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A Hidden Benefit of Budgeting

Your account balance doesn’t tell you the whole story.

Let’s imagine your checking account balance is $1,500. Whether that’s a lot or a little to you, think about how it would feel to have $1,500 in checking right now. Now, with only that number in mind, try answering the following questions:

  • Can you afford to spend $500 on a new phone/computer/shiny thing right now?
  • Can you spend $40 to go out to eat with your friends tonight?
  • Can you buy a $15 surprise gift for that special person you care about?
  • Can you pay your rent or mortgage?

If you’re enthusiastically shaking your head yes to any or all of these questions, I have news for you.

You’re wrong.

If you’re the sort that firmly said no to each of the questions, I have news for you, too.

You’re also wrong.

If you’re furrowing your eyebrows now, I don’t blame you. What’s the right answer? The fact is there really isn’t one. Not if we’re only considering the checking account balance.

At the risk of giving you extreme anxiety, let’s talk about standardized tests. We’ve all taken one kind or another at some point in our lives (and most of us would like to forget them!). But you know how they work. You get some wordy math problem with four answer choices. Usually, they’re pretty straight forward, but sometimes, the answers might look something like this:

  • a) 4,159.43
  • b) 2,200.00
  • c) 2,458.90
  • d) not enough information given

When you see that last answer choice, you know it’s going to be a doozy! And, you see where I’m going with this. Those questions you answered at the start of this blog? The answer is D. Not enough information given.

Because your checking account balance alone doesn’t give you enough information to answer the question we all must ask multiple times a day: “Can I afford this?” Because it’s not about how much money we have. It’s all the other things that happen in our lives—our monthly rent payment, when our bills are due, how much we really like our friends and what we feel like doing with our evenings—that determine the answer to that question.

And that’s the problem with our account balances. They only show us how much money we have—not what our money is for. When we look at our account balances to determine if we can afford something, we do a whole lot of guessing and many times end up relying on nothing but hope. When we buy something without enough information, we say things like “I hope I didn’t forget that yearly car insurance payment,” or “I hope nothing unexpected comes up,” or “I hope I did my mental math correctly and didn’t forget anything.” Hope can be a budget’s biggest downfall.

So here’s the solution: get more information! Get better information! Take the blindfold off, and use your budget to guide your spending, not your amorphous checking account balance.

When you follow the first rule of YNAB, Give Every Dollar a Job, you strip away the uncertainty and blind hope. You neatly divvy up your dollars to those things that matter most to you: your priorities. And when you make a decision to spend (or not spend) money, you look at what’s available in your budget categories, not the total in checking.

Then, you’re dealing with certainty. You no longer have to guess or wonder or hope that you did your quick number crunch correctly while deciding what to order off the menu. You just know. When you can trust your budget, it has a realistic answer to any spending question you may have. And if nothing else, we want our budgets to be realistic.

YNAB’s four rules allow you to trust your budget when making your financial decisions. Can I afford this? Your budget simply answers the question—yes or no. No hoping required!

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