YNAB tree logoAustralian flag
It looks like you're located in Australia.
We have an Australian version of our website.

Please confirm your location and we’ll send you to the appropriate site!

How Not to Lose Your Mind Over a Single Purchase

Understanding the trade-offs of any decision will make you wiser (especially if you happen to get obsessed with buying a backpack).

This post is adapted from YNAB's twice-monthly newsletter, Loose Change. 

There was a period of time when I wanted a backpack. I didn’t really have a job and I constantly worried about money, but that didn’t stop me from pouring untold hours into the search. From salespeople and online reviews, I learned way too much about seam construction, carrying capacity, and ventilation (back sweat being one of the great under-diagnosed problems of our time).

(Oh, that’s funny, you think this is an example of how men try to feel important when they can’t exercise power in other areas of their life? Nope, definitely not, moving on!)

Still, I could not answer one pretty relevant question: how much money was I willing to spend? 

I generally felt panicked about money but what’s a couple hundred dollars when you’ve got thousands in your checking account, right? Yet even I was aware of a mysterious monthly process in which our initially plump account balance would drop until my wife and I had to shuffle money around to avoid an overdraft. So, on the one hand, I knew our finances were not good. But, on the other, didn’t I deserve a good bag

A stack of money

I had been dealing with neuropathy and a pain condition in my arms and neck and was forced to stop working for a while. Life was hard and I was trying to find a way to carry stuff around NYC without hurting myself any further. A noble cause!

But thoughtfulness had veered into preciousness. In this state of mind, seemingly simple decisions become torturous: should I buy lunch today? Is it responsible? Am I responsible?!

I’ll share a happy update. I don’t really think this way about spending money anymore. Because I'm rich! I mean, because I use YNAB. Here’s why: there is no such thing as a single spending decision.

The YNAB Method is a conceptual model showing your competing priorities and how much money you’ve set aside for each one. So when I glance at the app in the morning, I’m steeping myself in trade-offs. I see a partially-funded category for a tennis weekend with my brother-in-law in the Catskills. I see I’m almost there with the category for my daughter’s birthday party. This brief practice helps me know, almost intuitively, where I should be prioritizing my money.

Hauling myself around those Manhattan outdoor stores, I was looking for the perfect purchase. Sometimes we buy things in the hopes that we will become someone else: healthy, active, organized. But that puts way too much hope and pressure on a single spending decision. We shouldn’t try to become someone else with a purchase–we should try to spend our money to create alignment with who we actually are.

Buying the world’s “best” backpack would have meant less money for Yankees tickets with my dad or one less acupuncture session. Everything is a trade-off; we just decide the best we can and move on. Because time is also finite and I wouldn’t want to spend too much time browsing for backpacks on a beautiful day.

A kite with clouds

(Postscript: the backpack, a blue Osprey (hip strap pockets, back mesh), lasted me for more than a decade. It traveled miles on the subway and reinvented itself as a hiking backpack when I moved north out of the city. This March, I gave it to a friend of mine in LA before we hiked with several college friends in the hills above Malibu. It’s now in Hollywood, where it always belonged.)

To get more real-human money stories delivered to your inbox twice a month, subscribe to Loose Change. Unlike an Osprey pack, this newsletter is free!

YNAB IRL: Balancing Financial Health and Family Health

Robin, a YNABer from New Jersey, sent us this beautiful report on how shoring up her financial life allowed her to put family first when her father became very ill. (Buckle up and grab a Kleenex.)

My dad got listed for a liver transplant in October 2020 (yes, in the midst of COVID). Relatively quickly, it became clear he would need both a liver and kidney transplant. My parents live in Colorado, and I live on the east coast. I took advantage of the opportunity to engage in telehealth as much as possible with my full-time job and stay with my parents until January 2021. YNAB helped me be in the position to stay as long as was helpful while my parents got adjusted to these new changes.

Fast forward to March 2023. My dad's condition continued to decline, and he had a minimum of 4 medical appointments per week (dialysis and paracentesis). I went back out to Colorado with an open ticket, and I'm so grateful I was able to be there. He was in and out of the hospital several times that spring with complications, which meant his mental state was altered such that it was a significant stressor on my mom, brother, and nephew (who also live there). I read my dad a couple of Arnold Palmer (golfer) biographies while he was in the ICU to help keep him amused.

My spouse and I had saved for our first international trip together with a tour group of some special friends from my undergrad at the beginning of June. I was really torn about going, but we were able to have my sister come out to support while I took a much-needed caregiving break. We paid cash for the whole 12-day trip to Northeast England and got to spend some precious time with good friends in the midst of my dad's illness.

The day after we got back from England, my dad was back in the ICU and my sister had to go back home for her family. I flew out to Colorado the next day and I'm so glad I was able to do so without a second thought of whether or not I could afford it. (Don't tell anyone, but I splurged on an upgrade to first class on my way out there.)

During this time I also made the decision that I was ready to leave my community health job in favor of working for myself. And YNAB was there with me, helping me with my small business budget.

Unfortunately [after Labor Day], my dad's health started its imminent collapse. So back to Colorado I flew, and thank goodness for the financial cushion that enabled me to both do that, and continue unpaid leave from my job.

Those last two and a half weeks with my parents were both difficult and so important. I watched my dad eat fresh-roasted sweet corn with joy. We put a slice of watermelon in the freezer until it was "ice cold," and he stuck his face right in it. This was the most joyful I had seen him eat in months.

We watched a little baseball. He talked with me about his worries that we take good care of my mom. We listened to some calming music before bed. I threatened to read him more Arnold Palmer autobiographies if he didn't rest a little.

On Sept. 22, my dad passed away, and I'm so grateful that I was able to be there. I know my mom "can't thank [me] enough" for being there, too, so he wasn't alone when he died.

I stayed with my mom until the celebration of life in late October. Once again YNAB to the rescue; I was able to fund a plane ticket for my spouse to come out for the celebration of life (he's in hard-core paying off loans mode). And I was able to return to Colorado for Christmas to help cushion the first holidays without my dad.

In all of this, I've been able to reassess what I want to do with my time, because time is truly my most limited resource. Without persistently coming back to YNAB and sticking with it, I would not have had the financial flexibility to spend all these months with my family, and retooling my life to be more flexible so I can enjoy the time I have... because really, time is all we have with each other and it matters.

Related Articles
How Not to Lose Your Mind Over a Single Purchase