The Most Important Thing I Learned in 2015

And how YNAB helped break me of my worst habit

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There’s a running joke on staff that I’ve got gamblers’ blood in my veins. I like projects with quick payoffs, and I like tangible success. It’s why I’m in charge of the money stuff and not social media. Because the long game is my least favorite kind of game. And because I’m sort of a gambler, I’m the worst at saving. I like to make the money, spend it, and then enjoy the adrenaline high of trying to figure out how I’m going to figure my shit out next month. It means I’m a great partner, in both business and life, if you want hustle and growth. But long-term sustained success? Nah.

So when Michael and I signed ourselves up for the budgeting app YNAB last year, it forced a radical shift in how I approach money. Because unlike other budgeting tools that just spit out a report of what you’ve already spent your money on, YNAB’s method forces you to proactively plan what you’re going to do with your money. Goodbye Target shopping sprees. Hello budgeting.

Wishing and hoping and praying

Looking back at my old writing on APW, it becomes painfully obvious that I have a problem setting limits for myself. There are a ton of reasons I can give you for why: oldest kid, teenage parents, recession, whatever. But the real reason is that I think I’ve always perceived myself as a limitless resource. The well is never really empty, so why not just get as close as to empty as you can before you have to fill it up again? (For real, this is how I’ve ended up stranded on the highway without gas more than once in my life.) And in turn, I’ve always treated my finances the same way. I mean, if I’ve survived this long without savings, how much do I really need them?

So even though I was the one who suggested we get started using YNAB, I was afraid to actually put it into action. Because with YNAB, I can only work with the money we have. It’s a finite number. And what if the budget told me no? What if the budget said I can’t live my life how I want? But here’s the thing I’d been missing: when you plan for the future, then when you want to go to Target, you can make it so that there is already money there waiting for you to spend. Boom. I know. Crazy.

They Say If You Love Something, Let It Go

See, the lie I was telling myself was that my gambler approach to life wasn’t stressful. That it was fun. And the truth was, it was stressful as fuck. (Which, you can find out by watching any actual gambler. Like my dad.) And what I wouldn’t say out loud to anyone was that even though it was stressful, I didn’t want to stop, because I didn’t know any other way of living.

And then we created a household budget. By the end of the year, not only had we paid off the last of our $30,000 debt, but we spent the first week of December floating along crystal waters in Nicaragua for our first vacation in five years. And it didn’t even go on our credit card.

But of course, there is a flipside to that too. When 2015 rolled around last year, I set exactly one goal for myself (well, ourselves): go on vacation. Michael had his own: pay down our debt. And to my genuine surprise, we did both of those things. But let’s be real for a second. That meant there was a lot of stuff we didn’t do in 2015. We didn’t go home for the holidays. We didn’t get a puppy. And even though I talk a big game, I barely even let my hair down in Target. Instead, we committed ourselves to doggedly paying down our debt and saving up for our vacation. The end.

But here’s the surprising part: sacrificing those things didn’t feel like sacrifice (I’m not here to tell you that you need to martyr yourself to your savings account). It was liberating. Instead of feeling like I was telling myself no to the things I wanted, I felt like we were steadily moving toward the thing we really did want. And avoiding distracting short-term gratification along the way.

Mind, Body, Wallet

Without realizing it, my experiment with YNAB started seeping into my personal life. Spending our money intentionally meant I also had to start spending my time intentionally. Which is to say, once I started thinking critically about what we could afford financially, I also started thinking critically about what I could afford emotionally. For example, while I love my family, flying home for the holidays every year is a draining experience, emotionally, financially, physically. In years past, I probably would have figured out a way to make it work, justifying that if we had the time and money, of course we should do it. But this year? This year I added my emotional energy to the mix, and realized that I just didn’t have enough reserves left over to afford a trip home during the holidays. And while it was a bittersweet decision (I miss my family, y’all), it was nice to come out of APW’s annual holiday break feeling relaxed for once.

I think this is the lesson I’ve been failing to learn these past few years. It’s not just about giving myself the goal of “balance” and hoping it will all work out. That’s like saying, “This year I’m going to save money,” and then not doing the work to make it happen. Instead, I’m having to relearn how to prioritize, to see everything in its holistic form. Now, instead of looking at my calendar or my bank account and assuming that whatever I can see with my own eyes is up for grabs, I’m trying to look further down the road at my long term goals and learning how to budget downtime and savings in advance so that they’re there when I need it.

And while my gambler’s blood still likes the thrill of a “will I make it or not” adrenaline rush at work (where, blessedly, I have the structure of a business to keep my impulses in check), I’m trying my damnedest to eradicate it from my personal life. Why is why my word for 2016 is “value.” This year I want to learn how to value not just my money, but my time, my energy, and all the other finite resources in my life. Because most of the time? The stress and anxiety of the gamblers high are too distracting to actually enjoy your winnings. And vacations are supposed to be relaxing, y’all.


This post was sponsored by You Need a Budget. YNAB is a powerful yet flexible tool for managing your finances, and has radically changed the way our marriage approaches finances. Which is exactly what it’s designed to do. With the YNAB method, there’s no ignoring what you’re spending. 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. As a result, with YNAB we were able to pay off over $30K in debt in just two years while saving up for our first vacation in five years. YNAB just 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 download a free thirty-day trial. Thanks YNAB for making the APW mission (and my vacation) possible.

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