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Gain Financial Clarity Using YNAB: a Comprehensive Overview

Updated: Jan 19

YNAB is among the top-rated budgeting apps. ⭐️


The proof is in the pudding…

Nerdwallet: ranked it number one for hands-on, zero-based budgeting (If you’re not familiar with this term, I’ll explain what this means below.)

U.S. News: also declared it is the best for zero-based budgeting

Forbes: deemed it the best budgeting app for achieving financial goals

Bankrate: gave it best in class for user-friendliness

Apple App Store: its users give it a 4.8 (and there are over 48,000 reviews)


Now that we know where the system ranks, I’ll give you my personal opinion.


YNAB describes itself as a wealth-building tool– I’d say that’s a bit of a stretch since they don’t have a robust way to view your assets, but they are my preferred budget/spending plan app. I’ve been tracking my own cash flow with YNAB since January 2020. So, I’ve officially dubbed myself a YNAB wizard. 


A wizard's wand with a bunch of bright/glittery lights coming out the end.

[Disclosure: I am a fiduciary, which means I have a duty only to recommend things that are in your best interest. Therefore, this is a system overview, not a professional recommendation. We would need to work 1:1 if you'd like a personal assessment.


I encourage finding a system that works for you, no matter if it’s paper/pencil, a spreadsheet, or an app. Having something that matches your style and level of comfort is key. That being said, I am a YNAB affiliate, and if you decide to use my link to become a customer, you will receive an extra free month of service, and so will I. You can access that link by clicking here.]


Now that you know some of the basics, let’s dive a little deeper.


YNAB Overview

There are five categories that may impact your decision to use/not use YNAB:

Their Philosophy

User-Friendliness

Checking Account Set-Up

Credit Card Usage

App v. Website Interface


Their Philosophy

YNAB prides itself on having the perfect formula for financial success. I would agree.


Rule One: Give Every Dollar a Job

“Give every dollar a job” is synonymous with the zero-based budgeting philosophy. Here’s a very quick example of how it works.


Monthly net (after taxes) inflow: $15,000

Monthly savings: $4,000

Monthly expenses: $7,000

Monthly discretionary (wants/lifestyle) spending: $3,500

What’s “left”: $500

An equation: 15000-4000-7000-3500= $500

With the zero-based philosophy, you give that $500 a place to go because you always want your equation to come out to zero.

An equation: 15000-4000-7000-3500-500=0

In this instance, you opted to allocate your money to the home remodel. 


Pro tip: move this money out of your checking account and into a savings account for safekeeping.


Rule Two: Embrace Your True Expenses

No! Not like that…


A women hugging a lot of 100 dollar bills.

This one is a biggie; it’s my number one tip to avoid a hiccup in your spending plan. 

  1. Find your big, infrequent expenses (think insurance, vet bills, holiday gifts, & that annual girls’ trip) 

  2. Create a target to fund it monthly– the beauty of YNAB is that it will calculate how much to save for each item automatically; all you have to know are two things: the amount you need to pay the item in full & the date by when you need it

  3. When that expense arrives, just pay it


Rule Three: Roll with the Punches

Shit happens. No matter how well-intentioned you are, there will be things that come up, and you’ll have to move money around to make it work. 


Rule Four: Age Your Money

I personally call this “Getting One Month Ahead.” When you’re spending money from last month, the “When is payday??” cycle will be long gone.


That is the YNAB philosophy, and they set up the software to make it easy-ish to follow. Once you get the hang of it, it will change your life. And, no, I’m not being dramatic. 💁‍♀️


User-Friendliness

To be frank, this system has a steep learning curve. You have to have patience with yourself–because there is a lot to wade through, especially if you are brand new to using a budgeting/spending plan app.


Pros: 

  • The reporting tool is simple to use.

  • Establishing targets and seeing your progress is straightforward.

  • You can easily see your credit card balance and know if you have enough money available to pay it off.

  • Moving money from one bucket to another is a breeze (and can be satisfying).

  • I love the green & red visuals. It’s very clear to see if you’ve spent all the allotted money, overspent, or have some left in that category.


Screenshot of YNAB. One category, Rent has been fully spent and the color grey. Electric has been overspent by $21 and is in red. Water has $96 left in the category and is the color green.

Cons: 

  • There can be confusion with how they calculate how much money you have available. One of the biggest issues is that all the money in the savings accounts is viewed as “free game.”

  • Automated categorizing is not as robust as other apps.

  • Transferring money to/from another budget isn’t a thing. However, I wish it would be since I keep my business budget in there as well.

  • There are a few info boxes that I still have no idea what they mean. Exhibit A:


A YNAB screenshot, showing available funds of $275. Leftover funds from last month: $200. Assigned in December: $1806. Activity: $-1,731.

I know this looks self-explanatory, but I can't make any sense of it!


Checking Account Set-Up

Adding your checking accounts is seamless. They use Plaid as their banking connection system, and I’ve only had a few slight issues. For example, their link with American Express can get delayed from time to time. It’s annoying, but if I need information pronto, I’ll manually add the transactions.


Credit Card Usage

When you use a combination of a checking account & credit cards, it can sometimes be tricky to know how much money you actually have available to put toward your card balance. With YNAB, they make this crystal clear.


A YNAB screenshot with the words: You have enough money to pay off your current balance!

Gone are the days of credit card float. If you’re unsure what I mean by the credit card float, click here to get all the details!


App vs. Website Interface

To be honest, I rarely use the app because I prefer the website interface. But here are a few things I noticed.


App

Pro: It’s more convenient to categorize your transactions.

Con: You can’t undo an action if you make a mistake.


Website

Pro: All functionality is available.

Con: There’s a lot of info on the screen, and it can be intimidating.


Cost

They offer a 34-day free trial. 

After that, the software is currently (2023) $14.99/month + tax or $99/year + tax.


Pro Tip: Take advantage of their 34-day free trial (plus a bonus month if you use the affiliate link above), but DON’T get the annual membership right away. I know it’s tempting; however, go with the monthly option until you’re confident this system will work for you.


YNAB Claims

Their website states the following:

  • the average user saves $600 by the second month of using the system

  • the average user saves $6,000 in their first year of using the system

  • During a 2021 debt challenge, the average participant paid off $8,000


Those are some big claims, but they surveyed their users, and that’s what they found. I can’t say the same for me, but when I started using the system in 2020, I wasn’t looking for any dramatic changes; I just wanted a system to use because I was ready to transition away from my trusty ‘ole spreadsheet (which I used for over ten years).


The Bottom Line

If I had to give the software an overall letter grade, I would assign an A-.


YNAB is a top-notch budget management software. If you are looking for an option, it's a good one. 


Want to get past the learning curve faster?

Remember, I’m a YNAB wizard (self-proclaimed)… if you want to work with a professional to help you get set up and understand the system, you can book a 15-minute chat here to see if we’d make a good team.


Here's to you,

Melissa Mittelstaedt

Money Coach | Accredited Financial Counselor®


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