Three Years with YNAB

This month marks my three-year anniversary of using You Need a Budget (or YNAB). What started as a way to kill time during the early days of the pandemic has honestly turned out to be one of the best changes I’ve ever made in my life.

I was skeptical about YNAB, a service I’d need to pay, for would help me with my finances. I tracked my finances with Mint for years without much improvement, so clearly the problem wasn’t me or my budget. It had to be my income, and paying for something was the exact opposite of increasing my income.

My finances admittedly could have been worse. I only had a few thousand dollars worth of credit card debt and a car loan, but I was usually one paycheck away from potentially not being able to pay my bills. The thought of losing my home was a constant stress in the back of my mind, and I avoided my finances because of it

I checked my bank accounts as if they were Schrödinger’s boxes. Was there money in them or wasn’t there?

I seemed to always be in a constant cycle of getting hit with “unexpected” expenses (that were actually quite predictable). I’d pay for them with a credit card because I wasn’t sure that I’d have enough money to pay for whatever I was buying and still have money left over for my other bills. When it came time to pay my credit card bill, I’d only pay a portion of my statement balance because, like with my other expenses, I wasn’t sure if I’d have enough money to pay for it and the next round of bills that was coming. I ended up in a revolving cycle of debt I couldn’t seem to get out of.

Mint would tell me the obvious: I was in debt and I’d overspent my budget categories. Like any rational person, I’d vow to do better next month and revise my plan to pay off my debt. Then I’d head over to Amazon to treat myself to that thing on my wishlist that was suddenly 20% off. 

My mindset was that if I buried my head in the sand, my financial problems didn’t exist. This cycle of defeat, denial, and impulse spending had been going on for nearly 10 years. To Mint’s credit, it tried to offer me suggestions, but those suggestions were about as effective as telling someone to break up with the person they know is bad for them. They didn’t work for me.

Within days of setting up my budget in YNAB, the problem was obvious. 

If Taylor Swift had released Anti-Hero in 2020, I’d have undoubtedly been saying, “It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem. It’s me.”

My problem wasn’t my income. My problem was that I was mentally trying to keep track of my spending in my head:

  • This puzzle is only $20. $20 isn’t a big deal. I have more than enough in the bank right now to cover $20 and groceries.
  • I know my car registration is due this month, but I’ll worry about that when I get paid again on Friday.
  • I can’t decide which craft beer I want, so I’ll just get both six packs today and won’t buy any next weekend.
  • I know I should get my HVAC system looked at, but I’m not sure if I have enough to pay for it, so I will just hold off.

I was making mental calculations like these constantly, and I was really bad at it:

  • Sure, that puzzle only cost $20, and I did have enough for groceries, but what about money for anything else?
  • Yes, I get paid again on Friday, and could use money from that paycheck for my registration, but what if something else comes up?
  • Let’s be real. I’m probably going to be just as indecisive and want to buy 2 different six packs next weekend. So then what?
  • I’m going to have to get the HVAC looked at eventually because the problem isn’t going away. I should look up how much it costs and start saving money for it now rather than putting it off indefinitely.

YNAB helped me get the mental spreadsheet out of my head and put it somewhere that I could actually see and use (and if you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know how much a GTD-person like myself loves to get things out of their head).

I spent the first few weeks with my budget open constantly just looking at it. (Side note: If you have any desire to convince others in your house to use YNAB, don’t do this! My friends and family still assume YNAB is super complicated because I spent so much time in my budget.) Seeing my budget meant I no longer had to run the mental calculations in my head. My budget was showing me, “It’s okay. You’ve got this.”

My finances were no longer this mysterious box. Whenever I got money, I planned out exactly how I wanted to use it rather than spending as things happened and hoping for the best at the end of the month.

Thanks to the clarity I got with YNAB, I paid off my credit cards and my car loan in the first 8 months. To this day, I’m debt free other than my mortgage. (Mint suggested I could be debt free by 2024 by the way.) In the past three years, I’ve opened a Roth IRA and max it out each year. I’ve saved 6 months worth of expenses in the event that I lost my job. I also refinanced my mortgage to a 15-year mortgage, keeping my payment the same but cutting the amount of payments in half. Those are just some of the big things.

When I mention how I’ve improved my financial situation, people assume I must have went Dave Ramsey style, living on rice and beans and selling things like my life depended on it, but I didn’t. I spent money on things that mattered and saved on things that didn’t. I actually spent more freely and without guilt about buying things. Every purchase I made was part of my plan, and that plan was no longer focused on just that month or the days until my next paycheck but my future. 

  • I knew I could buy the puzzle because I had $20 in my Fun Money category.
  • I’d been setting aside a few dollars each month knowing my car registration was due this month. The money was there and waiting for me to pay for it.
  • I could choose to buy 2 six packs this weekend knowing I’d have less money available for next weekend unless I decided to pull money from elsewhere in my budget.
  • I researched HVAC companies in my area and have a contract with one, which is in my budget. They call me every spring and fall to arrange a time to come out and look over my system and perform any maintenance needed.

Three years ago, my only financial goal was to get out of debt some day. Quite honestly, it didn’t even seem achievable. YNAB helped me achieve it, but it also fundamentally changed how I think about my finances. My financial goal, now, is to become financially independent and possibly even retire early. I’m excited to see where my finances take me in the future, and once again, a big thank you to YNAB for changing my life.

Disclaimer: This post isn’t sponsored. I just really like YNAB, but if you’re interested in signing up and use my referral link, we’ll both get an extra month free if you choose to subscribe.

And if you’re interested in reading more about my YNAB journey, you can read through my earlier posts.