SUCCESS STORY: After six months of using YNAB, a Clark.com reader wrote in to tell us that she is “no longer stressing over how to make it through the month.” She has an emergency savings for the first time and is working to get out of debt. The reader says she has used Mint and another program without success, but “neither program worked like YNAB.” Congrats and keep up the great work!
You Need a Budget, also known as YNAB, is a popular budgeting program that brings the envelope method into the digital age.
YNAB is based on four rules that have helped many subscribers stop living paycheck to paycheck and spend less money than they earn every single month.
In fact, YNAB claims that new budgeters save an average of more than $6,000 in their first year with the program.
YNAB review: Everything you need to know about the budgeting app
I’ve been using free budgeting tools from Mint and Personal Capital for years, but I was reluctant to test YNAB because it costs $83.99 a year ($6.99 a month) after a 34-day free trial. There’s also an $11.99 monthly option.
I finally decided to try it out after this type of feedback from members of Clark’s Ditch Your Debt group on Facebook:
Tiffanie: We’ve used it for over 2 years, and LOVE it! Easy to enter transactions (especially on the fly); easy to import and approve transactions; always handy on my phone, which means I check it and update it frequently (important part of budgeting!); self-updates with great features; accessible on phone and online (work, home, etc); great tools to help you set & reach goals. Completely worth the monthly fee!! By using this, we save WAY more than the fee.
Don’t think you would ever pay for YNAB? I felt the same way, but stick with me. Even if you don’t plan to continue as a paying member, I believe the free trial may be worth your time.
If I had to choose just one word to describe my last month of budgeting with YNAB, “eye-opening” would be it.
This article details my personal experience with YNAB and how it compares to Mint, but I want to get started with a brief explanation of why this budgeting app isn’t like the others…
The 4 rules of YNAB
YNAB says it will help you budget like you’ve never done before, and that was true for me. YNAB’s method is based on four rules that can help you set up a budget, take control of your money and reach your financial goals.
- Give every dollar a job: When you receive a paycheck, assign it to your expense categories before you spend it.
- Embrace your true expenses: Set money aside every month for non-monthly expenses (property taxes, insurance premiums, holiday gifts, etc.) so that you’re ready when the bills come in.
- Roll with the punches: Things can and will go wrong! Move money around to cover categories where you overspend.
- Age your money: Stuck living paycheck to paycheck? By consistently spending less than you earn, you’ll work toward using last month’s pay on this month’s expenses.
Budgeting with YNAB for 30 days
YNAB’s rules were a little confusing to me at first, but it all started to make sense once I started my free trial.
Before I share more about my 30 days of budgeting with YNAB, I want to point out that the trial doesn’t require you to enter a credit card and there’s a 100% money-back guarantee for paid customers.
Problem syncing accounts
Once I signed up on YNAB’s website, I immediately started following the prompts to connect my bank accounts to YNAB.
Like Mint and Personal Capital, YNAB links to your accounts to automatically import transactions. The service also has the option of adding unlinked accounts by starting with your current balance and manually entering transactions.
I ended up doing it the manual way because YNAB had trouble establishing an initial connection with several of my accounts.
People who are sensitive about sharing bank usernames and passwords may actually prefer the unlinked option. YNAB has a section of its website where you can read more about its security features.
Setting up my budget
Moving on, I determined the amount of money to be budgeted for the month and started to give every dollar a job.
Here’s an example: If you have $2,000 to be budgeted, you have to assign all 2,000 of those dollars to your customizable categories, which are broken up into the following groups by default:
- Immediate obligations
- True expenses
- Debt payments
- Quality of life goals
- Just for fun
This is a useful exercise because it requires you to prioritize your spending. If you have $2,000 to be budgeted and a $1,000 rent payment due in a few days, that leaves $1,000 to get you by until your next paycheck.
As you assign money to those categories, YNAB will encourage you to create short-term and long-term goals.
The simple color-coding with YNAB can also keep you on track. Green means you have dollars available, orange indicates that a category is underfunded and red is a sign that you’ve overspent.
Sticking to the plan
The real fun began when I started spending money! Like I said, I had to manually enter transactions because of the synchronization issue, but it ended up being a lot less tedious than I expected.
I got into the habit of checking my category balance before buying anything and recording the transaction immediately after.
YNAB’s mobile app for Apple and Android devices is easier for me to navigate than the desktop version. In addition to categorizing new transactions in about five seconds, you can move money around as your priorities shift.
Here’s an example: During my free trial month, I got a surprise $700 home repair bill. That wasn’t in my home maintenance budget. As a result, I had to move money from several other categories to fund it — the third rule of YNAB.
The method empowered me to prioritize the repair over things like eating out, clothing, gifts and my vacation fund.
How much I saved
I’m an analytical person to begin with, but checking with my budget and the dollar amount left in a particular category before making a purchase really helped me spend less over the last month.
Even with that $700 home repair bill, I was able to set aside money for my true expenses (non-monthly bills) and had $200 left.
Warning: There’s a learning curve!
If you’ve been budgeting with Mint or another tool, YNAB is going to require some effort to master — but it’s worth it!
Shortly after I signed up, YNAB sent me an email with an invitation to talk one-on-one with a coach for 15 minutes to answer some of my questions. That was a huge help!
In fact, that coach was even able to get someone to troubleshoot the account synchronization issues I had.
There are also 20-minute workshops every day where coaches answer your questions. I’ve shared a recorded workshop below because I think it’s one of the better ones:
There are other resources to help you budget successfully. YNAB has additional instructional videos, podcasts, forums, chat and help documents on its website. I’ve also seen YNAB respond to questions via Facebook and Twitter.
Even without phone support, I felt like I had all of the tools I needed to get the most out of the free trial.
YNAB: Summary of the pros and cons
|Customer service and tools||Learning curve|
|Easy-to-use mobile app||Syncing accounts|
|No advertising||Price: $83.99 billed annually|
YNAB vs. Mint: Which budgeting app is best?
Money expert Clark Howard is a fan of Mint.com and says it’s great for automatically tracking your expenses. I’ve used Mint since 2010 and like how it has evolved to include bill reminders, credit score updates and net worth tracking.
However, I would have to say that YNAB does a better job with the budgeting component — that’s really all it does!
The more I used YNAB, the more I realized how it truly helps me manage my finances and proactively make smart decisions about what I spend money on and what I choose not to.
Mint, on the other hand, now seems like more of a report card after the money has already been spent.
The big advantage of Mint is that the service is free, but you do have to put up with credit card ads. There’s none of that with YNAB. You avoid the ads because it’s a paid service.
Is YNAB worth $83.99 a year? If it helps you get out of credit card debt or reach other financial goals, the answer is probably “yes.”
Here’s my suggestion: Take YNAB up on its 34-day free trial and spend some time to learn the method. Even if you don’t become a paying member, you may be able to apply the four rules on your own using a free budgeting tool.
Has YNAB helped you save more and spend less? Leave your review in the comments below!
More Clark.com stories you may like:
- Free budget worksheet: The CLARK Method to create a monthly budget
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- Google Sheets: The free budgeting tool you probably haven’t tried