There are countless ways to maintain a budget, but let’s be honest. Some methods are just doomed from the start. Many apps purport to be the best way to budget your financial life, but then rely on bank transaction imports, intrinsically making it near impossible to do budgeting in real-time.
Enter YNAB, the app that’s known to have pushed for the OG way of doing things, manually.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at whether YNAB’s app and philosophy are truly a better way to do things, or is it just akin to an old, cranky geezer shunning technology and looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses?
We’re here to give our honest opinion, and it’s up to you to decide for yourself, so let’s dive right into it!
- What is YNAB (You Need A Budget)?
- YNAB Rule #1: Know what you’re going to do with the money before spending it
- YNAB Rule #2: Break down larger and less frequent expenses into “monthly bills”
- YNAB Rule #3: Be willing to be flexible based on circumstances
- YNAB Rule #4: Spend money only if it’s at least 30 days old
- Is YNAB the same as Zero-Based Budgeting?
- How’s the YNAB app?
- The Secret Sauce: Manual vs. automatic importing of bank information on YNAB
- What else do we like about the YNAB app?
- How much does the YNAB app cost?
- YNAB Alternatives
- In conclusion: Is YNAB right for you?
What is YNAB (You Need A Budget)?
YNAB is a long-standing app that’s been around since 2004, founded and developed by Jesse Mecham. The app and the philosophy behind it are driven by four simple rules in budgeting:
- Know what you’re going to do with the money before spending it.
- Break up larger and less frequent expenses into more bite-sized “monthly bills”.
- Keep your budget flexible, being able to change it at any time as circumstances call for.
- Spend only money that is 30 days old.
To this date, the You Need A Budget app has a very loyal, cult-like following, and has helped countless number of people around the world take control of their financial life.
If you don’t understand any of the four rules above, fear not, as we’ll be getting into more detail on each of them down below. Let’s spend a few minutes on these before we get into the app details.
YNAB Rule #1: Know what you’re going to do with the money before spending it
This rule is designed to simply prevent you from essentially stashing your money all in one place and withdrawing mindlessly without regard to any end goal. It’s that simple. All you have to do is assign every dollar to an expense. There is no wrong answer here. You’ve become the CEO of your money and what you say goes.
By doing this in a habitual manner, you get intimately familiar with the expenses you accrue throughout the month, and are able to find better ways to categorize and subcategorize your expenses in a way that best makes sense for your life.
YNAB Rule #2: Break down larger and less frequent expenses into “monthly bills”
Unfortunately in life, not everything is as stringent as your Netflix bill coming due on the 4th day of the month for $15.49 and paid via autopay. While that’s all nice and neat in a tidy little box, think about all the other expenses that fluctuate each month or don’t even get expensed on a regular month-to-month basis. For example:
- Electricity bill throughout the various seasons
- Your car breaks down unexpectedly
- Your car registration comes due for payment every 2 years
- Christmas gifts for your family and friends
- Yearly physical exam by your M.D.
That is but a miniscule list of all the possible expenses you could possibly accrue, whether unexpectedly, infrequently, or in a variable manner.
Not to worry though, with time, you’ll figure these things out on the fly. And combined with rule #1, you’ll soon find a customized system that works best for you in terms of categorization. For some, that’s the fun part; for others, not so much. You can make it as granular as you’d like. However, for starters, it would be great to have a bucket categorization of “miscellaneous”, and as things come along unexpectedly, you can lump it into there until you find an alternate category that a certain number of items in the “miscellaneous” category can transfer to.
For example, let’s say you’ve come across an oil change in one month and categorize it as “miscellaneous”. Then the next month your car needs a new tire and that goes into “miscellaneous” as well. And two months later, you get a car registration bill due and need a smog check. You’ll soon realize that you can set up a category for “car maintenance” that encompasses all those things and set a budget of $75 a month to hopefully cover all those throughout the year.
The point of the YNAB budgeting app is to be able to plan for all of these without having to be necessarily so stringent, which brings us to our next rule.
YNAB Rule #3: Be willing to be flexible based on circumstances
Let’s say in the above scenario involving your “car maintenance” expenses, you find that you have extra money left at the end of the year. Great! Allocate it elsewhere next year. If you come up short, simply modify the budget for next year to be something like $90 a month instead.
The more you do it, the more in tune you’ll be with your finances and the more accurate your predictions will be in terms of the amount needed to cover such expenses. Always keep in mind that anything unexpected can happen and derail you from your comfort zone. As long as you have an open mind and are willing to be flexible, you’ll do well.
YNAB Rule #4: Spend money only if it’s at least 30 days old
Now, this may not happen anytime soon, especially if you’re just starting out. But it is ultimately the goal and the reason why you’re doing YNAB if you aren’t already there.
If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, chances are you’re spending money as soon as humanly possible because you’ve got some bills that need to be covered ASAP. Let’s say you got paid on the 1st of the month and you’re covering your electricity bill with that same money on the 2nd of the month. You’ve essentially paid using money that’s only 1 day old. That’s no good. But if you’ve paid it using money you made last month, you’ve reached your goal and are using money that’s 30 days old.
Why is this a good thing? Conceptually, if you’re using older money, that means you didn’t need the money immediately. If you didn’t need the money immediately, that means that you’ve been saving up to a point where you didn’t have to spend every penny you earned immediately. That’s a really good thing and an even better feeling. Obviously once you’ve reached that goal, you set new goals such as spending 60-day, 90-day, 1-year old money and so on. The older your money, the better off you are.
Is YNAB the same as Zero-Based Budgeting?
Thus far, we’ve gotten to this point without once mentioning the term Zero-Based Budgeting. Let’s define the term. Zero-Based Budgeting means you’re allocating every single dollar that you make to any expenses you have, whether it be purchases, savings, debt, etc. Your income minus your liabilities need to equal exactly zero by the end of the month, each and every month.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s very similar to Jesse Mecham’s Rule #1, which is that you need to know what you’re going to do with every dollar before you spend it. Every dollar needs to be assigned a job, so to speak.
So, yes, YNAB implements Zero-Based Budgeting at its very core. To learn more about Zero-Based Budgeting check out our guide.
How’s the YNAB app?
To be frank, the YNAB app isn’t intuitive, but it’s not because of a failure in design. Rather, it’s because it embraces Zero-Sum Budgeting which isn’t the most popular form of budgeting out there. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. In my humble opinion, it’s the most effective when used in the correct way, which takes a lot of work if I’m being honest.
The other budgeting app I’ve used is Mint by Intuit, and the biggest difference to me is my mindset going into budgeting. With Mint, I expect it to be easy and do all the work for me, and for the most part, it does. I connect my bank account and tell Mint how to categorize some stuff, and voila, I’ve got some nice charts showing me where my money has gone. Therein lies the problem. All of it gives me the big picture once the action has been done. There was no proactiveness prior to it all. I take a glance at where my money went and try to decide where I might be able to cut costs for the next month. I won’t be able to know if I’ve done so successfully until the next month completely passes.
With YNAB, there isn’t the expectation that it’ll be easy and automatic. In fact, get ready to put in some work. Once you create a daily habit of a few minutes a day, you’ll start to see patterns in your spending and at what velocity your money is being spent at as the month progresses.
Myself, for example, I’ve noticed that my grocery bill is huge at the beginning of the month because I for some odd reason like to buy all my proteins for the month at once. It takes up about 60% of my budget on day one, but for the rest of the month, very little grocery spending occurs because the rest is about veggies and garnishes, which doesn’t cost nearly as much.
Another great thing about YNAB is that because I do it manually by choice, I’m almost always up to date to the very penny spent on a daily basis. I do it manually because that’s how I started with YNAB years ago. I feel that at its core, YNAB wants everyone to do things manually, not because they’re old school, but because it truly is the most effective. That just seems to be the vibe I get. Let’s get more into that below.
The Secret Sauce: Manual vs. automatic importing of bank information on YNAB
We’ve dedicated a whole section to the age-old debate of manual vs. automatic importing of bank data. It’s that important to us that you do it the correct way, in our humble opinion.
You’ll see that when you first try out YNAB, you can either import data automatically or manually. When you import data automatically, whether in YNAB, Mint, or any other budgeting app, there are two main disadvantages:
- It takes away the proactiveness involved in budgeting.
- Bank data on the app is delayed in a way that you’re not completely up to date as you should be. Pending transactions won’t show up until they’re finalized, and that could be a day or two later.
The first disadvantage is somewhat self-explanatory. You want to be proactive when budgeting. This brings out the best possible outcome for most people. Also, to be proactive means putting in a few extra minutes a day. You’re not spending an hour each day on it.
The second disadvantage is what makes the difference between someone who roughly has an idea of what their budget is versus someone who is on top of their budgeting game on any given day.
Right now, looking at my YNAB app, I can tell you that I have spent exactly $177.43 on groceries thus far for the month, and that includes my grocery trip of around $75 today. That’s because I decided to spend less than a minute inputting my grocery transaction into YNAB prior to writing this. And that’s with the bank transaction still in pending charges.
On the contrary, someone who’s automatically importing their data will say they’ve spent roughly $100 so far, but that they also did a grocery trip today and they think it was around $75 if memory serves them correct. But hey, in a couple days, when the banking transactions finalize, they’ll know for sure and be able to tell you the exact amount. In the meanwhile, another grocery trip happens the next day for a certain smaller amount, but the transaction from the previous day hasn’t gone through, and well, it’s all kind of muddled in my head now. And if you think the picture will clear up completely in a couple days, I’d argue that it’ll probably get even more muddled up with finalized, pending, and the day’s ongoing transactions going on all at once.
If anything, the second scenario with the automatic data import just makes budgeting demoralizing. If you always have a clear picture of what’s going on to the exact cent due to manual inputs, budgeting tends to be quite fun, if I may say so.
Do you want budgeting to be fun? Say yes. I know I do.
What else do we like about the YNAB app?
Besides the YNAB philosophy on budgeting, there are a couple of other things we like about YNAB.
The community and the team behind YNAB
YNAB has always had a relatively loyal following, and that’s in part because Zero-Sum Budgeting is probably the more hardcore way of budgeting, which means that YNAB’s following puts in more time and effort into budgeting.
That also means they want the app to get everything right in terms of serving its users best. They give feedback, and the team at YNAB listens. It’s an app that’s been slowly perfected over the years coming up on almost 19 years now. That’s a long time to fine-tune things according to feedback.
Juxtapose this with the Mint app by Intuit. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot to be desired. The original founder of the Mint app (before it was sold to Intuit), had envisioned many things for the app that he thought would make the future better. For example, a way to integrate Mint with TurboTax as a way to make lives easier for millions of Americans worrying about doing taxes every year was part of his vision, one that he thought Intuit would help him realize and make come true. This still hasn’t happened. And part of the reason for that is that Mint isn’t anywhere near Intuit’s biggest moneymakers, so not a lot of resources have been directed towards improving the app.
YNAB doesn’t suffer from this. YNAB’s main focus is the app, and it’s apparent simply by the way it’s been designed.
Little details the app gets right
The app looks beautiful on both the desktop and on mobile. The design, the fonts, and the font size are perfect. Everything that can be intuitive is intuitive, such as adding categories and transactions. I’ve always had trouble categorizing income, but with YNAB, they make it easy for you by allowing you to note the payee and simply putting it straight into their own “Inflow: Ready to Assign” catch-all category. Because really, it functionally is all the same; you’ve got to assign every dollar a job no matter when it came from. The way the app auto-populates similar transactions you’ve done before is great.
Easy to sign up and get started
When you’re looking to get started with YNAB, you simply sign up and make an account, and you can do everything you need to do right away. No credit card or payment info needed. YNAB makes it simple by giving you a seamless free trial for 34 days. Then once that’s up, you can choose to subscribe to continue, or simply end your journey with them.
How much does the YNAB app cost?
The YNAB app costs $14.99 a month, but if you opt for the annual plan, you pay $99 for the whole year which effectively comes out to $8.25 a month.
In conclusion: Is YNAB right for you?
I think YNAB can benefit anyone, but it’s especially helpful for those that live paycheck to paycheck or close to it and want to get out from it. However, it does require discipline, time, and effort. If you feel you might be too busy and simply want something easy and simple at a glance, Mint is probably the better choice; plus, it’s free. However, I’d really encourage you to try and get out of that mindset and eventually give YNAB a try. With its free trial for 34 days, it’s basically risk-free and you’ll know for sure during that timeframe whether or not it’s right for you.