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Beginner’s Guide to Better Budgeting with YNAB

Written by Jessica Steer
Some Canadians track their money with spreadsheets. Others use apps like Wally and Mint, and others still just tap their credit card and pray. Let's discuss a form of budget tracking that claims to be the best approach: an app called You Need a Budget.
Table of Contents

    What is YNAB?

    YNAB, which is short for You Need a Budget, is a money management app that helps you achieve financial stability and prosperity. It works on Android and Apple (including iPad and Apple Watch, and Android, desktop) and it even supports integration with Amazon Alexa.


    Is YNAB free?

    YNAB offers a free 34-day trial for new users. After the trial, you can choose between paying $8.25 a month option or $99 a year. Note that all prices are in USD, so this cost will fluctuate for Canadians.

    They also offer a free 1-year trial for students and a one-time $10 discount for students who continue with the next year’s subscription.

    Check out our other budget app reviews!

    We didn't just cover YNAB! We did a round-up of ALL our favourite budget apps, plus an in-depth:

    Is YNAB secure?

    Before we delve into the app itself, let’s talk about the number one concern with any third-party money management tool: security. Canadians want to know their data is safe, and YNAB takes these concerns seriously, as is evidenced by their many security precautions:

    1. Your YNAB account password is one-way salted and hashed, which in layman’s terms means that even if the YNAB database was accessed, a person would have to guess every possible password in order to find your password
    2. YNAB ensures your passwords are strong by requiring them to be at least eight characters and it won’t accept any of the top 2,085 most commonly used passwords
    3. All data is encrypted (put into an indecipherable code) when stored on the YNAB servers
    4. YNAB completely erases all your data should you decide to delete your account
    5. The app is built on the same technology used for the CIA’s internal cloud service
    6. It uses PCI certified payment providers to process credit cards, so your payment details are sent directly to the payment provider, rather than to YNAB’s system
    7. YNAB does not directly store your banking credentials
    8. YNAB only works on a secure connection and will force your browser to use an encrypted connection

    This is just a sample of some of the security measures YNAB has in place. If you want to learn more, YNAB’s website delves further.

    Do I have to sync YNAB to my bank account?

    For those of you that won’t trust your banking information on any money management app, you can also manually enter your expenses. While this method is more work, it does mean you don’t have to wait for your budget to update. When you sync to your bank accounts, your budget doesn’t update until the bank clears the transaction, so there can be a lag of a few days. 

    How does YNAB help me save money?

    YNAB wants you to have a handle on your finances, so you can handle unexpected expenses (thanks for breaking down, car!) and enjoy life (dinner and drinks? No problem). As soon as you get money, you need to decide where to allocate it. 

    You Need a Budget has a set of rules that support its money-saving philosophy. The rules are: 

    1. Prioritize your money and put your dollars to work. This is what they call giving every dollar a job.
    2. Embrace true expenses and always have money aside for unplanned expenses.
    3. If you overspend, don’t feel guilty, just move money from another category.
    4. Spend less than you earn.

    These are all great rules and worth adopting, but it takes time to embrace them and get comfortable with YNAB’s approach. 

    How is YNAB different than other budgeting apps?

    The idea behind YNAB is simple: budget what you have on hand, not what you’re expecting to have. Unlike other budgeting apps that allow you to enter your salary and future income, YNAB uses a model that puts the focus on your present financial situation.

    Once you’ve entered your money or synced to your bank account, you must assign all the money in your budget to one of the default spending categories:

    • Immediate obligations (ex. internet, groceries)
    • True expenses (ex. medical, clothing)
    • Debt payments (ex. student loans)
    • Quality of life goals (ex. vacation, fitness)
    • Just for fun (ex. gaming, dining out)

    Snapshot from YNAB app: YNAB lets you break down your budget by category. Here, your available funds are healthy, but your credit card is orange because no money has been allocated.

    Using intuitive colour-coding, you can quickly assess how much money you have available. As you enter and spend money, categories will change colour: green means there’s money available, orange means a category is underfunded, and red means you’ve overspent. When you overspend in a category it will turn red and you’ll need to move money. Here you can see the $500.00 grocery budget was overspent and reached $665.00. This means the $165.00 will have to come from another category:

    Snapshot from the YNAB app

    This is why YNAB encourages you to put money aside, even when you’re not spending it. If your car breaks down or your roof needs replacing, the funds are there already and won’t send your budget into a tailspin.

    Your To Be Budgeted amount will also turn red if you try to budget for money you don’t actually have. 

    This is a no-no in YNAB’s budgeting approach, and you can’t just ignore a red budget in YNAB’s philosophy. You can’t budget your upcoming paycheque or money from Christmas when it’s October, but instead you need work with what you have on hand. In this example, the To Be Budgeted amount went red, perhaps because “Fun Money” included future earnings, not existing ones:

    Snapshot from the YNAB app

    You’ll have to fix your budget by moving money out of lower priority categories until To Be Budgeted is at $0.00.

    This frame of mind can take a little getting used to, especially if you tend to rely on future earnings. It may lead users to feel that money is scarce at times, and seeing numbers turn red can be a bit panic-inducing. But, once you get past the learning curve for YNAB, you’ll see how it prevents overspending and is a powerful motivator to re-envision your finances.

    Can I plan ahead with YNAB?

    You Need a Budget wants you to exceed your saving goals, not just meet them. In fact, the app’s very approach to money management is proactive rather than reactive.

    For example, it will help you plan to pay off your credit card debt. When you’ve entered your credit card balance, you’ll be prompted to choose how you want to handle it.

    Snapshot from the YNAB app: YNAB lets you choose how to pay off your credit and helps you deal with debt. It will break down how much you need to pay towards your debt to reach a goal date.

    If you select the option to pay the balance over time, YNAB lets you set a goal date and tells you how to reach it.

    Another way you’re encouraged to improve financial stability is with “Age of Money” tracking. This feature monitors how long money is in your account before it’s spent. If you’re living paycheque to paycheque, then your money won’t have time to age, but the money you put away every month will age. The older your money, the more stable your finances.

    What other features does YNAB offer?

    In addition to providing helpful suggestions along the way, YNAB produces educational content. There are free online seminars on topics such as creating debt payment plans and setting up your budget. YNAB also produces podcasts and publishes articles on financial and life topics, so users can access information in the format they find most helpful.

    YNAB: Final Thoughts

    Overall, this budget app has a fresh and smart approach to finance. YNAB is a sleek app and getting started with it is simple. Rather than tracking your finances after you’ve spent the money, YNAB helps you create and stick to a plan before money has even been spent.

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