Can Talking About Budgeting Make You A Better Budgeter?
When we first talked to Aaron Fritsch, he told us how much YNAB had done for him and his family. It was a great story, but not entirely unlike stories we hear every day.
He went on to say that he is responsible for about 50 employees in his role at WeWork, and he had been sharing YNAB with them. They even started a #ynab Slack channel to share successes and strategies. But what he said next stopped me in my tracks: “I realized that the more I help others, and ‘give away’ the YNAB philosophy, the more my own financial situation seems to improve, so I’m constantly looking for new people to sit down and help show them a better way to approach their money.”
Instantly, I knew he was right. I know that’s been my experience, although, I’d never necessarily articulated it so plainly. (More proof positive for our new Referral Program, which you should check out if you haven’t yet!)
All that to say, YNAB played a huge role in Aaron and his family’s financial comeback, their quality of life day-to-day, and their prospects for the future. Here is a little bit (OK, a lot, and this is the edited version, but it’s good stuff!) of his transfomation story, in his own words:
A New Beginning
We moved to Brooklyn on a sweltering hot day in July 2014. Three months prior I’d traded a comfortable position at Apple for a fancy title at a new gig with a consultancy based in New York City.
We lugged our 6 pieces of checked luggage, our two-year-old daughter, Edith, and our 3-month-old daughter, Lilah up the steps of the Airbnb we’d booked for our first month in town. As we walked in, the owners of the house handed us the keys and headed out on a road trip to Wisconsin where they would stay for the summer with their family.
All I could think was how in the world could they pull off a beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn, and the time and the means to travel all summer??!?!
We had dinner with this lovely family shortly after their return, and in the midst of telling a story about the cost of grocery shopping in New York, our host mentioned that she uses this amazing framework for managing their finances, aptly named “You Need a Budget.”
Budgeting wasn’t something that came naturally to us as a married couple. Ana was raised in a household with a lot of money and a traditionalist approach to finances: leave it to the men, and don’t talk about it with the women.
My parents were born into blue-collar families who worked their way up to the middle class; their sensibilities were relatively frugal, but both struggled with living within their means. I got my first credit card when I was 18, and I’d been in debt ever since.
Ana and I got married young (24 and 27 respectively) and had children almost immediately. Money management quickly became one of the more difficult aspects of our marriage.
Discussions about money usually went something like this:
Ana: “The girls need new shoes for the Summer, their sandals from last year don’t fit.”
Aaron: “Didn’t they just get new shoes a few weeks ago?”
Ana: “Yes, but I told you I was going to buy them and you said yes.”
Aaron: “Yes, but I didn’t know we’d have to buy more this month. Can it wait until next week? The credit card is almost maxed out.”
Ana: “I thought you said we were fine. Didn’t you just get paid?”
Aaron: “I thought we were but now we’re not because their ballet class payment went through, and that added with the shoes puts us back at maxed out.”
Ana: “Okay, so we can’t buy shoes for the girls then? What will they do for the Summer?”
Aaron: “No…well, yes…well. Just get the shoes. I’ll deal with it later. But be more thoughtful next time when you need to buy them shoes. Didn’t you think they’d need Summer shoes?”
Ana: “I don’t know what to do, and you’re making me feel like s*** for asking, and you’re confusing me because one second we’re okay and the next second we’re not.”
Aaron: “I get it, but it’s also hard being the one to always has to be the bad guy, and I’m not very good at saying no.”
Ana: “Wait, didn’t you just buy yourself a pair of shoes, too?”
Aaron: “Yes, but I need shoes, too! And I don’t know what else to do!”
And so on and so forth…
I never forgot that our Airbnb host had said she managed her money using “You Need A Budget”—and since I clearly did, I finally checked it out. We liked the concept—in fact, for the first time ever, I could imagine living another way. But our attempt to commit was meager at best, and it wasn’t long before we were right back to our status quo—debt, stress, and more debt.
As it turns out, even an impressive salary doesn’t go very far as the sole source of income for a family of four living in New York City. We started falling (cliff-diving, no, avalanching!) into debt.
If something didn’t change we’d have to relocate, which didn’t seem possible at that point. I started cashing in the retirement money and stock I’d stashed away while at Apple. Fast forward one year, and things were worse than ever: with all of my liquid assets gone, and still falling into debt, Ana and I were at a breaking point.
Every month was a financial crisis. Credit cards were maxed out, and there wasn’t enough money in the bank at times to cover even basic expenses. There’s no word to describe the feeling of making enough money to be considered wealthy by many regular standards, live a reasonably non-extravagant lifestyle, and be absolutely, hopelessly broke. But even worse than that, was the strain on our marriage.
Years back, a mentor of mine had shared some wisdom about change: “When the pain of today outweighs the fear of change, change occurs.” With New Years approaching, the scale was tilted heavily toward pain, and we were (finally) ready to face our fears.
On December 27th, we decided, together, to commit to YNAB and make it work for our family. To really commit. We loved how the YNAB philosophy centered around reasonability and a sustainable approach for the long-term. We knew we didn’t get into our financial mess overnight and that we wouldn’t get out of it overnight either.
Here’s a rough sketch of the steps we took:
All In: One Joint Checking Account
We picked one joint checking account (we had four checking accounts between the two of us), and moved all of our money to it. All the money coming in and out were happening in one place. Ana’s blogging business was starting to take off, and we agreed that any money received would be deposited into this joint checking account.
Big Decisions: Old Money
When I received my bonus money, I did the unthinkable—instead of immediately paying down debt, I used that influx of cash to “age our money.” My logic here was that if I could get the spending under control, and get us out of the no-man’s-land of ageless money, the credit card fees and minimum payments would become a predictable expense that I could budget for and I just might be able to stop adding debt every month. This put us about one paycheck ahead of what we were spending. For the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t living paycheck-to-paycheck.
Getting Started: Focus On Goals
We sat down on January 1st and outlined all of our long-term goals. We tried to be both exhaustive and honest with ourselves.
Month 1: Setting The Baseline
Month one we created budget categories that were representative categorically of how we spend our money on, but weren’t very scientific in terms of dollar amounts. We just wanted to get a realistic sense of spending and make sure we were accounting for everything.
Even more importantly, we started tracking our expenses in the YNAB app. We knew that the feedback loop created by manually adding expenses as we were spending would make us mindful of what and how much we were spending.
The single most effective deterrent for speeding cars is a speed limit sign that shows how fast you’re going. The sign demands nothing of you—but our natural instinct is to respond to the feedback by slowing down. naturally, respond to the feedback by slowing down. Counting calories works in the same way. And the principle proved so true for us as we tracked every expense. I’ll always contend that there’s intrinsic value in the act of manual expense tracking (even though the automatic import of transactions from credit cards is amazing in YNAB).
Month 2: Realistic Stays The Course
Month two we tweaked and cleaned up our budget categories (“Coffee” gets its own category, it can’t be lumped into “Restaurants.) Based upon the spending in month one, we tried to assign reasonable amounts of money to each category. Nothing scientific just focused on measured, sustainable improvement.
Month 3: Hard Questions
In month three, we were ready to get really honest—next level honest, which we simply couldn’t have done when we first started—about where we could spend less money and adjusted accordingly. Did we need to go on date night every week? Ana: “Yes. Absolutely.” Fair, can we go on cheap dates every other week and more special ones in between? Definitely. Bam! Half of the “Date Night” budget reallocated! This is budgeting, people!
The Result: It Worked!
Things changed quickly for us—and the magnitude of the ripple effect on our lives is hard to describe.
First and foremost, we gained the ability to speak objectively about our spending. The judgment, pontificating, and subjective interpretation were all removed nearly instantly. I’m not a sports guy, but I love sports analogies, and I think this one is fitting: Without a scoreboard, members of a team begin comparing their personal stats. Who’s winning because all about feeling and interpretation (“I’m the best on the team, I helped more than you did, etc”). The scoreboard is the objective representation of how the team is performing. You’re either winning or you’re losing, regardless of how incredible any one team member is performing.
Remember that typical conversation about money? Well, now when my wife and I talk about money it goes something like this:
Ana: “Look, the girls needed new shoes for the Summer—their sandals from last year don’t fit, so I bought these. I added them to the ‘Stuff For The Girls’ category. Aren’t they awesome?”
Aaron: “Yeah those are awesome!”
That’s it. And on the rare occasion that we do need to have a more in-depth discussion, it feels refreshingly healthy and straightforward:
Aaron: “OK, we’re two weeks into the month and we’re about 75% through our transportation budget.”
Ana: “It’s cold as hell outside and it’s not worth making the girls walk a mile in 15-degree weather. A few more Uber rides and they’ll be happier when we get home, and we’ll all have a better night.”
Aaron: “Good call. Let’s move some money from the travel budget since we don’t have any immediate plans.”
Not that many months ago, this conversation would have crippled us. Now it’s a straightforward, conflict-free dialogue based upon objective facts about how we’ve allocated our money.
Three months in, I was doing a weekly Sunday-night check of all of our accounts, and nearly jumped off the bed when I realized that we’d spent within our means that month. This was the first month in the history of my wife and I being together that we’d been able to do this. We had made a commitment, and it was working.
Keep What You Have By Giving It Away
I could not stop talking about YNAB. I run what is essentially a software development company inside of a larger company, and we’re regularly trying out new technologies in every aspect of our lives. When I mentioned YNAB, I got a lot of pushback as people seemed to be really invested in using Mint.
I was *insistent* that YNAB was different, and I could demonstrate exactly why. I found myself at a whiteboard, giving a pitch to a few of my employees about how YNAB functions as a system, and how other budgeting software doesn’t actually systematize anything.
It’s something like the difference between writing yourself a to-do list and adopting a work management system like David Allen’s “Getting Things Done.” One is a tool you can use to understand what you need to do, the other is an entire system that you can use to minimize anxiety and trust intrinsically that you’re doing exactly what needs to be done at any moment. In a similar fashion, the more you commit yourself to YNAB as a system, the less you need to constantly be thinking about your money (where it is, where it’s going, etc.) and you can just enjoy spending it.
Two of my employees started using YNAB that day, both of them right around the time they were receiving bonuses. Like I had done, one of the employees decided to use his bonus to “age” his money, and within one month was enjoying a state of financial freedom he had never known.
As the days went on, we started talking more and more about YNAB. We even created a Slack channel dedicated to discussing tips, tricks, and stories about things we were doing that made our use of YNAB more successful. I always strive to make sure my employees are compensated fairly. When I can’t get them more money, I’ve come to feel like the next best thing I can do (maybe it’s really even greater in the long run) is to help make their money go as far as possible for them. It strikes me as obvious that employers investing in their employee’s personal financial development would ultimately make for a happier, more productive workforce that isn’t mired in worry about how they’ll make it to their next paycheck.
Sharing YNAB Had Ripple Effects
At this point, I noticed something incredible. I was getting as much (if not more) satisfaction out of watching other people’s financial situations improving than I was of my own. As I said before, my finances were going to take some time to really iron out. The plan was in place, but it would awhile before I would really feel like I was where I wanted to be. But these employees—unmarried, without children, and with relatively low amounts of debt—were in the position to make changes quickly and directly. I was living vicariously through their actions and what I wished I’d known when I was their age. But it was so satisfying to watch them learn and implement new financial behaviors that hugely improved the quality of their lives overall.
Celebrating Our Milestones
If you had told me a year ago that any of the three things were even on the table, I would have said you were crazy. But, it turns out, when you get your financial s**t together, it’s a game changer:
My wife and I went on our first vacation (Barcelona!) with money we’d budgeted in advance through a long term spending category. I kid you not, we felt like royalty. We ate at amazing restaurants three times a day, stayed at five-star hotels, and never felt guilty about a single purchase. I’ve never had the experience of spending money guilt-free; instead, I would put everything on a credit card and try as hard as possible not think about how much we were spending until we got home. But this time, it was all accounted for in advance, and we were free to simply enjoy ourselves.
We were hit with a massive, massive, MASSIVE tax bill as the result of my Father-in-law’s estate settling after he passed in early 2016. Without YNAB not only would this have wiped us off the map financially, I would have collapsed into a spiral of depression and despair. We had just made it to our fourth month of budgeting, and had set a strategy in place for paying down our debt. Because we had a plan, and we knew where our money was and exactly what it was doing, we could take this unexpected news in stride and adjust our long-term strategy accordingly with next to zero anxiety. And that felt like nothing short of a miracle.
For the first time in my life, I’m not having to game the system. Let’s say a group of friends, my wife and I all go to dinner. Inevitably everyone has cash while I’ve got a credit card so I end up covering dinner. In the past, I would panic over making sure I made it to the bank in time to deposit the cash so I could pay down the almost-maxed out card before we hit our limit. These days it doesn’t matter where the money sits.
If I cover the cost of dinner and everyone pays me in cash, I add the amount as an inflow to my cash account, credited toward my category for “Restaurants.” I think the broader sense of freedom comes from the fact that I’m not living so close to the edge. I’m spending older money—money I’ve earned more than a month ago, which means I don’t have to check account balances every single day, worried there won’t be enough money. There is a comfortable amount of money, that allows me to not have to stress the timing. I can use money from any account so long as I track the spending against a category.
YNAB doesn’t fix everything—you still need to make enough money to cover your expense or adjust your standard of living to fit within your income. It’s not a magic cure-all for every financial woe, but it does have a magical way of transforming your relationship with your money, making you more mindful, present, and accountable.
For years, we talked about finding a good financial planner. Always a great idea and well worth the money, but useless if you can’t speak plainly and with confidence about the reality of how much money you actually spend in the course of a day (and a month, and a year).
Do yourself the greatest favor you’ll ever do and don’t waste another day with your money working against you. Accept your situation—whatever it may be—and commit to making your money work for you.
They say the best ideas are usually the simplest ones, and I often think back to our Airbnb host years ago casually mentioning “You Need a Budget.” Turns out she was right.
Aaron Fritsch is the father of two rambunctious little girls and husband of Ana (@luckypennyblog), plus a product guy, problem solver, and purveyor of steak tartare.