Keeping track of my pennies

Now that I’m working again and earning money, I decided it was high time to start getting serious about my budgeting. With my previous job, I never really had a grasp of how I was spending my money; just that I was borderline living check to check, which was odd since I was living at home with minimal expenses. Where could my money be going when I didn’t have anything extravagant to show for it? Now that I’m on the verge of moving out on my own and will need to budget for a family, it is really important to develop a budgeting habit now, especially when I still have a safety net (hi, Mom!). Besides, having a handful of dollars left at the end of the month was not a situation I enjoyed being in. It didn’t leave a lot of flexibility for surprise expenses or even student loan payments and honestly, it was frustrating.

In an attempt to keep myself from living check to check (because it doesn’t matter how much money you make!), I looked into budgeting programs. The most popular (and free!) is Mint. Since you connect your Mint account with your banking and investment accounts, it automatically updates your information as it pulls information from your accounts. It’s really easy and helps to give you an overview of your spending and suggests ways to save money. There’s also a budgeting tool that helps create a budget based upon your past savings (which you can adjust) and there are a myriad of reports to help give you an overview of your spending trends. It really sounds fantastic except for the fact that I’d have to link my banking accounts to register my account. Even though it is only a “read-only” access, meaning no one would be able to conduct any transactions through my account, I still was uncomfortable about the whole situation. Yes, it would be rare if something happened, but what if something DID happened? That unknown was enough to keep me looking for other options.

I tried making my own spreadsheet on Excel but that was rudimentary at best and I didn’t really know where to start. To be honest, I didn’t want to have to deal with the issues of setting up formulas and making it look pretty (because apparently aesthetics is really a really important step towards having a balanced budget) and the pressure was on if I did a formula incorrectly. All I wanted to do was input my numbers and be done. So after some Googling, I came across You Need a Budget and the clouds parted, the angelic choir sung, and lions played with lambs.

Okay, so not seriously, but I definitely found my budgeting system. YNAB is a great little system that actually helps you plan for future months. There are four “rules” to the YNAB method. Rule One: give every dollar a “job,” Rule Two: save for a rainy day, Rule Three: roll with the punches (which is essentially learning to adjust on the go, whether by reassigning your allotments or adjusting your budget for the next month), and finally Rule Four: stop living paycheck to paycheck, which is exactly the goal I’m trying to achieve.

My budget. Yes I'm paid in Xs

My budget. Yes I’m paid in Xs

Unlike Mint, which essentially shows you what you’ve spent, YNAB shows you what you spent and how that affects your budget for this month AND next month. Talk about forward thinking! Since you don’t link your banking accounts to YNAB, it does take some effort to enter transactions, which you can do manually on an ongoing basis (which is what I do) or you can wait until the end of the month and import your bank statement (they use the Quicken format, which most banks have as an exporting option). Once you’ve added your transactions, you can categorize them and even split them if you’ve purchased items from several categories from one store, say like Target. They also hold you accountable for any overspending or over-budgeting by taking it out of your next month’s budget, leaving you with less to budget/spend. This is a great tool to keep you aware of what you’re spending or have left to spend in any category.

In all, I love how easy this program to use and how helpful it is in planning out the month. I have a habit of “feast or famine” when it comes to spending. Either I’m spending like there’s no tomorrow or I shut down completely and try not to spend a dime. And then feel guilty when I do spend that dime. Now with YNAB, I know exactly how much I have left to spend in each category so I no longer freak out over money, which is a fabulous feeling.

YNAB has recently upgraded their program to version 4 which now includes Cloud syncing and reconciliation (which is awesome if you’re like me and suffer from Fuzzy Mathitis). I just upgraded a few days ago and have been checking out the new features and really like what they did. There is also a mobile app (the full iPhone app is still under review as of this writing) that allows you to sync transactions to your account so you’ll be able to have access to your accounts on the go, and now with the cloud sync, you’ll always have an updated budget!

If you’re interested, they have a 34-day free trial to give it a shot. The full software program is only $60 but you’re able to download it onto as many computers as you like. The mister purchased one for us after I showed him the program, which will be something we’ll be using together when we start living together. They also offer classes (live and recorded) and video tutorials to introduce the program and offer tips on how to take advantage of all it has to offer. I highly recommend YNAB if you’re looking for some budgeting help.

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