I’ve always been a money tracker. I still have ledger books from when I was 14 years old, with my handwriting tracking my money in and out. I would reconcile it to my bank savings account with little ticks.

I think I learned this habit watching my Mom as she would carefully manage the family finances at the kitchen table.1 There was never enough money to go around (not that I was aware of that at the time), so much of my Mom’s job was timing cheque payments, deferring bills, and calculating how much, if any, might be left over for the week. Such was life for a divorced mother of four living on not much more than a pension and without any support from her former husband and father of the aforementioned children.2

As I grew and got my first part-time job, my money-tracking ways continued. Each week I would record my income, and understand how much money I had available to get me through to the next week.

I got a bit older, graduated university and got a real job. By this point I had graduated to electronic money tracking. For a short while I used Microsoft Money, before settling on Quicken and using it for years. Each year, they would release a mediocre upgrade and I would pay the license fee to keep using it. Year after year that software got worse.

I got married and we took a traditional approach to finance by merging our money. What was mine was hers, and what was hers was mine. Fortunately, my money tracking addiction could continue since while my wife is financially aware, she didn’t have a compelling urge to record and reconcile the way I did!

Eventually Quicken became so terrible that I couldn’t bring myself to pay for it anymore. This was a dark time. There was no compelling software to adopt so I rolled my own Excel spreadsheet and used that. This was probably the first time since my ledger books that I wasn’t recording transactions. Instead, I tried to take a high-level approach by using a budgeting/forecasting model. It felt like it was working at the time but in hindsight we fell into a bit of a financial hole without realising it. We were relying on future income to cover past expenditure – what is referred to as ‘riding the credit card float’.

About 3 years ago, I realised that my carefully managed spreadsheet was busy work that was actually not helping us meet our goals. I did another software review and this time I found the application that changed everything: YNAB (short for You Need a Budget). YNAB took me back to my roots. It required transaction monitoring and was backed by a ledger that needed to be reconciled. But the magic trick of YNAB is that first and foremost, it is a budgeting system. As much as I had tracked money for all those years, and generated my income and expenditure reports, it was always backwards looking. I was auditing what had already happened, but not making commitments about what my money should do in the future. YNAB completely changed my perspective on personal finance management.

YNAB is all about giving jobs to the money you have on hand right now. You budget that available cash down to zero, then stop. You don’t live on the credit card float. You don’t plan to spend more than you have. You allocate the money to a series of planned expenditures, and then track progress against that. If you overspend you get immediate feedback and can adjust your budget through reallocation – as YNAB says, you ‘roll with the punches’.

While this seems like short-term budgeting, it actually facilitates long-term goal realisation. You suddenly realise how finite your cash supply is, especially after accounting for those recurring bills and putting money aside for the big annual bills3. With the little amounts that are left over after setting money aside for the necessities, you can make some hard decisions about what you want to do with that discretionary cash.

Since using YNAB we have never been in a more solid financial position. We can pay all our bills as and when they fall due (even the big ones). We can save and invest for our family’s future. We can set aside money for fun.

The best thing of all, though, is that we do not fight about money. We have no nagging money stress between us. We share our income, we share our expenses, and we share our savings goals and spending intentions.

After having managed my money very carefully for almost 30 years, this is the best it’s ever been. I endorse YNAB wholeheartedly. Get it, use it, love it!

  1. This was the pre-computer era, when every task people did was so much more visible.
  2. I will never cease to appreciate how my Mom was able to keep it together under such difficult circumstances.
  3. Think insurance, school fees, council rates. All the ‘oh, crap’ moments!