Hello, dear readers. It’s me, Colin, back again to talk about budgeting. If you haven’t yet, check out my previous post on how and why you should be budgeting. This post is all about how to take your budgeting to the next level and become a guru. Remember, you own your money, not the other way around. And your cats own you. Let’s get to it.
When I was researching budgeting software last year, the major contenders were Mint and You Need A Budget (YNAB)*. My findings were that Mint gives you a nice overview of where your money is going – plus some nifty visuals – but YNAB is more of a full budgeting solution, complete with a methodology and guidance for beginners. Generally speaking, Mint is good for people who want a high-level overview of their budget with very little effort required, and YNAB is good for people who want to roll up their sleeves and spend some energy making sure they are spending their money as they want. I chose YNAB, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right software for you. For one, it’s not free. It costs me $45 per year, although I probably save at least that much each month through proper budgeting, plus the peace of mind. YNAB and Mint are always updating, and new software is always on the rise, so do some research and see what works for you. Just watch out for reviews and articles more than a year old, as they might not be very relevant anymore. With all that said, and in my completely biased opinion, here are some of the things I really like about YNAB:
- Clear methodology. YNAB is both software and a “cookbook” on how to budget. If you like their methodology, this is a big win. The software helps you stick to it.
- Guidance. When you first start, there’s a nice tutorial to get you fully up and running. If anything in your budget goes wrong (e.g. overspending), it turns red and YNAB helps you figure it out.
- Log into your bank and YNAB syncs your bank data directly. Note: This doesn’t work for all banks (including any of mine, being outside the US), but it’s worth mentioning for those who can use it. For everyone else, you can export data from your bank and import into YNAB. Shameless plug: If your bank only exports CSV, you can use my open source CSV converter to translate it into the right format for YNAB.
- Schedule your predictable expenses (e.g. rent) and they recur each month.
- Set up targets for your categories to enable one-click budgeting at the start of each month.
- Analytics. YNAB recently added a Reports section with some neat graphs of your budget. This makes it really nice to see how your net worth is trending or how your groceries (and cat toy spending) vary month-to-month.
- Hands on. Since you control where all your money goes each month, you have a great understanding of your budget and changes are simple.
- Use anywhere. With both a web and mobile app, I can access my budget anywhere, so I can check if I’m making the right spending choices.
Whether you’re using YNAB, other budgeting software, or just a pencil and paper, these tips should help you budget more effectively.
- Make time. Just like money, you have to budget your time to be successful. When crafting your budget the first time, make yourself a big mug of hot cocoa and give yourself a couple hours to get it all set up. Then set aside 30 – 60 minutes each week to keep your budget up to date. As you get used to budgeting, it takes less time.
- Expect the unexpected. Things rarely go exactly as we plan or hope (e.g. the last US election). Create a budget category or two for unexpected events. We have Stuff I Forgot to Budget For to handle little things that slip through and Rainy Day for when we really need it.
- Less is more. You don’t need a special savings account for your house fund. Unless you’r earning significantly better interest, it’s better to keep your money in fewer accounts. This reduces the complexity of transfers between them. Your budget always tells you exactly how much you have saved for what, regardless of where that money is.
- Be generous. Always wanted to donate money, but never had the funds? If your budget allows for it, set something aside in Giving, and the next time your alma mater or the place where you adopted your cats from comes asking, you’ll be ready. And you’ll know how much you can afford to give!
- Line it up. Your budget should match reality. It’s not a good idea to budget for dining out once a week if you always eat out three times per week. Either adjust your habits or your budget. Early on, I recommend adjusting your budget to match your habits. Once you have a good handle things, you can think about changing your behavior. Remember, your budget is not meant to shame you! That’s what cats are for.
- Don’t forget fun. We have a special Fun Money category for no-questions-asked impulse purchases.
- Get structured. Decide how often you want to touch your budget (I like once a week for YNAB) and stick to it. Every few months you should take a step back and consider what is working and what isn’t. If you want to get really fancy, you can set up an Annual Budget Meeting and feel like a big shot.
Budgeting for travel can be tricky. It’s often hard to know how much everything will cost. And after transport, lodging, food, and daily expenses, the final total can be a surprise. Since we’re in the time of our life where travel is one of our top priorities, we chose to set aside a considerable travel budget each month, even if we aren’t going anywhere that month. This is particularly helpful since many travel expenses (e.g. airfare) happen well ahead of the trip. Even if travel isn’t such a priority for you, I recommend having a Travel or Vacation budget and try to put some money into it each month. Whether your next trip is this month or years from now, it helps to always be saving.
Budgeting with a partner
I like to say “two brains are better than one”, especially when it comes to software. This is true for budgeting as well, but it also introduces complications. The most important thing if you’re budgeting for more than just you is to align your priorities (remember: budgeting is about priorities). Maybe one of you loves to buy books and yarn, while the another can’t get enough video games. Maybe your cats want a whole category for cardboard boxes. Be prepared to compromise. It can help to define your priorities separately, then come together to discuss. And if you have to keep each other honest, just make sure you do it in a loving way!
I hope these posts have inspired some of you to start a budget, and others to up their budgeting game. Share your tips, successes, and failures in the comments!
* We aren’t sponsored by YNAB, we just like it. No money going to us!