Why You Might Actually Want a Budget and Not Just Need One

I used to be afraid that a budget would restrict us. Instead it set us free.

by Maddie Eisenhart, Chief Revenue Officer

apw x ynab
White desk with white K mug and notebook and pencils

A few short years ago, Michael and I looked at our bank statements and realized we were $33,000 in debt (not including our gigantic student loans). The story of how we got so deep is nebulous at best—lots of little unexpected things added up. Our wedding cost more than we planned for. Our dog got sick. We moved. Life happened. But how we stayed in debt is easier to pin down. I was afraid of budgets.

My family is split into two distinct factions: hyper-vigilant budgeters who never seem to have any fun and carefree go-with-the-flow people who never seem to have any money. And if I had to have my pick? I’d always choose the latter. And because of the former group, I have spent my life with lots of preconceived notions about what budgeting means. Specifically, that it’s a lot of hard work and all you’ll ever have to show for it is a bank account with a really high number and an unfulfilled life. But then last year, I hit a breaking point. With a ton of remaining debt and recurring fights about money, Michael and I signed up for the app You Need A Budget (or YNAB) as a last ditch effort to get our finances in order. And within a few months, all those preconceived notions about budgeting had eroded. Within a year, I was a fully converted budget advocate, convinced that we didn’t just need a budget, but we also kind of loved having one. Here’s what I had gotten wrong:

Myth: budgeting is hard work

I put off budgeting for years, simply because it seemed like it was a lot of work. Michael had been trying to get me on board with this financial projection spreadsheet he’d created that felt like all the worst parts of math class. #NoThanks. But with the recent launch of the new YNAB, budgeting is actually really, really simple. You just link your financial accounts (they even had access to my tiny credit union from Maine and our credit cards), and YNAB will automatically sync any transactions as they happen in real time. All you have to do is tell YNAB which budget category your purchases should be allocated to (aka is that Target bill for household goods, groceries, or “fun money”?). You can even update YNAB from your phone. So while it’s still more work than we were doing before, it genuinely only takes a few minutes out of our day and saves us hours of arguing.

Myth: A budget is just going to take away my money

Before I started using YNAB, I assumed budgeting was not for me. I didn’t want some financial tool telling me where and how I could spend my money. But that is not how budgeting is supposed to work. The idea behind budgeting is that you control your money, instead of it controlling you. Here’s how YNAB describes it:

When you hear the word budget, you probably think about spreadsheets and accounting (egads!). You think about restriction or denial. Let those stereotypes go. Your budget is your priorities, all laid out. So you can reach them.

As for how that theory applies in practical terms, it’s about prioritizing. Before we spend a penny of our money, we think about what we want our lives to look like. For us, that includes things like saving up for a vacation, having discretionary spending for my clothing habit and Michael’s board game habit, and making sure we have enough money budgeted each month to go out to dinner with our friends. Then we plan for those things in our budget.

But here’s the kicker: the one thing that we can’t change is how much money we make. So all those priorities have to align realistically with our income. Which means YNAB won’t let us dig ourselves into debt. And that is basically the opposite of taking away our money.

Myth: Budgeting will trigger my scarcity mindset

Let’s say you make enough money to do the things you want to do. But every time you go shopping, you get anxiety. Can you afford this? And if you can, should you? Yeah, that was me a year ago. Scarcity mindset tells us there is never enough. And it seems logical that a budget would just exacerbate that.

But here’s where that’s proven untrue for us. Remember those priorities I mentioned above? Well, once our funds are allocated, my budget basically wants me to spend money. Yes, I still have to be realistic about how much money we’re making. But otherwise, it’s like a magical fairy stops by and puts a small chunk of change in my pocket to do whatever the hell I want with each month. And even though we have the same amount of money we did before, knowing that I can spend that money without any associated guilt makes me feel rich.

Myth: there’s no flexibility (or fun) in budgeting

Deep down, I think I was afraid to start using a budget, because I figured that once I set it, we would be beholden to it. And life is too short for that kind of rigidity, right? But that’s not how YNAB was built. They explain:

You don’t know–you can’t know–exactly what you’re going to do, hour by hour, weeks or months from now. Your finances work the same way. You can and should set broad outlines for your money. Clarify your priorities and set goals. But when the details change, and they will, change with them. Sometimes even our priorities change. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed at budgeting. It’s normal.

So how do you make that work logistically? We give ourselves flexible budgets. There are things we can’t avoid, like rent and our car payments. But we have discretionary budgets built in each month as well. So if we go out to eat with friends twice instead of once, we just shuffle things around within our discretionary spending categories to make it happen. It all comes back to prioritizing, and asking ourselves, “What matters most to us, right now?”

I started out thinking that creating a budget would be akin to building a prison to house ourselves in. But what I realize now is that our budget is the most freeing thing we’ve done for our marriage in ages. Because constantly stressing about where your money is going? That is a prison. Choosing what matters to you and then making decisions accordingly? That is a partnership. And bonus: now we get to have fun and we have money set aside. So consider that false dichotomy busted too.

Do you and your partner have a household budget? If not, how do you make things work? What are your fears and anxieties around managing money?


This post was sponsored by You Need a Budget. YNAB is a powerful yet flexible tool for managing your finances. It has radically changed the way we approach our money, helped us get out of debt, and allowed us to prioritize our finances in a way we never could before. With the YNAB method, all of our regular and recurring expenses are budgeted in advance, so we’re able to see at a glance what kind of money we have for incidentals and make plans for a safety net. And YNAB recently released a brand new version of their software that lets you manage your finances from your computer or your phone, plus sync up your bank accounts and credit cards for real-time updates to your budget. Click here to learn more about YNAB and access a free thirty-four trial.

Maddie Eisenhart

Maddie is APW’s Chief Revenue Officer. She’s been writing stories about boys, crushes, and relationships since she was old enough to form shapes into words, but received her formal training (and a BS) from NYU in Entertainment and Mass Media in 2008. She now spends a significant amount of time thinking about trends on the internet and whether flower crowns will be out next year. A Maine native, Maddie currently lives on a pony farm in the Bay Area with her husband, Michael and their mastiff puppy. Current hair color: Purple(ish).

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  • Lisa

    Maddie, how was the transition to nYNAB? We’re still using YNAB4 in our household and are pretty hesitant to make the switch. (I love reports, and the direct import from my bank doesn’t matter as much to me since we’re really in the habit of logging each transaction. Plus I’m not sure I’m in love with the subscription based model.)

    • Eenie

      I’d suggest holding off a bit longer. We made the jump when we combined finances, and I’ve had several issues in the three months. The direct import stopped working for my chase account (which includes five different accounts), and I had to re link each account which took a lot longer than I wanted (an hour of troubleshooting). They plan to add manual import next because of the issues with direct import. Recently (yesterday!) some of my budget categories disappeared. Super fantastic timing the week we pay all our deposits for the wedding! They’re looking into it. I’d wait another six months or so. I miss the reports as well, and it looks like it’ll be a while before those are integrated. I like tracking my net worth!

      There are some positives as well – easier to move money between categories to cover overspending (one or two clicks). Goals! You can set a goal and a date and the number turns yellow if you aren’t on track with the amount budgeted that month. If you put in your reoccurring transactions (rent, static bills, loan payments, etc.) it’ll also turn yellow for those if you don’t have enough to cover that months upcoming transactions. This was especially helpful with our “wedding” category when we knew what amount we owed the vendor but were buying smaller one off things, when it turned yellow we added in more money to the category.

      So overall the switch was not difficult. It was kind of nice starting fresh with a budget with both of our monies. There’s some cool features that I really like, but since my bad luck with auto import the last two weeks, I can’t wholly recommend the switch. It was just such bad timing, and I really hope they get it straightened out. I think in six months they’ll have a much better handle on it. I considered going back to YNAB4, but with my fiance having a separate bank account it’s really nice for him to just press a button to import instead of the manual process for reconciling.

      • Lisa

        The reconciling accounts does sound nice. My husband still has two accounts only in his name to which I don’t have access, and he doesn’t update them in YNAB as diligently as I do with mine.

        The Net Worth report is definitely my favorite! I look at it all of the time and would be so sad if I didn’t have it anymore.

        Given the issues you mention and the ones I see people bringing up on the YNAB Facebook page, we’ll probably be holding off until reports are added, which, given the timeline they introduced the other day, means we’ve got probably another 12+ months before even considering making the switch. I hope by waiting for the last item on the list (reports) most of the other issues will be sorted out by our conversion.

        • Eenie

          Yup. Which is so sad, but I’m glad their being fluid with their timeline in response to the feedback and issues. They’re pretty open and honest when they miss the mark, and I appreciate that as one of their customers.

          The age of money calculation is pretty cool in theory. Right now our age of money is just how long we’ve been using nYNAB…so that feature hasn’t been as fun. If we didn’t have as good of a savings cushion I could find that really motivating. I miss my net worth calc :( We didn’t put our car loans, student loans, or mortgage in the budget since this feature is missing.

        • Alanna Cartier

          I use mint to track all our accounts and enter things into YNAB, that way I don’t need access to the fiancees accounts in order to keep the budget current.

      • Kayakgirl73

        We’re frustrated with the issues with Chase accounts also, but they have been responsive. We also have issues with imports from our credit union and YNAB has been working with my husband to try and fix it. I also hope they get report going soon. I think ultimately the new software will be a win. We are really just getting going. We had YNAB4 but never used it right.

        • Eenie

          I ended up undoing the linkage and relinking them to fix it. But it took a while to figure out to do that, and then actually doing it took forever (well, a couple minutes per account). Their blog update this week said that banks don’t want to make it easy for auto import.

    • CMT

      I wish I’d waited. I had just figured out the old method for credit cards and where to put credit card debt and now I’m totally lost on that front.

      • Lisa

        We don’t even use the credit card section in YNAB4 because we treat our credit cards like debit; we make sure they’re paid off each month if not paying them a couple of times a month. This is another part of the reason I don’t see us switching right now. Since we’ve come up with a system that works for us, I don’t see how direct import would integrate well with that. We’d have to start over.

        • CMT

          If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I switched partly because I had let myself lapse with the old one, so it was a good clean break. But like Eenie said, I have some learning and research to do to so I can get used to the new version.

      • Eenie

        Silly question, but have you checked out their user guide, forums, and reddit forums? I personally don’t have credit card debt, but I find the new way of thinking about credit cards making more sense. Since I pay each balance off every month, not a lot changed for me in actual practice though.

        ETA: http://www.youneedabudget.com/learn/guide/user-handbook#credit-cards-are-different

        • CMT

          I did use their tutorials for credit cards for YNAB 4, but I’ll admit I haven’t even looked yet to see if they have something similar for the new version. I really should get on that. I’m sure I can find something there or in the other places you recommend. Maybe I’ll do that tonight.

          • Eenie

            I added the link for you! I researched a crap ton before switching, but they really worked hard to make it even easier to pay off credit card debt in nYNAB. It’s a switch in thinking, but one that will probably have big dividends for you.

          • CMT

            Sweet! Thank you!

    • Caroline

      We used 4 and it didn’t work well for us. So far (admittedly, 1 day of use), the new one seems to fix the problems I had with 4.
      1. 4 was tremendously baffling if you got paid irregularly (like every 6 months, as we did). You couldn’t budget many months in advance well, and it was a mess. This is fixed in the new one. (Our income is also more regular but I can see that it would work better in the new one even if it wasn’t)
      2. Credit card spending actually makes sense in the new one. We put basically all expenses except rent on the credit card for miles and pay it at the end of the month. In the old system, I never succeeded in understanding how to track this clearly. So far the new one is very intuitive for this.
      3. I am not planning to use direct imports because we don’t link our bank accounts to any third party service. So any bugginess in that I haven’t noticed.

      As I said, just Day 1 reflections but so far I like the new one much better.

      • Caroline

        Oh, and also the goals tracking is very helpful. I like the reminder if we’re on track for optional goals and I really like the monthly funding goals. In the old world, I wrote a comment to remind myself how much to budget for set fees like gym expenses or average gas costs. Now, I make it a goal and it’s easy to see if we’ve budgeted enough. I also find it reassuring on big savings goals. I was feeling like our savings were too low for some goals, but seeing that we’ve saved 7% of our “f*** it” fund feels like we’re making progress. (The f*** it find is savings for job loss, being able to leave a horrible job, being able to leave a bad situation, not worry if something big and unbudgeted comes up, etc)

  • Rose

    We just started trying YNAB this weekend. To be honest, I don’t think I need it–I’ve never been very precise with my budgeting, but still most months I have a bit more left in my account than I did before. But my wife has no real idea about how to handle money, and it’s a big source of anxiety for her, so we’re trying this together. I have slightly mixed feelings, but I think the philosophy about taking the money you have and assigning jobs for it will be good for her, so I’m at least going to try for now.

    • Jenny

      I’ve found that YNAB lets you be as loose or strict as you like. We started out with a bunch of micro categories. Parking, fees, netflix, movies, redbox. But then after a while just consolidated it into fun money(movies, festivals, all entertainment), and not fun money (parking, fees).

      • Lisa

        We’ve changed the categories, too, over time. After a month or two, we broke out the “fun” money category into separate spending money. We’ve removed categories we didn’t use, and created new ones to curtail other spending (i.e. broke out alcohol from our grocery budget to force us to use the stuff we have at home first). I love that flexibility!

        • Jenny

          Yeah we recently broke out netflix into its own category again because it happens at the end of the month and I kept forgetting it and then being 8.19 over our fun money budget.

          • Lisa

            For us, Netflix falls under a “Television” category from which we pay both the cable and Netflix bills. I think my husband has these set up to auto-bill though so I rarely even notice it. I should probably set up automatic YNAB payments for them, too! (I did this with my Roth contribution and the phone bill, and it’s awesome.)

          • Eenie

            Any set bill is in one of three categories: necessary bills (water, electric), fun bills (netflix, hulu), or non monthly bills (insurance, garbage, pest control). Each gets their own line item, but it’s the same every month so it doesn’t take any extra work. WE also have them set up as automatic YNAB payments.

            Not for everyone, but if I know a set bill is coming, I just want to set the money aside and not think about keeping money in another category for it.

  • Eenie

    I’m a huge YNAB fan. Our most recent budgeting success was with our food expenses. We switched up the categories so all of our food expenditures are in a category group. Figured if we ate out less, it’d increase our grocery budget but overall spend less money in the category. Previously we had eating out in our “Fun” group since it’s not necessary for us to do it to survive. It’s been working. A combination of putting more of the food budget in the grocery category vs the eating out category, giving us each a set number of dollars for work eating out lunches (instead of coming out of our group dining out money), and starting to buy most of our produce from a flea market means that we’ve really cut back without feeling like we’re restricting ourselves. We’ve been trending down month over month (even this month where we bought food for a 20 person cookout!).

    We budget so I have a sense of financial security. My fiance is like @Rose:disqus: he always has more leftover at the end of the month, and he’s always just made more money than he needs to pay bills. Though this is a great strategy for short term (if you’re lucky to be in that position), it makes it hard for me to see what we’re saving up for and if we’ll have enough left over to do the things I want to do.

    • Green

      I love the flexibility of setting your own categories. Dining out is a nice way to spend an evening with my husband, a gift. Lunch is necessary to get through the day, and we cannot seem seem to consistently make/bring our lunches, so a Lunch line item is a very important, necessary and distinct category for our household from Dining Out!

    • AP

      I can’t seem to get a handle on groceries! Every month we go over our budget, so every month we increase the allocation a little bit- then we go over that! I’ve decided this month to separate out my husband’s fitness supplements (protein powder, etc.) into a separate category to see better what we’re blowing the actual food budget on. I’m hoping that will give me some clues. We don’t eat out much, so we’re saving money there, but we’re trying to trim our spending and the big number in the grocery category makes me crazy. I think since we’re moving into consciously purchasing more organic and local foods, I’m going to have to accept that our expenses are going to reflect that.

      • Eenie

        Yes! We refused to sacrifice quality! We’ve found it slightly annoying but really helpful to break the category apart more (short term). We also shop once a week, so there’s some months that have five shopping trips, and some that have four. Our costco trips alone (once/month) were $600. But we realized that included non food items. This past one we got what seemed like SO MUCH EFFING FOOD for this cookout and it was our lowest one yet. I didn’t believe the cashier when he gave me the total. We have a one trip wait rule on any non food items. Look elsewhere for a better price, and if you still want it/haven’t found a better deal, we buy it next time.

        The game changer has really been this flea market. We have this wonderful and awesome routine of working out together/separately on Saturday morning, heading to the flea market with grocery list and reusable bags (we almost always forget the list or the bags, it’s comical), get a crap ton of produce for $10, and going to the grocery store after to finish of the list of stuff the flea market didn’t have. Then we cook together on Sunday. I’m curious if there’s a farmer’s market or local co-op that you could look into for produce? Bulk buy meat (we just got a chest freezer, were you the one making space for this)? http://www.localharvest.org/

        • AP

          Lol, yep, that’s me! I have dreams of a separate freezer for meats and produce. We don’t have great farmer’s markets or co-ops around (there are more options now that spring is here, but the farmer’s markets tend to sell more cakes/jams/etc than actual produce.) But I started a veggie garden last month and hope to have some extras to put away this summer. I have a friend who’s raising hogs and I want to be able to buy his meat in bulk as well.

          • I wanted a freezer for Christmas, but my husband and I agreed that we didn’t have the money. Last month I went to an estate sale and they had a freezer for $50. I bought it, and it’s been SO nice to have! So far I’ve only been freezing meat, but I hope to start on vegetables this year.

      • Green

        Up vote x1000. We’re out of grad school and now better able to afford organic produce, but the impact on budget planning and groceries is consistently surprising (or infuriating, depending on which partner you ask).

      • Sara

        Personally I always have issues with groceries because I’m never ‘in the mood’ for what I have at home. This month, I’m making a conscious effort to not go to the store until I absolutely have to and try to eat what’s actually in my pantry and/or freezer. Its a lot harder than it sounds.

        • AP

          This is so challenging! I looked back at our spending this month and realized we were going to the store every 2-3 days! So my new goal is to get down to one big trip a week and maybe one additional stop for last minute things. And to use what we have in the fridge before buying more.

          One thing that has been oddly helpful is signing up for the Walmart Savings Catcher app. Since Walmart is pretty much our only grocery store, we shop there almost exclusively (with one Whole Foods trip about an hour away every month or so for coffee.) With the Walmart app, you can scan your receipt and it logs all your purchases to see if any competitors had lower prices, then you get money back for the difference (which we almost never do because we always buy store brands.) But the helpful part is being able to look back at all our purchases for the month and see exactly what we’ve been buying. This helped us spot a few expensive items that we were buying more often than we realized.

          • Sara

            What I’m trying to do is do a fruit and veggie run once a week and stock up on staples and meats where there are sales. I like to buy my meat from a specific grocery store near me, but they’re pricey for everything else. So I buy it and freeze for later. But then I have to remember to defrost it, which is a whole different beast.

            Also, no ‘treats’ just for going shopping. Because I tend to think I need a reward for just going to the store (like a brownie or something). that’s a bad habit I need to quit too.

          • Lisa

            Much to my consternation, this is something my husband does. He usually buys himself a fizzy water or carton of chocolate milk to reward himself for doing the shopping. Now that that comes out of his spending money instead of the “groceries” budget, I think he’s doing it less.

          • Sara

            Grocery shopping is the worst! Having a reward makes it worth it :) But I see your frustration. For me its a double whammy since I’m trying to eat healthier too so I ruin both my diet and my budget all in one go.

          • Eenie

            Hahaha. Defrosting meat. We have a calendar reminder friday evening to defrost meat for our Sunday cooking. We also have a huge glass jar thing that we fill with water and put our meat in when we forget.

          • Jessica

            The treats thing is real. I used to go hungry to Trader Joe’s so I could have an excuse to get tacos at a great restaurant near the store. Then I started doing the Paleo Diet (no tacos for me ): ) and I have saved so much money from not eating out. Now at Trader Joe’s if I get a treat for the car ride home it’s going to be something I regularly snack on, like dried mangos or nuts.

          • NotMarried!

            YES for the Savings Catcher app.

            I also used my data from scanning my receipts to put together a pricing spreadsheet and begin to identify how cheaply I can find various staples. So I know WHEN to stock up.

        • Alanna Cartier

          I’ve been doing this too, and man its hard! It’s just so tempting to stop at the store everytime I’m craving something.

        • Sarah E

          Alternatively, I know plenty of people who grocery shop every day. I don’t know what their budget looks like, but if you have the staples (oils, seasonings) at home, I’m sure you can make it work.

          We do one big store trip a week, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

          • Lisa

            This is how my husband typically handles grocery shopping. It’s not as great for a budget in the long-term from what I understand, but it means that we have significantly less food waste. We’re trying to start stocking up on meats that we can freeze so we have at least that on hand for his spontaneous cooking.

          • Sara

            My mother once suggested I start doing that since I eat a lot of veggie and tend to buy more than I’ll consume. But I think I’d go nuts if I was there that often!

        • Lisa

          This is something I have gotten so good at over the years because of my aversion to going shopping. I’ve gotten to the point where I can make meals out of the most random stuff just so I don’t have to go to the grocery store.

          Also, I have a bad tendency to overbuy at the store, and since my husband does most of the shopping, I don’t have a great frame of reference anymore for how much, say, chicken should cost. I think I’m getting a great deal, but it’s actually not. I am better at reading ads than my husband is so I’ve signed up for the local grocery’s e-mail list, and I forward information to him if I think we should stock up on something. (For example, the grocery store had a major sale on pork last week so I forwarded it to him asking if it was a good price. He confirmed it was and added it to his weekly shopping list.)

      • Amy March

        I’ve been working on paring down food expenses and making more of my own food instead of eating out. Sounds maybe too simple to point out, but shopping lists and meal plans have been so key. I don’t do anything too detailed, but a general idea that Sunday I’m cooking a casserole, leftovers Mon. and Tues., fish Wed. etc, and then my grocery list is kinda vague- fruit for snacking, green vegetable to cook, salad, so that at the store I can choose cheaper things in those categories.

        But, to my extreme sadness, the best budget savers have been buying less cheese and less and cheaper wine.

        • AP

          I’ve got to get back to meal planning, for sure.

          • Green

            emeals.com for the win

        • Greta

          Yes to meal planning! I think there’s a lot of food waste that happens, food that goes bad, leftovers that don’t get eaten, etc. We’re making a more conscious effort to do meal planning every sunday, then going out once to buy those groceries for the week and stick with the plan. I’ve noticed our groceries bills go way down when we do this.

        • Sarah E

          Yup, buying basically the same things to eat every week really help us with the grocery bill. That way, we’re not calculating the final bill as we put items in the cart (fortunately, we’ve never been in the position of having to), but we still have an idea of what’s in the cart that’s extra– whether that be two chocolate bars, or the big pack of TP for the next two weeks.

        • Lisa

          But, to my extreme sadness, the best budget savers have been buying less cheese and less and cheaper wine.

          Yes! I unfortunately realized that most of our “grocery” budget was going towards unlimited alcohol purchases so I broke it out into a separate category. We’ve got a bunch of stuff stored up at home, and only having enough to buy 1 six pack or 1 bottle of wine per week has reduced our spending.

          My favorite section of our grocery store is the <$5 cheese bin where they sell the smaller remnants. Sometimes we'll "splurge" and get a few to try as an appetizer or for dinner parties!

        • anon

          I have no idea how people live without some level of basic meal planning. Our families have mocked us a little for planning to such detail but, honestly, I have no patience anymore for people who complain about the “what do you want to eat” “I don’t care, what do YOU want to eat” volley, or the whole “we keep eating pizza every night because we are too exhausted to pick something else” trap – and then still say that planning is ‘too much work.’ No, you either are just bad at basic life things or prefer complaining more than you prefer convenience (I think it’s usually the latter because complaining is pretty fun).

          • Eenie

            We don’t have the energy to meal plan so we pay for a service (PrepDish) to email us grocery lists and recipes every week. The “what do you want to eat for dinner” question is now fun because there’s typically one to two dishes that are super tasty. We would have never made some of the stuff either without it being planned for us. Highlight this week: potato salad. So easy. So delicious.

          • lady brett

            we do zero meal planning and it works wonderfully for us. basically every advantage meal planning is supposed to have we gain when not meal planning (including less complaining).

          • CP2011

            Us too! We never meal plan and it works for us, with very little food waste or need for random ingredients. But I handle all food shopping and cooking, so our meals are based completely around what I feel like eating or making.

          • Ashlah

            Eh, except my husband, who does most of the grocery shopping and cooking, hates being beholden to meals selected ahead of time. If something doesn’t sound good that night, he won’t eat it. So he’s made the choice to go to the grocery store nearly everyday. To me, that sounds exhausting, and we could probably save money if we meal planned AND actually ate the meals that we planned, but since I’m not the one doing the work, I’m not going to tell him how to feed us. I don’t think it’s fair to act like one solution, which is great for a lot of people, is right for everyone.

      • Whenever I have a budget category I can’t seem to get ahold of, I just break that down into the smallest possible sub categories for a month or two to see where I really need to make changes. For groceries it meant even dividing it down by store. A lot of the time the problem was not /what/ we were buying but /where/. If the same bottle of wine is $1 more at Trader Joe’s than the grocery store, then I need to buy it during the grocery store trip, not the Trader Joes’s trip. Lazy is not a reason to spend more money.

        • yes, THIS. not all grocery stores are equal. and it’s not just “whole foods is expensive, trader joe’s is cheap.” you gotta know what to get where. i’ve had amazing finds at farmers’ markets and organic food stores, which most people would consider high-end, and i also know to avoid certain items from budget grocery stores that aren’t actually a good deal.

      • TeaforTwo

        Making peace with our actual grocery spending was a huge reckoning for me. In university (10+ years ago) I had a budget of $100/week that was for groceries and all other non-bill spending like coffees or going out for a beer.

        I assumed that since that amount included things that weren’t groceries, my husband and I should be able to eat for $400/month. And that’s what I would budget, and we would run over it quite dramatically and then fight about it. It turns out that several things have happened in the last decade: I got married to someone who eats way more than I do, food prices have increased quite a bit, and I started wanting to eat things other than student food. Plus, my parents no longer come to visit every few months to load me up on expensive freezer and pantry staples.

        After we’d been using YNAB for a year, and running over the grocery category every single month, I just started using the “average spending for the last 12 months” autofill option. It was…twice what I had been budgeting. I still think that’s high – we buy a lot of nice cheese, we host a lot, we eat local and organic whenever we can, and we also eat lots of convenient-but-more-expensive foods because we work late. But even though I think it’s high, I budget for it now, because I know it’s just reliably what we spend the way we eat, and that we’re not willing to change the way we eat too dramatically right now.

        • AP

          I relate to all of this. When I lived alone, I spent less than $50/week on groceries (not including eating out, which I did much more often when I was single.) So I arrived at pretty much the same number you did when we started budgeting together: $100/week on groceries for the two of us. But it’s just not realistic for so many reasons- he’s incredibly active and makes protein smoothies/eats meat every day, plus he just eats more than I do. We spend a ton on things like milk, eggs, frozen fruit, chicken breast. (Which seem to get more expensive all the time.) I can see a few things that might make a difference, like meal planning more and using up things before they go bad. But I really think making peace with it is going to be significant for me as well.

          • TeaforTwo

            Yep, it has been both for us: we live next door to an enormous and very good grocery store, so we have been shopping almost every day, which is more expensive. When I got pregnant and started meal planning (because I could either go to the store after work OR make dinner, but not both on the same night) we saw pretty significant savings. Planning ahead also means we can eat cheaper proteins (like beans that need soaking, or cuts of beef that need braising and are best done the night before or a day in a slow cooker).

            But it didn’t get us anywhere near my single-at-19 grocery budget, because even when we have a meal plan, we both just WANT to eat fresh fish or lots more produce or nice cheese sometimes instead of pasta every night. We do have the money to do it, too, I just need to use YNAB to make sure I’m not double-allocating that money (since we never stuck to the lower budget anyway).

        • MC

          Oof, yes, I had this realization too when Husband and I first moved in together. I kept feeling like we were spending too much money on food, but the fact is that he just eats *more* than I do by a pretty significant amount, because he is bigger, more active, etc. Turns out it’s better to budget more for food than to have a hangry spouse!

        • Our student grocery budget (yes OUR) was $15/week, seven years ago. We both worked full time at restaurants that fed us, we went to our parents’ houses for Sunday dinner, and we ate fast food (~$12 at a time) probably four times a week. I love to cook and was baking cookies every other day and cooking a real dinner on any night our schedules allowed us both to be home. We currently spend closer to $100/week for a family of four. It’s amazing how your food priorities change!

        • Lisa

          Glad to hear someone else had this problem too! I kept going, “How can we be spending $700-800 a month on groceries? For two people?! That is obscene. But that number is consistent, so it’s real, and we have an empty fridge to show for it every Sunday, so someone is eating all that food.

          I could probably get it lower if I really, really tried, but…I’m tired and I just want to buy whatever I want at the store without too much hassle.

      • buy local

        Buying more organic and local food post-grad-school has definitely increased my food budget. I don’t mind that because I think, especially with local food, that it is worthwhile. It has taken some adjustment, though.

      • Kayjayoh

        We started out with no budget for groceries. Then, after a year of simply entering into the spreadsheet how much we spent, I ran the totals and got an idea of how much we spent per month, on average. I was then able to plug that into how much we each owed the household account every month, but I still don’t pre-plug that number into the budget. I’m still entering it as we spend it. And I should change that.

        What I could do it plug in that estimated amount for future months, and then delete it and replace with *actual* spending when we get to that month.

        Hmm. (Goes and does this.)

        • Kayjayoh

          [aaaaand done. I stuck it at the end of each month, called it “estimated groceries” and gave those cells another color to mark them out. still looks good.]

      • CP2011

        This has been a big issue for us too. I constantly look at our groceries category and say “how can we really be spending this much on groceries?” I’ve been doing a lot of research and I’ve started going down the path of stockpiling and couponing. So instead of buying everything we need for a week at a time, I’m starting to buy more than a week’s worth of one or two things at a time. For example, we eat a lot of canned beans, oats, cheese and whole wheat pasta. As I’ve found these things at their rock bottom price (I keep a google sheet on my phone tracking prices), I buy as much as I can reasonably expect us to eat before they go bad or go on sale again. My grocery bill has already been $100 lower than it was last month.

      • CP2011

        One more thing, at the risk of sounding spammy (my apologies if this goes against the comments policy) but I started using an app called IBotta last week and I’ve already made $15 on it through incentive and scanning receipts. You have to answer market research questions about certain food items and then if you buy them you get money back through PayPal. If you use this link https://ibotta.com/r/rwkuijc then you get $10 after you do your first rebate. Just putting it out there!

        • Ashlah

          Also see if your local preferred grocery store has a coupon app. For anyone who shops at Fred Meyer, I know they do. Between Ibotta, Fred Meyer’s app, and the local bottle drop business, we usually get a few dollars a month to help towards groceries.

          For me, Ibotta has been pretty slow after the initial month when you get $10 for signing up (you need a minimum of $20 to withdraw funds), but I still do it. It is free money, after all. The generic produce rebates are the best.

          • CP2011

            Yeah, definitely not a get rich quick scheme in the long run haha but it’s better than nothing! I load coupons to my Fred Meyer card and check the weekly ads. I’m also a Grocery Outlet devotee (seriously, that’s my scene) but as I’ve been doing a lot of price comparison, Trader Joes has been better per ounce than GO on some of my staples like spinach and tofu.
            Basically, I get really into grocery shopping :)

    • April

      That’s awesome! I’d really like to try something like that with our grocery bill. Our grocery bill is off the hook. :/

  • Loren

    I found YNAB a bit too restrictive for my needs. (I’ve always been pretty responsible with money).
    But I 100% support building a budget of some form, I just created a spreadsheet in Google docs instead, it is totally helpful in wedding planning and everyday life.

    • Kayjayoh

      Same. I haven’t looked at YNAB, because spreadsheets (Excel for my personal, Google for household) have already been working. But I keep spreading the gospel of budgets. :)

      • Loren

        I tried YNAB a couple years ago when I was first trying to build myself a real budget, I think it might be a great tool for any ‘newbs’ who have no idea where to start. It’s got some great importing tools and seems really easy to use.
        But as someone who already had her money ‘organized’ in her head it was really hard to wrap my brain around the way that you HAVE to organize your money to get YNAB to work.

        • kara e

          Makes sense to me – I was ok with it, but my husband got really frustrated with its limitations.We do need some more insight into our corporate spending (we have different accounts for historical reasons), but it is really limiting.

    • Cleo

      Same. I <3 my spreadsheet.

      When initially starting to budget 6 months ago, I decided travel was important to me, so I put money aside for future trips. As a result, this weekend (for National Parks week), I'm treating my partner, myself, and one of our friends to an impromptu getaway to a park near us. I didn't realize how spontaneous budgeting would allow me to be. SO EXCITING!

      • Lisa

        So fun! Which park are you guys seeing? We camped out at Mammoth Cave last weekend. :)

        And yes for budgeting to create spontaneity! Having budgeted a bunch of money into the vacation category, we were able to use some of what we had in there to buy the backpacking gear we’ve been talking about. We’re going on our first small trip in a little over a week!

    • i have always been a google doc spreadsheet fiend, but since my husband sort of glazes over every time i’ve tried to get him on board with my budgeting spreadsheets, i’m hoping YNAB will get us talking about money more.

      ps. re: spreadsheets for wedding planning, you can make pie charts! there was a whole open thread full of people’s wedding budget breakdown pie charts a year or two ago on APW. made the geek in me super happy.

    • Did you just create our own spreadsheet or did you use a model. My make has a budgeting tool, but it is not as thorough as I would like, so I have been thinking of setting up my own spreadsheet. I looked at templates in Google docs, but couldn’t find any that did what I wanted. Maybe I will just need to bite the bullet and set one up from scratch?

  • savannnah

    ugh…this article is a good kick in the pants to get sign up for YNAB. Fiance and I make about 140K combined but can’t seem to get out of our yo-yo 5-7K debt we always seems to get by the end of the year. We are doing something wrong so I’m going to stop ignoring it and see what happens.

  • lady brett

    we just finished our free month with ynab. i like it a lot more than i thought i would. i’ve always been good with our money and we’ve always had “enough” money, and talking about money makes my honey cry, so i kind of just tried not to, other than the occasional “so…we can’t spend any money right now. i’ll let you know when you can get the debit card back out.” (that sounds awful, but my honey was pretty chill with that happening and every time we tried to have a more detailed conversation there was crying and no progress.)

    ynab has been amazing, actually. for one thing, we recently hit the kind of broke where we were actually going to have money *problems* – like, the dollars not adding up kind instead of the emotional kind – and we just needed a more tightly run ship than my “i’m careful with where our money goes” system. and it’s going to be tight for a while, but i am pretty confident that we have a real handle on making that work. and *then* we fucking set up a budget *together* and have been checking in on it regularly, and there have been *no tears* about money *all month*.

    that and, that spot in my chest where i keep my fear of ever spending money has loosened up – i mean, not entirely, what would i do with that?, but enough that i’m not neurotic. so, wins all around, and i’m a convert.

    • Rose

      Oh, that’s so good to hear! I hope it works out for us similarly, because your starting situation sounds a lot like where we’ve been, although our finances are a little bit more separated. Still. Being able to talk about money without me worrying and her crying would be good.

      • Cora Brown

        “my room mate Lori Is getting paid on the internet 98$/hr”…..!ca686ctwo days ago grey MacLaren P1 I bought after earning 18,512 DoIIars..it was my previous month’s payout..just a little over.17k DoIIars Last month..3-5 hours job a day…with weekly payouts..it’s realy the simplest. job I have ever Do.. I Joined This 7 months. ago. and now making over. hourly 87 DoIIars…Learn. More right Here !ca686n:➽:➽:➽➽➽➽ http://GlobalSuperJobsReportsEmploymentsLightGetPayHourly$98…. .❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦::::::!ca686n….,..

  • emilyg25

    I’ve been using a budgeting tool for so long that I can’t imagine how people deal *without* one. We have line items for everything–rent, insurance, groceries, restaurants, booze, etc. It empowers us to spend money on the fun stuff because we know we’re covering the necessities.

  • Sara

    I tried YNAB but I found it too restrictive. Kinda how I felt like when I did weight watchers – I like and understand the concept but I hate diligently plugging in information. But I do use Mint.com as an overview into my budget. I keep the bills specific (mortgage, hoa, cable) but everything else very general – all dining out and groceries are lumped in ‘food’, shopping, tickets or gifts all go under ‘other’. I find that I overspend more when I have $50 in shopping and $50 to gifts for the month. When I just have $100 in ‘other’, I’m better at being on task and not making excuses.

  • Alanna Cartier

    I got YNAB last August and I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to work or would be too restrictive. Turns out, I love it! Even with the super tight budget the fiancee and I had through these past months, we are actually doing better than before and have managed to absorb all the wedding expenses so far. YNAB actually gave me the confidence to make a move on the apartment we loved because now I know it is in our budget.

  • Sarah E

    We’ve been using YNAB with a lot of success for the past year, but I also came across this post on a blog I follow that made a lot of sense to me, and might be helpful for those who’d like a looser system than YNAB offers: http://www.nwedible.com/the-money-drip-savings-heirarchy/

    Right now, our next financial hurdle is figuring out retirement. Which I’ve been saying all year, but now that taxes have past and I have a somewhat better handle on what income is going to look like this year, I think we can dip our toes in the subject a little further.

  • Jessica

    We’ve been using YNAB since November. It’s been good, for the most part, but when we overspend on a category the conversation stalls at “we need to spend less in that category.” Not how, not where the problem is, not a plan of action…just “spend less.” Which of course we don’t do.

    I see others are saying to break it down even further, which could be helpful. Any other pointers are welcome!

    We also have trouble getting together to talk about the monthly budget. The Husband likes to zero things out on the last day of the month, before I have a chance to look at what the overall picture was versus our goals. I’ve asked him to let me see it first so we can have a conversation about it.

    • Amy March

      Can you try looking more at the accounts before you get to overspent? So if you check in on the third Monday in the month, and entertainment is getting close, you know that you just can’t spend more on that this month, or that you just can’t buy whatever the thing is. I try and remind myself that “can’t have that this month” doesn’t mean never, just not right now.

      • Jessica

        It’s not really entertainment that goes over, it’s groceries and restaurants.

        • Amy March

          Then check, and if you are close, you just don’t go to a restaurant, full stop. And you don’t go buy groceries, you eat from the pantry or go with a list. If you don’t want to increase the category, or just can’t afford to, I find a few times of just not being able to do “thing” at all are really useful for learning next month that if I want to do “thing” often I need to make better choices every time. If it isn’t budgeting in the category, consider it not available to spend at all, even if it means missing out.

          • chrissyc

            Groceries is definitely the toughest category for me, and I have a similar strategy as you. I like to keep some basics in the house (beans, rice, onions, noodles, flour, eggs, frozen veggies) so if we’re getting close to the end of the grocery budget, we’ll eat blah but nutritionally-complete meals. After three consecutive dinners of homemade bread, black beans, frozen broccoli, and a fried egg, I’m highly motivated allocate my funds better so I don’t run out at the end of the next month!

          • Jessica

            Yeah, the pantry is not a fully stocked thing these days, because we’ve eaten it down so much. I’ve stopped eating grains, so certain things in the freezer are out for me (I made the meals while I was eating grains). Husband eats out for at least one meal a day, and even when I ask what he’d like to pack for lunches and dinners at work, he doesn’t take a lunch. It’s extremely frustrating. I’ve asked him several times what it would take and he kind of shrugs.

          • Michela

            Maybe this is nit picky, but could you create a line item for his eating out, your eating out, and you + him eating out? Have his buy-in about what a reasonable level is, and when he gets to $0, he’s done. At the very least, seeing his daily spending broken out might be really instructive.

          • Jessica

            That might be a good way to go.

          • Amy March

            Or, if he can’t or won’t change that habit, increase your allocation to that category to assume he is eating out daily and make the convo about which other thing you are decreasing to cover it? Eating lunch out often seems like the low-hanging fruit to cut in a budget, but it doesn’t have to be.

          • Michela

            Yup, agreed.

          • Emily

            Could he take some of the things in the freezer with grains in them for lunch?

          • Eenie

            This! When our eating out budget is empty…we don’t eat out for the rest of the month. It really sucks if we miss one of our Thursday night dinners because of poor planning.

    • Maybe it’s time to have a values summit about the budget. Maybe the problem isn’t “we need to spend less” that “we aren’t valuing this expenditure correctly.” Then the conversation opens up not to just “spend less” but “if we don’t spend less on this, we have to spend less on that because dollars are finite. We spend like we value eating out more than vacation. Is this true? Do we want to change it? What does that mean?”

      In our house we don’t really spend less because an arbitrary number says so. We spend less because we want the saved money to do something else MORE.

  • Kayjayoh

    In my personal budget, which is on a spreadsheet, I have input all my paychecks for every pay period in the year, and then all my fixed expenses (mortgage, loans, etc) that are due during each pay period. I give myself a small cash budget each pay period and a set amount that I can put on a credit card every month. I have all the necessary transfers to the household account, like grocery and utility money. And then at the end of each period, I have the running total for how much should be in my bank account the day before my next paycheck.

    All the rest of the budget is left to be filled in as I go. Sometimes, I will discover an upcoming expense before it happens and plug it in. Ditto for other deposits. Mostly, though, I plug things in as though it were a check register. But the wonderful thing is, as I plug things in, the running total for each pay period changes.

    I can glance down the year and see how I am doing in the “money in my account right before getting paid” and make sure that it is healthy. If the number in one of those cells in lower than I like it, or in the red, I can see that well in advance, and make adjustments in my planning. It’s such a relief to not be blindsided by an unexpected negative balance.

  • April

    LOVE YNAB (as I say in every single thread about YNAB).

    I notice that a lot of comments say that people fine YNAB pretty restrictive, and I guess it can be but that’s what I love about it. I NEED to micro manage my money because on my own, I’m terrible with money. I have a ton of tiny categories because that’s what works for me BUT if I needed less granular categories, I could do that too. I think it’s how restrictive you need it to be.

    I used YNAB to get out of debt, now I’m using it to build my savings (e-fund, retirement, large purchases etc).

    • Maddie Eisenhart

      Yeah, it’s funny, because I legit think it’s LESS restrictive than what we were doing before. Because we were living paycheck to paycheck, I was always at the mercy of this imaginary “can we afford this” thing, and the answer was basically always “no.” Because I just didn’t have any idea what we could actually afford. So this has been freeing. It was just a change in mindset.

      • Maggie Dragon

        YES, absolutely. This is the same attitude I have with money (if it’s budgeted, I know I can spend $50 on champagne if I damn well please) and, when I feel like I need to lose weight and calorie-counting (if it’s budgeted, I can drink that $50 champagne.)

  • the cupboard under the stairs

    We haven’t yet jumped on the comprehensive budget bandwagon, but we’ve recently started using Digit, which I LOVE. Every day, Digit notifies me by text how much is in our primary account and I have the option to text back and view my most recent transactions. Meanwhile, it observes our spending habits and squirrels away money it detects we don’t need. We can retrieve that money any time we want and it’ll plop back into the primary account. For me, this is a great way to keep my balance in mind before I spend anything, which has caused me to cut way back on discretionary spending. And I’m amazed to see that Digit has already saved us about $1300 so far this year!

  • Alice

    Just a public service announcement for any fellow suffering grad students out here– YNAB very kindly gives students free access to the old software version! We started using it a few weeks ago and it’s brilliant.

    • Lisa

      This is what we have, too! I knew husband’s studenthood had to be good for something. :)

  • AGCourtney

    It took us a long time to find something that worked for my now-husband, but finally I found YNAB and it really clicked with him. (Thanks, APW community!) I have my own system that works really well for me, but both our joint budget and his personal budget are on there, and it’s been great for us. Which is good, because we’re going to run out of food stamps in the next few months here, and we’ll have to start budgeting for food, which, based on the conversation I see happening in the comments, is probably going to be an interesting adventure.

  • Samantha York

    Okay, I’ve read APW for a couple of years now – but this time I have to respond. The Mr and I have been together about 5 years, bought a house together last year, were (past tense) planning a wedding for October. We have a shared account for all our shared expenses and maintain separate accounts as well. The shared account and my account are on YNAB. :D

    Wednesday, March 30, we decided to pop up and get married on Friday, April 1, because — fun. WE HAD A BUDGET! We had been talking about, setting money aside toward our goal, and because it was all there and ready, we just had to decide – our heart decisions weren’t held hostage by finances!

    I cannot recommend strongly enough a system to keep track of what you need to spend, what you intend to spend, and what you have. I find that the structure of YNAB encourages me to make decisions in a way that works out to my benefit, but any system is better than none. And it makes it just decisions, not tears.

    • Amy March

      Using your budgeting skills to have an impromptu wedding is just about the most APW thing ever. This all sounds fabulous and I hope you submit a longer post about it!

  • CP2011

    I learned about YNAB through APW but hesitated a while before signing up. It took the whole trial to decide it was if nothing else, a better tool than the spreadsheet method we had going. BUT, having it has already opened my eyes on two major things; one, that the February budget we had devised in the spreadsheet actually led to a deficit in real life (!!). Two, we recently made a $5k improvement (rebates and tax credits to follow) to our home. The same week as we owed multiple thousands to the IRS. Before YNAB, I would have freaked out and been sure we couldn’t afford it. With YNAB, I could see that we would still be able to pay our bills after making those payments, albeit tightly and with a heavy focus on rebuilding savings. So I’m definitely a big fan! And I just came across a link for a free 3 month trial on daily garnish that I sent to a friend.

  • JC

    I’m on month four of YNAB, and here is my new favorite thing: (Notice that I keep finding new favorite things every month? Yes, because it’s great.)

    My old method of budgeting was just making sure I didn’t spend too much money in too short of a time span. If I spread it out, it will all work out. While this was generally true, and I’ve always been a good saver, it often meant denying myself fun or important things just because I had also just paid a large bill.

    Not anymore. The rent checks, car insurance, monthly donations to Planned Parenthood and the local public radio station, and gym membership all clear the bank on the same day? Totally fine. That money is there, for each of those things, and cashing one of those checks doesn’t endanger the budgeted money for the others. I love it.

    Thanks for reminding me that it’s pay day and I *get* to go update my budget tonight. Happy accounting!

  • Cora Brown

    “my room mate Lori Is getting paid on the internet 98$/hr”…..!ca686ctwo days ago grey MacLaren P1 I bought after earning 18,512 DoIIars..it was my previous month’s payout..just a little over.17k DoIIars Last month..3-5 hours job a day…with weekly payouts..it’s realy the simplest. job I have ever Do.. I Joined This 7 months. ago. and now making over. hourly 87 DoIIars…Learn. More right Here !ca686n:➽:➽:➽➽➽➽ http://GlobalSuperJobsReportsEmploymentsLightGetPayHourly$98…. .❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦:❖❖:❦❦::::::!ca686n….,.

  • lindsayinMPLS

    Thank you for the random side comment about them being able to access your small credit union – I’ve been trying to find a budgeting app like this that’s compatible with my credit union AND accessible on my phone. None of the big apps or my credit union had anything that worked. YNAB has my credit union so I’m actually excited to use this and have it all on my phone. !!!!!

  • LadyWoman

    BUDGETING IS THE BEST. I used to have no idea where my money went and I was perfectly happy, but I never had any savings. I tried budgeting apps but they didn’t give me the flexibility I wanted and I still felt like I was sort of just spending money and some unconnected entity was tracking it and I was barely involved. I created a spreadsheet on Google Drive (after plenty of tinkering) that calculates the total for each day so I always know, if all my current debt came due RIGHT NOW, how much money I would have in my account. I actually really enjoy budgeting now (for which my husband blesses me because he hates it).

    Admittedly, I sometimes get anxious about money now that I know what’s happening to it, but I think that comes more from being raised in a family where we didn’t have a lot of money but my parents were really good at budgeting so we had fun, took vacations, and were never really in debt other than for houses or cars. I think I feel like if I ever accrued debt or wasn’t saving “enough” I’d be some sort of failure.

  • Kara E

    So…does anyone have recommendations for another software tool/app that’s a little more customizable then YNAB or mint? We have several sources of income that we want/need to track separately (salary (fixed) vs commission (variable)) and the way both tools handle one time expenditures up front is really annoying (like we pay 6 months of car insurance all at once).

    • i make YNAB work for me in my own way, rather than according to how they recommend i budget. i have several separate accounts on ynab. instead of filing all income under “income for april” the way they do it automatically, i created my own categories for income from x, income from y, etc. which show up as a credit in my budget spreadsheet. for one time expenditures i put it in the budget for that month and it carries over to the other months — eg. i pay my phone bill quarterly, so some months there’s a lump sum payment and some months it appears as negatives, but it all evens out… does that make sense?

  • Marilyn

    So, how did you tackle the $33K debt?

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