As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, I evaluated several different software options for household budgeting. A couple of these programs were either free (Mint.com) or I already owned (Quicken) or had access through membership to Total Money Makeover.com (Gazelle Budget). I briefly looked into others and did yet more research online. By no means did I do anything exhaustive, but through the process, I found an option that I felt works best for me – YNAB3.
After about a year of using YNAB3, they have recently released a new version YNAB4 and I’m going to give a review/overview of that here.
Starting Off With YNAB
When you first open YNAB 4, you will be given the option to use a limited-time free trial key of the software or enter your activation key. They also allow you to opt-in to a free 10-day “course” of daily emails which discuss various aspects of budgeting and even give you action steps along the way in some cases. These are interesting and thought they’re a bit long, they are well worth the read.
Once you’ve made it past the activation step, you’re presented with an interface to choose a name for your budget and a few options:
The Cloud Sync option is new, but is a nifty trick as it allows you to access the same budget information from any of your YNAB devices. Currently the iOS version is still in the approval process, but this will make accessing your budget when and where you really need it a much improved experience.
The Starting Categories option is useful as well as it automatically creates categories that are going to be present in most family or small business budgets. In my case, we do both in the same budget, but went with the Personal/Family categories. It is easy to add categories or subcategories later.
Before you even get to the categories, the software will run you through the process of adding accounts. You should add your bank accounts, savings accounts, credit card accounts here. This will really help YNAB shine because that is the magic of the software – it essentially forces you to reconcile exactly where you are spending your money. You can’t cheat (or at least it’s hard) and it gets you in the habit of finding where every penny is going.
With each account you add, you’ll enter the name of the account, the current balance, and the date of the current balance. These can always be changed to reconcile the accounts. Also, you’ll choose the type of account (there are several options) and whether it is a Budget Account or an off-budget account (for things like your mortgage, auto loan, assets, etc.)
When you add the account, it will then let you add transactions to the account. Transactions are how YNAB “follows the money.” When you have a deposit, you mark it as income. Any withdrawal has to be assigned a budget category/subcategory. In my opinion, the best way to use YNAB is to download the information from your bank. Most banks offer free online banking. All you need is the ability to choose a date range and save the file as a quicken format document. Import this into YNAB (making sure to assign it to the correct account) and you’ll be ensuring that every non-cash purchase is captured. This works great with a debit card. It also works with your credit cards.
Editing the Categories
This is where you actually set up your budget. One of the great features of YNAB is that it is a beautiful application. But behind the beauty is a lot of power, which is what you want.
YNAB will start you out with a pretty reasonable set of budget categories and subcategories. The initial interface will show you 3 months (current and next 2 months)
As you assign your transactions, they will show up as outflows in the budget month in which they occurred. You’ll assign a budgeted amount to each subcategory and the categories will sum the subcategories automatically. The balance shows where you have over or under budgeted for any subcategory.
So What Makes YNAB 4 Different?
Most budgeting software out there lets you create categories and then at the end of the month you manually enter into each category what you spent in it. That’s great and very flexible. Too flexible. Because it’s very easy to forget how much you spent in a certain area. When we first started using YNAB, I had no idea how much money we were spending on fast food and restaurants. But because YNAB works best when you are importing data from the bank, there’s essentially no flexibility at all. You have to assign every penny spent to a category. With most other budgeting software, the creation of the budget is essentially the only function you get. Then next month you create another one. Tracking your expenditures is all up to you.
But since YNAB allows you to create the categories and then track where you spend every penny, it keeps you honest and actually shows you more of your actual habits. It’s a much better “paper trail” so to speak. It can be a bit frustrating at times, though, because you can’t enter your expected available income and budget for that. You have to have the income BEFORE you can assign the money for it. For those of you who are living it pretty tight, this could be a source of frustration. But I believe it can still change your habits.
The other significant difference is that YNAB lets you look at the months around your current month. It’s a bit like a “head’s up display.” You’re not just looking at this months budget or next month’s. You can look at several months’ budgets at a glance and see where you are having consistent problems or where you are doing well. Also, because it tracks the budget subcategories for things like rainy day funds, you can track the progress of your tire fund or car replacement fund.
If you used YNAB 3, you’ll jump right in with YNAB 4 without any problems. Here’s the new features list. It’s the same thing with some interface updates. Nothing earth-shattering. I’m looking forward to the iOS version because that will really be a great new feature for workflow. There is also a newly updated report engine for creating graphical representations of your financial situation, including a net worth tracker.
One other thing: YNAB offers free webinar classes to get you up to speed with highly trained experts in their program. They have an Introduction class, a Credit Card class, and a Budget Workshop all of which are easy to sign up for on the support site and are interactive so you can personally have your questions answered. They also have a 5-part series of courses that are recorded and can be viewed at any time.
Overall, I give YNAB 4 4.5/5 stars (It’s not perfect, but it’s the best thing out there)
The support in getting started is tremendous. The interface is gorgeous and intuitive once you understand the paradigm.
The support is incredible. In addition to the online classes, they have an active support community, not to mention a blog for news and updates to keep you current.
I highly recommend YNAB 4.