In the first post in this series, I shared how we afforded our first Disney vacation. Waiting for a windfall to come along isn’t a great way to plan your next trip! But that’s what we did, because, honestly, we’re just not that great with money. It’s such an emotionally charged thing. I hate dealing with it. But after the second or third time that we thought another windfall was in the works, and then it fizzled out, my husband and I finally had enough. We couldn’t keep dealing with the stress of our broken money management habits. We had to figure out some way of budgeting for a Disney vacation.

So we went looking for a new way to budget. I looked at Dave Ramsey. So many people have recommended his products and seminars. But I really disliked the heavy-handed morality that seems to be so integral to his teaching. Can I just have the financial advice without the side of guilt and shame, please? I might not be a financial whiz, but that doesn’t make me stupid, or lazy, or whatever. I’m a big girl, and I am capable of making my own financial decisions, based on what’s important to me and my family – if I have the right tools to do so. (Dave Ramsey would have a fit if he found out we chose to spend money on a Disney vacation instead of paying off the car.)

So I kept looking. And about 18 months ago, I finally found something that has worked for us: You Need A Budget (YNAB). And the reason that I’m talking about it now, in a series all about affording a Disney vacation? This system has saved us several hundred dollars a month, and given us the tools we needed to actually successfully put money away for our vacation, for the first time in our lives. Without this system, I would not have a 6:30 dinner reservation at Be Our Guest sitting here on my desk right now. (I also wouldn’t be finishing the final edits on Daughter of Oreveille later today, because I would have had to spend that time doing freelance work instead of writing stories.)

Daughter of Oreveille, Available soon in paperback and eBook!

Daughter of Oreveille, Available soon in paperback and eBook!

Why has YNAB worked, when no other budget has? (Because, believe me, I’ve tried budgeting before. Spreadsheets, pencil and paper, Quicken, and a handful of other variations.) The big difference is that YNAB is a complete system – it’s not just a piece of software sitting there on my hard drive, and it’s not just empty philosophy that I have to figure out how to implement. YNAB integrates both sides of the budgeting equation into one complete solution, and it’s a solution that actually works around the way I do things.

Philosophy

We’ll start here – since I rejected Dave Ramsey on the basis of his philosophy, I should probably explain why YNAB is so different. The YNAB method revolves around four core rules:

  1. Give Every Dollar a Job. Before we started using YNAB, we would pay the bills, then we’d have whatever was left to get us through the rest of the pay period. Two days after payday, it’s easy to think “Yeah, we can afford to go out to dinner, there’s plenty of cash in the bank.” But then, inevitably, two days before the next payday, we’re holding our breath hoping we have enough milk to last. When we give every dollar a job, those grocery dollars stop wandering off to the local pizza joint. We might re-allocate dollars, but at least we’re making those decisions consciously, from an informed perspective. We’re not making spending decisions emotionally.
  2. Save For a Rainy Day. This one is hard! But the fact is, there will always be unexpected expenses. That’s a known. We just don’t know whether this month’s unexpected expense will be new tires on the van or an ER trip or a new laptop because someone spilled hot coffee. This also covers major occasional expenses, like vehicle registration. We know it’s coming. It comes every single year. And it’s a lot easier to find $10 a month and stick it in a “Vehicle Registration” fund than it is to find $120 in one paycheck.
  3. Roll With The Punches. This is where YNAB is radically different from every other financial management system I’ve ever seen. It acknowledges that sometimes, Life Happens. You spend more than you planned to at the grocery store. Or that new pair of shoes the kids needed, that was on sale yesterday, isn’t on sale anymore. It happens. But here’s the thing: you don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re not an undisciplined failure because you didn’t accurately predict the future! You move money around from one of your other funds, or you let the overage roll over to next month – so if you overspend in the grocery budget this month, you’ll have that much less to work with next month. And it all works out. No fuss, no guilt. Problem solved.
  4. Live On Last Month’s Income. This is an ideal, but I suspect most people don’t have a full month’s worth of income in the bank (I know I don’t). It does help to have something in your buffer though, because it buys you time. For example: Yesterday, I got an irate phone call about an $800 medical bill from 2006. I had no clue it had never been paid, but the people on the phone were spitting nails. Several calls later, we finally figured out what had happened, and we took care of it. Now, we had to take money out of our vacation fund to do it, but because that money was there, we weren’t in a position to have to make a crisis move and borrow money from family or get a high-interest loan. We had to borrow, but we borrowed from ourselves. And we have time to sit back, take some deep breaths, step out of crisis mode, and figure out how we’re going to pay back that money before we need it. If we hadn’t had our Disney fund sitting there as a buffer, we wouldn’t have been able to handle it so calmly. (And yes, we have a workable plan to repay ourselves!)

Software

Philosophy is great and all, but it isn’t really all that useful without the tools to implement it. YNAB’s software comes in two parts: The desktop application ($60 – and worth every penny. We squirmed at spending that much on budget software, but believe me, it’s paid for itself more times than I can count!) and the free mobile app. The mobile app does not replace the desktop application – it is an add-on only.

The desktop application has two parts:

ynab4_account_split_trans

On the first screen you enter transactions – and you can split a transaction across multiple categories. So if I buy printer paper (Office Supplies) and dog food (Groceries) at Target, YNAB knows how to handle it. The transaction screen looks a lot like Quicken or any other financial software. Honestly, I only use this when I’m paying bills, because I enter most transactions directly on my phone, before I even leave the checkout line.

The second view shows you a high-level overview of your budget.

ynab4_budget

No – not my actual budget! Notice, there’s no “Disney Vacation” Category!

The budget screen is where the real magic happens. This is where you give dollars their jobs. And somehow this process takes all the stress out of budgeting for me. There’s no mental math. It’s all right there – if I put $100 in this fund, will I have enough to put $250 in that fund?

ynab_mobile

The mobile apps bring it all together. In the past, budget software hasn’t worked because I’d forget to enter transactions. You know how it is – you get home from the grocery store, and by the time you get everybody settled, get the food put away, and walk the dog, you’re lucky if you can still find the receipt. Most of the time, I’d completely forget to sit down at the computer, fire up the budget software, and enter the transaction. With the mobile app, I put in the receipt before I even leave the parking lot – half the time, I enter it in my phone before I even leave the store (especially when the weather is bad!). It’s amazing how something so simple can make all the difference. But in this case, instead of forcing me to change my habits (by remembering to sit down at the computer after every shopping trip), YNAB works with me and is right there where I need it when I have a transaction to record.

Getting Started

If there is one thing that has made it possible for us to save enough to take our family back to Walt Disney World, it’s YNAB. We’ve made some other changes also, and I’ll talk about those next week, but without the clarity we gained from managing our money through YNAB, none of those changes would have been possible.

If you’d like to try it out for yourself, YNAB offers a 34 day free trial and a ton of free educational resources, including live classes, a 9-day email class, and several other “How to do this money thing better” resources. Their website is YouNeedABudget.Com

(Oh – I do occasionally do sponsored posts (I’ve got one with a giveaway coming up next week – you won’t want to miss it!). This isn’t one of them. I have no connection with YNAB, aside from being a very satisfied customer.)

There’s a lot to say, and this is already getting to be a long post! So I’ll open it up to questions – what would you like to know, that I didn’t cover, or didn’t explain well enough for you?