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.

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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?

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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.

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