YNAB Review: Wrapping Your Head Around Zero Sum Budgeting

If you’ve never used the budgeting service You Need a Budget (YNAB), then you might not be familiar with the budgeting concept known as zero sum budgeting.

The power of zero sum budgeting, and YNAB’s effective use of it, is the reason why we rated YNAB as a better budgeting service than Mint

But the value of YNAB goes far beyond the website or mobile app’s features. The reason YNAB can help you gain control of your finances is because of how the service helps you learn zero sum budgeting just by using the service.

What Is Zero Sum Budgeting?

When most people budget, they create categories for things like bills, utilities, and groceries with a fixed amount to spend every month.

Those amounts are set regardless of how much income you have (although preferably expenses should be less than your income). Because of this, often very little thought is given to what to do with additional funds. Also, this form of budgeting is a way to plan for future income that you don’t actually have yet.

This is essentially how Mint lets you budget using their platform.

The problem with this approach is that you’re always trying to plan the future without knowing your actual financial situation in the future. When surprises hit, if you didn’t include something in your budget to handle them, it can put the entire financial plan at risk.

Zero sum budgeting is much different. Each time you receive income, you need to assign each of those dollars to the bills, groceries, or other items that will get you through to your next paycheck or other income.

Since you sync YNAB to your bank accounts, any source of income gets applied to a To be Budgeted category shown at the top of the web page or app.

Your goal every time you log in to manage your budget is to select each of the categories where you have immediate upcoming bills and assign enough of your “To be Budgeted” amount to cover those bills.

Note: To do this correctly, you’ll need to maintain your bill due dates in another spreadsheet because YNAB does not have a spot to show when that bill usually comes due.

Once you’re out of income to budget, you’ll need to wait for your next paycheck or other source of income to assign more funds to other bills. So plan wisely and pay the bills that are due first!

How Zero Sum Budgeting on YNAB Is Better

There are a number of reasons the zero sum budgeting approach on YNAB helps you gain more control over your finances.

Applies Extra Income to Important Savings

If you have fewer bills than you have income (which you should, or you should be looking at cutting bills), then YNAB forces you to assign those extra funds to something. 

This is when you should be considering adding other categories to apply your income to like an emergency fund, a clothes shopping fund, vacation savings, holiday savings, and more. These are the unpredictable things that you never seem to have enough available funds for when you budget the “old” way.

This means that as you’re accumulating money in your bank account, all of those funds have a reserved purpose. You never have to worry about not having money available when your car breaks down or you need to do a home repair, because you’ve been socking away funds for those purposes.

Keeps You Disciplined With Your Spending

When you overspend the funds you’ve assigned to a category in YNAB, you’ll see the balance turn red. This means you need to shift funds from other things you’ve applied your income to in order to cover that overspending.

You do this by selecting the red balance and then using the funds transfer window to transfer money from another category to this overspent one.

This forces you to constantly stay aware of your spending and the impact it’s having on your finances. You won’t be able to overspend on things like birthday gifts or dining out without having to answer for it by taking money away from other things you care about.

Over time, this helps you to stay attuned to how much is left to spend in each category, and ensure you keep your spending on track in those categories.

It’s also a learning process. If you don’t assign enough for things like groceries, using YNAB will train you to understand your true spending patterns and how much you actually need in those categories.

Budgeting Based on Real Spending

When you budget based on future bills and future income, you’re always guessing how much you think you’ll need. This guessing might be realistic, based on researching your past bank statements. However, most people don’t take the time to do this.

YNAB provides you with a history of spending across all of the categories you’ve created. This spending is allocated based on what came out of your bank account and which category you assigned that spending to.

These are real numbers, not guesses. These reports in YNAB can help you fine-tune how much money you allocate to those categories every time you receive new income.

Over time, this helps you allocate your money more responsibly and realistically. It also highlights where you might be overspending unnecessarily and can cut back so that you can apply those funds to things that are more important to you like vacations or college savings.

Empowers You to Save and Spend Better

The reports section of YNAB helps you get a better handle on your saving and spending patterns. 

You can see things like:

  • Your overall income versus overall expenses
  • Your spending patterns over time in a pie chart format
  • A line and bar chart showing how you’ve accumulated net worth over time by using the zero sum budgeting with YNAB.

These charts are a powerful feedback system that’ll make you feel very good about making the right choices with where you’ve applied your income to various areas of your life.

You will notice that your net worth starts to improve from the very first day you start using YNAB and applying zero sum budgeting principles.

The more disciplined you are with keeping to your assigned funds, the higher your other funds like savings categories will continue to rise each month. These contribute to your rising net worth.

Use YNAB and Zero Sum Budgeting

Currently, there’s no other budgeting service today that effectively helps you use zero sum budgeting correctly. It helps you apply the approach to your everyday life in a way that’s sustainable and non-intrusive for your daily life.

It also becomes fun, each time you receive income, to apply that money to the things that matter the most to you. And it’s very rewarding to watch your savings categories rise over time, thanks to your discipline and careful planning.

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