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Three Tips for Adapting Your Budget to Coin-Based Cultures

How One Couple Made Money Management Easy in Thailand

Once upon a time, I had over $27k in debt. Thankfully, my wife discovered YNAB, and we annihilated every cent of that debt in just five years (on a ten-year note!). That made us fairly happy.

To celebrate our newfound freedom, we decided to take a vacation to Thailand. It was awesome … mostly.

Where Coin Is King

In Thailand’s no-cards-just-coins economy, we quickly realized just how woefully incompetent our budgeting system was in our new surroundings. Granted, we may have fared better if we never left a resort, but who does that? Not us, that’s who. We wanted a real taste of the culture.

So, real culture it was! We spent our money on taxis, street food vendors, and in open-air markets. It wasn’t long before we lost track of how we spent our coins. In short, our budget was a mess! This is the abbreviated version of how we adjusted for YNAB success overseas …

What About the Fried Rice?

So, we landed in Bangkok and, soon, our money conversations started to sound awfully repetitive. No matter who started the discussion, it would play out a lot like this:

“Hey, sweetheart, did you record that fried rice you bought in YNAB?”

“Was that before, or after, the taxi?”

“Umm … before the taxi (which I logged), but after the ice cream.”

“Oh man. I forgot the ice cream!”

“How much was the taxi?”

“100 baht. No, wait, that was the ice crea- … No, the fried rice was 100. The ice cream was 60, and I don’t remember the taxi.”

“It’s okay, you logged it. But did you get the SkyTrain?”

You get the idea. This made us sad (read: we fought a lot).

A Budget Babe Hatches a Plan

The 12 to 15 categories that had served us so well, back in the U.S., just weren’t cutting it here in Thailand. That’s when my wife, a beautiful, brilliant, budgeting babe came up with this:

Screenshot of our actual Thailand budget.

Sidenote: I heartily recommend YNAB’s mobile app. (Budgeting freedom, for the win!)

And you can see what she did: my wife had narrowed our budget down to just five categories! In Thailand’s exclusively cash-based environment—without a trail of debit transactions to refer to—it had been a lot harder to track everything. This new, simplified approach helped us align our dollars with priorities, without spending undue amounts of our vacation untangling the details after the fact.

Here are three tips to illustrate how we used those five categories to regain our budgeting wits:

Tip 1: Consolidate, Consolidate, Consolidate

Now, this might not be for everyone, but we found it hugely helpful to radically simplify our budget. Namely, our categories and payee names. For example, in Thailand—and especially Bangkok—there are multiple forms of transportation (taxis, the SkyTrain, bus systems, and even a subway), so consolidating all of that into one category, “Transportation”, made life a lot easier.

We used our “Gifts” category as a catchall for souvenirs that we bought for friends and family. Setting aside money in this category also protected us, in case we needed to cover overspending in another category (usually “Food”).

And our “Practical Expenses” category gave us an idea of where our money was going, as it related to our needs (medicine, laundry money, and SIM cards landed in this category).

Tip 2: Location Shmocation

In the States, we used YNAB’s geolocation functionality for everything. We always made sure to add each new payee’s details into our app, so that it would automatically populate on our next visit. This was a habit that we had to actually break in Thailand.

So, for example, because we were traveling (and on a mission to see all of the things!), we never ate at the same restaurant twice. As such, as far as our budget merchant names were concerned, we recorded all street food vendor purchases as “Street Food Vendor”, rather than naming them on an individual basis. We did the same for restaurants. Predictably, we called them all “Restaurant”.

We dropped our usual formalities with the details, simply entering the amount, “Street Food Vendor”, Done. This will save you time when you’re trying to catch a SkyTrain.

Tip 3: Expect the Unexpected

There will be things that you can’t categorize, didn’t plan on, and shouldn’t waste your precious PTO accrual figuring out. Make a “Miscellaneous” category for these one-offs. For us, this included stuff like park entrance fees (which only came up twice for us on the whole trip), a haircut, and going to a movie theater.

It’s All About the Ride

By simplifying our budget, we found it so much easier to keep a grip on how we spent our cash in Thailand. When the money was accounted for, we enjoyed our trip so much more. It was a great lesson in staying agile and mindfully using YNAB to make our budget work for us!

If you’d like to read more from Avery, you can find him over at Third Person Creative.

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Three Tips for Adapting Your Budget to Coin-Based Cultures