, paying off my car, so this is where car payment lives. Once I’m done paying off my car (hopefully by the end of the year), this group will include building up my 3-6 month emergency fund. I separated this out to call extra attention to my main financial goal. Whenever I’m done funding the upcoming month’s goals, I dump any extra money I may have leftover towards this goal.
  • Credit Card Payments – YNAB automatically creates this category. Because my cards are paid in full, I don’t actually need to budget any money for these categories. Anytime I make a purchase on a card with the money I’ve already budgeted for, YNAB automatically moves that money to these categories so that I’m able to pay off the credit card when the bill is due.
  • Monthly Bills – This is where my fixed monthly expenses live (e.g. my mortgage payment, my Spotify subscription, etc). Anything in this category group is something that costs exactly the same amount and is due on the same day of each month.
  • Variable Expenses – I think of these as my cash envelopes. These are categories like groceries, gas, or eating out where I may spend more or less each month, but I aim to spend less than a certain amount.
  • Upcoming Expenses – These are fixed, recurring expenses that occur less than monthly, but will be due in the next 30 days.

I want to take a break here to point out that the category groups up to this point represent my checking account. Moving forward, the following categories switch to my savings account. As mentioned previously, I use this separation of category groups to quickly see how much should be in my accounts at any time and help me to know exactly how much to transfer between accounts.

  • Subscriptions/Recurring Expenses – The previously mentioned Upcoming Expenses and this category work together. Again, these are expenses that do have a fixed amount but occur less regularly (like my yearly Amazon Prime subscription). For GTD fans, these two categories essentially work as a tickler file. Once I’ve paid a recurring expense in the Upcoming category, I move it back to the bottom of my Subscriptions/Recurring Expenses category and reset its goal for its next due date. In this way, everything is ordered by date, so I always know which subscriptions are coming up next, how much to pull out of savings to pay them, and I can begin saving for them again right away.
  • Sinking Funds – This is where I save for expenses that will happen eventually. I just don’t know when they’ll happen or how much they’ll cost (e.g. home maintenance, health, vet bills).
  • Long Term Savings Goals – This category is where I keep future savings goals like my 3-6 month emergency fund, our house downpayment fund, and my future Tesla fund. (A girl can dream…) Right now, I’m focusing on other priorities, but I look forward to the day when I can actually fund these. (For now, this category group is hidden from my budget since I’m not actively contributing to them.)
  • Wish Farm – I’ll just link to YNAB’s explanation of a Wish Farm as it’s easier to let them explain what exactly a Wish Farm is.
  • Wish List – This is exactly what it sounds like. Anytime I want something I put it here, and eventually, it may make its way to my Wish Farm to be funded. (I also keep this group hidden to keep my focus on my current goals).
  • Gift Cards – This category keeps track of the money I have on my Starbucks and Dunkin cards that I use for rewards points. I also keep track of my Amazon gift card balance, as well as Apple Cash. Whenever I make a purchase using these categories, I move the money to one of the appropriate categories above to accurately categorize the spending.

One of the rules of YNAB is to “roll with the punches,” so YNABers (people who use YNAB) are actually encouraged to adjust their budget as needed, and I adjusted my categories quite frequently during the first month or so. I’ve since settled into a groove with this category structure, so that’s how I structure my budget in YNAB (at least for now).

I hope everyone’s doing well during this time. Well at least as best as well all can. Stay safe everyone. Until next time.

Photo by Katie Harp on Unsplash

The Last Frontier of Organizing – Budgeting with YNAB

In most areas of my life, I’d say I’ve always been fairly organized – maybe a little too organized if you ask some people. My budget, however, is one area that has lurked like a terrifying junk drawer in the back of my mind for as long as I can remember.

I want to start by saying that I realize I’ve been luckier than most to have gotten where I am without student loans. If it weren’t for that, I know I would be in a completely different situation financially, and I probably would have been forced to confront my financial situation sooner. I realize this is not the norm for a number of people, and I truly can’t imagine how difficult it must be to get by on a daily basis while also dealing with the amounts of debt I’ve seen some of my friends and family talk about.

With that out of the way, I will wholeheartedly admit, I’ve made a number of mistakes financially over the years by acting as if the money in my bank account was Schrodinger’s cat, and despite having a well-paying job, I still fell victim to credit debt, a car loan, a mortgage payment I could just barely afford, and impulse buys galore which ultimately resulted in me living paycheck to paycheck.

I’ve always had plans to pay off debt. I understood how debt payoff worked, but no matter what I tried (ahem… Mint…), I never became one of those success stories of paying off thousands of dollars worth of debt in 6 months.

This year, one of my goals was to really get serious about a budget. I decided to retry You Need A Budget, or YNAB as its users like to call it. I’m happy to say, this time finally clicked. Happy may actually be an understatement. If it weren’t for being in quarantine, I’d be singing its praises to everyone I meet. Until then, this post will have to do.

As a former Mint user, my #1 piece of advice for anyone trying YNAB has to be forget everything you know about managing your money with Mint or anything else.

If you’re looking for a place to start, I can’t recommend their videos and Nick True’s videos on YouTube enough. I have to credit them for retraining my brain for the YNAB way. (The book is also a good resource.)

I think of YNAB as a sort of “reverse” Mint. Instead of looking at your transactions to see how you’ve spent your money and trying to budget from there, YNAB asks you to look at the money you have right now and plan out exactly how you need to spend it down to the very last dollar – Give every money a job, as YNAB likes to call it.

The key to this is you’re not budgeting the money you expect to earn for the month, only the money you have available right now, which took quite some time to wrap my head around. Budgeting for all my expenses as I typically would have with Mint resulted in quickly being told I was over budget. I had to stop thinking in terms of hopeful money, and more in terms of what my actual money needed to do first and foremost until I got paid again.

By giving every dollar a job, suddenly things didn’t seem so grim. In fact, they looked surprisingly manageable. In fact, I could clearly see just how much money I had leftover after bills rather than mentally calculating whether I had enough for every purchase. I began to set that “extra” money aside for actual jobs (my car’s next oil change, my fiancé’s birthday, our wedding…). Suddenly opening my budget was less like opening a junk drawer and more like finding $100 in the couch cushions every time.

The YNAB website says that “On average, new budgeters save $600 by month two and more than $6,000 their first year.” I’ll be honest, I didn’t learn this until after I started seeing it mentioned on the YNAB subreddit. Had I seen it before I started, I probably would have dismissed it as a typical marketing ploy. I still want to, and yet in the first two months of using YNAB, I was able to find money to pay off not one, not two, but all THREE of my credit card balances in full (almost $4000). Of course, a big portion of that is due to a couple of windfalls (including tax refunds and a stimulus check) and not going out due to the current state of the world, but without YNAB, I’d have without a doubt blown that money on something stupid. Instead, I was able to use it to further my goals. (Oh, by the way, speaking of goals… Mint’s goal function had me thinking it’d be a struggle to pay off ONE card by next January…)

The other crazy thing is I paid off those card balances while still using those cards for bills and other expenses. This is IMO the real genius of YNAB. YNAB treats credit cards like debit cards, meaning you’re expected to budget for any spending (even credit card spending) with money you actually have. Once you spend in a budgeted category, YNAB automatically applies any that money to the card’s payment to cover your balance. This is what lets you account for paying off the existing balance AND any continued spending. As an example, say I planned to pay $400 towards my existing balance, and also charge $60 in groceries. As long as I’ve already budgeted $60 for groceries, YNAB will move that $60 of real money I had set aside for groceries to cover the additional charges on the card, increasing my total available for payment to $460. This was huge for me.

Debt repayment aside, YNAB has shown me the importance of setting up sinking funds for all my long term expenses, and yearly subscriptions, and other recurring expenses that I hadn’t included in my budgets before. Anytime I come across a subscription renewal or big-ticket item I will need down the road, I add it to the budget now. Not only has this forced me to come to terms with my subscriptions and recurring expenses, but I can also now budget for them little by little over the course of a year rather than having to come up with the money all at once.

I realize money’s a touchy subject, and budgeting is a little different in terms of topics I’d normally cover here. That being said, I’m curious if this is something you’d like to hear more about on the blog. Right now, I’m thinking it might be interesting to see how my categories stack up in YNAB, and how I typically budget a paycheck. Let me know if this is something you’re interested in or not in the comments below.

Also, if you’re interested in trying YNAB, you can score an extra month for free using this link.

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

Some Tips for Working from Home

As I’m sure many of you also are, I’ve been working from home due to the current COVID-19 pandemic for a little over 2 weeks now. Previously, I’d been teleworking one day a week, but working from home full-time is an entirely different experience. While I adapted quickly to teleworking, I quickly realized working from home was going to take some extra considerations on my part, so I figured I’d share some of those tactics I’ve been using with you all.

Get Dressed Every Day

While it’s tempting to wear comfy clothes all day, I’ve made it a point to still get up and get dressed as though I’m going to work each morning. I get to sleep in a little extra because I’m not actually commuting, but I’m still at my computer every morning at 7:45AM ready to work and also ready for any surprise Webex meetings.

Fake a Commute

Two issues with working from home are the tendency to sit all day and also the lack of a concrete beginning and end to the workday. To solve both of these, I’ve started hopping on my spin bike for 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each day. It not only closes my Apple Watch’s exercise ring for the day, but it also creates a beginning and end to my workday that has been sorely missing now that I’m not driving to and from work each day.

I also rigged up a makeshift laptop stand for my spin bike with some random things lying around the house, so if I’m feeling restless during the day, I can get a bit of additional activity in.

Engage All the “House Bots”

I think I got this idea from CGPGrey, but it’s simple and oddly effective. If needed, I try to start my dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, and/or robotic vacuum before I start working. It seems sad to say but I almost feel a sense of guilt for not working if they are. I also employ this on particularly lazy weekends or sick days, with the understanding that even if I feel like I’ve not done much, the “house bots” have at least done something to keep things moving.

Create a Dedicated Workspace

This one seems obvious, but I honestly put off having a dedicated workspace for much longer than I should have. When teleworking just once a week, I didn’t really see much of a point. I just grabbed my laptop and rotated through several locations (couch, patio, dining room table, etc) depending on the time of day and lighting in the house.

It took about a week of working from home full time to realize I missed some of the things I had at work like my extra monitor. I also realized how darn uncomfortable my dining room chairs are for sitting any longer than about an hour. Buying a chair cushion and pulling my old Apple Thunderbolt Display out from the depths of my closet were a must.

Do a Daily House Reset

This is a habit I got into before having to work from home, but I’m glad I did. Each day, I make sure to do a few basic things to keep the house in order. I don’t do them all at once. I generally spread them throughout the day whenever it makes sense so it doesn’t feel like a lot but doing them makes spending all day every day at home a little more tolerable.

At a minimum, these are some of the things I do as part of my daily house reset:

  • Make the bed when we wake up (This is actually possible right now since the other half is waking up with me.)
  • Scoop the cat box while I’m in the bathroom getting ready.
  • Empty the dishwasher while making my morning coffee.
  • Pick up anything that’s out of place as I’m walking around the house. I try to drop it off as close to the room it does belong in on my way to wherever I’m going. Our condo is essentially one long hallway so things are generally going one way or another down it.
  • Before bed, pick up any dishes and start the dishwasher.

Practice Self-Care

Let me start by saying I hate the phrase self-care. At the same time, I feel like we all really need it right now. For most of us, our lives have been upended by what’s going on. We’re having to deal with the reality of an awful pandemic that’s affecting just about everyone we know and love. We’re having to find creative ways to socialize with friends remotely. We’re learning to cohabitate (read: not fight) with housemates in closer quarters than usual, and if you’re like me, you’re also probably having to rebuild your entire work-life remotely in a time when work doesn’t always seem quite as important as everything else going on. None of this is normal, and it can be pretty overwhelming if you don’t take time for yourself.

I realized it’s way too easy to get caught in a cycle of scrolling through news, and if that’s the only thing you do, things start to look pretty grim. I’ve made it a point to carve time out of each day to practice mindfulness and think about what I’m grateful for, while also intentionally limiting my news consumption. I’ve also lowered some of the expectations for myself during this time. There are more important things to worry right now about than depriving myself of a piece of cake after dinner.

I hope everyone is doing well. If there’s any way I can be of help during this time, don’t hesitate to reach out.