Learn to Budget With You Need a Budget

It’s really hard for me to find a personal finance app that draws me in, as I think it probably is for most sane people. So when our previous articles about popular personal finance apps were overrun with comments about You Need a Budget (commonly shortened to YNAB), I knew I definitely had to give it a try. The love that Appstorm users have for YNAB was overwhelming … and boy am I glad I gave it a try!

YNAB is a fantastic app which helps you to create, track and maintain a budget based upon their four simple rules of saving and spending. The software, which syncs between the computer and mobile apps, is wonderfully designed and incredibly intuitive. If you buy into the premise of the app, you can see incredible results. The constant reader plugs for YNAB now make complete sense to me – stick with me after the jump to learn why.

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The Premise

In order to get the most out of YNAB it’s important to understand that, initially, it requires a bit of a commitment. I’d recommend starting out by reading up on the history of the app and the basic premise (the four rules). If you don’t want to read up right now, here are the basic rules:

  1. Give every dollar a job.
  2. Save for a rainy day.
  3. Roll with the punches.
  4. Build a buffer.

Really using YNAB means committing to this system, much like using Omnifocus effectively means using the GTD method. YNAB is set up in such a way that the program really isn’t useful if you aren’t striving for the goals set by the maker – that is, budgeting everything, saving money, and making it so you are living on the previous month’s income, rather than the current month’s income. They’re pretty simple and straight forward and really make a lot of sense – it’s not a bad thing to commit to.

Accounts and Transactions

Once you’re familiar with the rules, you can start to take a look at the app. You’ll notice from the beginning that YNAB really helps you through every step. In addition to the in-app tutorials the first time you use it, there are online tutorials and great service from the YNAB team. It can be an intimidating program at first, but if you take advantage of the resources you can get a lot out of it.

A sampling on the tutorials available – including a free online seminar.

Setting up your first account is a piece of cake. You just enter a name, balance and date. Then select from a variety of account types – they range from basic checking and savings accounts to credit cards, mortgages, investment accounts and more. You can even add a PayPal account – the first time I’d seen that. Lastly, make sure you choose whether or not the account affects the budget. Likely, you want it to affect the budget, especially for your first account.

Adding an account.

You can also add transactions to your account from the accounts page. Adding a transaction is easy as well – Just add the date, payee, category and any necessary memos. Then put the amount into inflow or outflow, depending whether it’s income or expense. Choosing a category is extremely important – that’s what affects your budget and ensures that you make sure your dollars are going to the right place. One incredibly handy (and rare) feature is the ability to split an expense across categories – e.g., your grocery store bill might be 80% groceries and 20% home goods. This feature ensures your ability to make sure your dollars go to the right place.

Adding a transaction.

To gloss over a few other features worth noting on this screen – you can use the search function to go through all of your expenses in one go. You can input transactions manually or you can download and import a .ofx, .qfx or .qif file. You can set recurring transactions and transfers at intervals and dates of your choosing. Lastly, you can easily reconcile your account with your bank statement using the account reconciliation tool.

Adding recurring transactions.


Ok, so you’re all ready to take the next step – giving every dollar a job, aka creating a budget. With YNAB, the eventual goal is to be living off of the previous month’s income, and the budgeting system is geared towards that. On the screen, you can see three months at a time – the goal being, of course, that you get to the point where the money you’re earning is budgeting for two or more months down the line.

Budget overview.

At the top of the screen, you see an overview for each month. You can see the amounts owed from last month, the amounts you have leftover from the previous month, the income for that month and the amount budgeted for the month. This section helps you keep on track when planning budgets for future months and also allows you to get a quick overview of how well you’re covering your expenses in advance.

The monthly stats in budget view.

Below this section, you see the categories. This is the most important part of the budget, and it’s good to take the time at the beginning of your app setup to make sure the budget is accurate and truly fits your needs. The app comes preinstalled with a bunch of categories, but it’s easy to add and delete as necessary to make sure your budget suits your needs. Once you’ve got the appropriate categories set up, estimate how much you’ll spend per category. Don’t forget about things like saving, credit card payments, and of course some fun money!

An overview of my categories.

YNAB also makes it incredibly easy to track and adjust your budget from month to month. Any over or under spending is highlighted and carries over from month to month. It’s up to you to adjust as needed when setting the budget for the upcoming month. Once you get through the initial set-up, it’s easy to continue on from there. Each month should take just a minute or two to adjust.


The last section to cover is the reports section. It’s important to keep up to date on how you’re doing – whether you’re over or underspending, how you’re spending your money and so on. Luckily, YNAB offers a pretty great report section. Within the section you can choose to view reports about spending by category or payee, income v. expense and net worth.

Checking out a report.

The reports are a great way to track how well you’re doing – and an amazing way to get a swift reality check when you first start utilizing the application. You can view the reports within the app, as well as print and export them. Don’t hesistate to take advantage of these valuable tools.

Worth the Investment?

In a word – yes. I think YNAB is absolutely, hands down a solid $60 investment. I’ve not found myself previously excited about a personal finance app like this. YNAB exceeds my expectations in many ways. First, the premise is solid. The four basic rules are something I can really buy into. They seem practical, achievable and a great way to get my 22 year old finances in order, now that I’ve been on my own for over a year. It’s about time I stuck to a budget.

So what else is great about YNAB? The design is amazing. It’s cute without being cutesy, appeals to a wide audience and somehow manages to make a finance app look not frightening. Rather than ugly color schemes and hard to read numbers paired with a confusing user interface, YNAB has bright colors, noticeable labels and directions to guide you every step of the way. The budgeting system is easy to use from month to month. Most importantly, YNAB really helps you to feel immediately empowered – more so than any other personal finance app that I’ve used.

Lastly – the support for other devices is good and improving. YNAB offers an iPhone and Android app which allows you to access your budget on the go. Everything syncs via Dropbox, ensuring that you won’t lose your valuable financial data. It all plays well together, and at $5 the app is fairly affordable.

Even The Best Isn’t Perfect

Are there things to improve? Certainly. I hope that at some point, YNAB is able to integrate directly with my bank account information so that I don’t have to manually input transactions or download/sync the transaction file from my bank. Is it a big deal that it doesn’t? Not really.

There’s also a whole lot of set up at the beginning. It’s absolutely frustrating – but totally necessary. Same with the learning curve. It’s a bit steep, but necessary and totally worth it. Even if you find yourself getting frustrated, power through. It’s worth it. It’s a definite negative, but one that I don’t really see a way around.

In order to help eliminate disappointment, you also need to keep in mind what YNAB is made for when considering whether or not to try it. If you find yourself in debt, struggling to stick to a budget or just don’t make a lot of money and like detailed spending plans, YNAB is going to likely be right up your alley. If you make more money, live well within your means and have lots of savings/investment type accounts to track, then YNAB probably isn’t right for you. Make sure you consider what you’re looking for in your finance app of choice. All in all, however, if you think YNAB is right for you in any way, go grab the trial. Right now.

Your Thoughts?

Once you’ve set it up and tried it out, come on back. Let me know what you think. Or share what you already know … have you tried YNAB? Are you an avid user? Do you absolutely hate the app? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Track expenses, set a budget and get back on track with YNAB.

  • YNAB  | 
  • Free 30 day trial / $60  | 
  • YNAB


Add Yours
  • Like the sync with dropbox and the iphone app. However it is not native macos app but air. still no ipad version.

  • I fail to like the user interface. It is just a Windows UI ported directly to Mac with little to like about it. The idea behind the app is fabulous but the UI is awful. But that is just my humble opinion, others mileage may vary.

    • I made an inquiry as to why this company doesn’t have their app on the Mac App Store and sure enough, this was not a natively developed Mac OS X app, but rather something based on another method of development using something other than Objective C.

      Everyone check out http://www.youneedabudget.com/company/team and poke these people and ask them if they’ve ever considered going to the next WWDC.

  • I actually tried out the 30 day free trial after reading the comments of the recent mac appstorm round up of popular finance apps for the mac. After the trial came to an end and I had to decide whether YNAB was really worth the somewhat steep $60 I decided against continuing to use it for several reasons:

    * The tracking of expenses was considerably more important to me than the budgeting aspect, that plays a big role in YNAB. I’m a freelancer, so I don’t have a steady income every month, which makes budgeting even trickier (although not impossible). I manage fairly well with the money I make and I just wanted to keep track of what I actually spend money on, rather than planning ahead. That’s why the price tag of $60 seemed to steep for me. Then I would have needed to pay on top of that for a mobile app, which would have only added to the overall price.

    * It doesn’t have support for multiple currencies. As I have accounts in different currencies and receive money in different currencies this was fairly important to me. I managed by manually calculating the equivalent in my main currency, but that made things unnecessarily complicated.

    * It doesn’t have a description for expenses, but rather only payee and category, whereas I often wanted to keep track of what exactly I spent my money on (rather than just Groceries -> Supermarket).

    All in all YNAB is still a great app. If budgeting were more important to me and I wouldn’t have to deal with multiple currencies I would have probably bought it. It looks great and is really user-friendly. I love the reports as well.

    I ended up buying MoneyWiz, which is working out great for me so far. First of all it is significantly cheaper at $25 and offers support for multiple currencies, including live updated exchange rates.
    Budgeting is also part of the app, but a bit less prominent. It also looks really good (it fits in really well with other beautiful and slick mac apps, is fairly user-friendly (even though I think YNAB was a tiny bit better in that regard, but that might just be me getting used to it during the 30 day trial).

    So, YNAB awesome, MoneyWiz awesome, it all depends on what you personally need though.

    • I like your take on this.

      Just one error: you CAN list descriptions. It’s called “Memo”.

    • thanks for the useful comment, i was about to buy YNAB based on a few rave reviews. I am a freelancer myself and earn money in different currencies, very similar situation to yourself that keeping track of money is a bit more important for me than budgeting, so will check out moneywiz first

  • I have been using YNAB for somewhere around 4 years now, and am obviously a fan. There is a lot of software out there for tracking your spending, with limited and clumsy support for budgeting. For me I knew I needed a budget not to track my spending. I got my self out of dept using YNAB, have gone from keeping a monthly balance on my credit card to having a zero balance every month. If there is any money owing I know I can just pay it off because every transaction has been assigned to category. Payment that aren’t made every month are accounted for in small $5 or $10 amounts every month. I have the money for Christmas shopping when that time comes around because I have been preparing for it all year. That is the power of a budget and makes it so that I no longer live paycheck to paycheck.
    In the time that I have used YNAB I have gone from being in dept to having just bought my first house with a good sized down payment. I recommend YNAB to anyone who talks about money with me.
    As for the app itself, the layout is very easy to use and to see what it going on (doesn’t look like a giant spreadsheet). Iphone app could be expanded but is great for just tracking your spending on the fly. Yes they really do need an iPad version.

  • I skimmed through your review real quick before i go to bed.

    One point i wanted to mention is that YNAB doesn’t support multi-currency. This single feature rendered the app as obsolete for me. I loved their approach and that it looked totally different than many other personal finance apps out there; and it seems it really helps you work your finances, but i couldn’t continue with such lack of feature + other minor things that i will try to update when i get back to my comment.

    I am back to Money now on my Mac and iPhone. I find all the features i needed and all the flexibility i used to have in Cha Ching (the old iPhone/Mac app that didn’t get passed the Beta, if you guys know it). Although Money sometimes feels lacking basic stuff in terms of UI and random bugs from time to time, but it works well for me.

    good night!

  • Just set it up this morning and it seems like this is the kind of app I was looking for! It practically has all the features I need. I do hope there will come an iPad app as well. Just not sure if I’m willing to pay 60 bucks for it though.

  • New YNAB user here! I started my 30 day trial and after just 1 weel I went an got the paid version. It works great for me, so far it´s the only app that has been able to help me get control over my spending habits.

  • The interface is nice. Overall abilities are decent. The features worth mentioning: super easy and practical expense budgeting, friendly interface and decent report. The features need improving: categorizing income and expense (I need more than layers), customizable reporting.

  • I am on YNAB 4 trial, but I will definitely buy it later on. Like Heather Weaver from AppStorm said, if you focus on 4 Rules of YNAB, you will be on the track. Basically, this program is ALL about Budgeting. There are 3 points I love in this App:

    1. Easily adjust Budget month by month. Not fixed monthly values like most of the other programs do.
    2. Save money this month, see the amount added for the next month. For the most of other programs, the actual budget situation simply dies when the next month comes.
    3. Same as 2. but for overspend. Overspend this month, be warned to adjust the budget for the next month.

    4. Ok, I said 3 points, but just to mention that YNAB site has a lot of information about the benefits of budgeting in general.

    So, for me, is by far the best program for budgeting I ever used.

    PS: Sorry for any writing mistakes. English is not my native language.

  • They are working on an app for the ipad!!

  • We have been using YNAB for a few years. Great, easy to use and smooth interface, fits perfectly on 13in macbook air. App is very customizable and works very well with our way of budgeting. Some categories we can’t predict so we put target budgets there instead (like groceries, gas, etc) and adjust at the end of the month. One great benefit (worth $60 purchase price many times over) of having YNAB in our life is that we no longer impulse spend and instead refer to our available budget to check what we can splurge on, keeping in mind the vacation, Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, escrow payments, car taxes, HOA fees, and all other obligations that may not be visible this month but will come up eventually. It is a great planning tool, but more importantly a peace of mind tool. It de-stressed my married life. We decided to use the Must Haves/Wants/Savings broad categories with more subcategories, saw this scheme discussed on their forum and adapted it, too. YNAB is the foundation of our family finances and we love it!

    The developers are very responsive and the help on their website as well as the forums answered pretty much every question we had and helped in setting up our perfect budget.