Using Hashtags in Your Transaction Memos for Improved Budget Granularity Without Needing 153 Categories.

I take YNAB transaction memos seriously. Seriously enough that maybe I need to seek some sort of professional counseling and/or medication to help me maintain a healthier perspective. Seriously enough that sometimes my wife uses a transaction memo to tell me to chill out:

Date: 06/01/13
Payee: Harts Gas Station
Amount: $1.64
Category: Household Needs
Memo: “Yeah, so what? I bought a Coke.”

Sidenote: Household Needs? Pretty sure that’s why we have a category called “Kate’s Fun Money”, sweetie.

Sidenote to the Sidenote: She picks fights in transaction memos; I wait three months, then give my rebuttal in a blog post. It may be time to evaluate our approach to conflict resolution.

The point is, transaction memos are useful in evaluating past spending and planning future spending. A transaction memo is an opportunity to give the why behind the what and the how much of a transaction – which is useful when you’re transitioning from expense tracking to real budgeting.

So, today’s Pro Tip is to take an extra 20 seconds when you’re entering transactions to add a meaningful memo.

Once you’ve formed the memo habit, you can move on to today’s Super Pro Tip: Using Hashtags in Your Memos for Improved Budget Granularity Without Needing 153 Categories.

*Credit for today’s Super Pro Tip goes to the YNAB team, who thought it up over breakfast during the team meetup back in May.

Check it out:

Back in July Kate and I drove the kids out to Colorado for a week with the Butler family. My brothers, sister, and their families made the trip and we met and Mom and Dad’s place. Good times.

We YNABed our way through the week, recording all the trip’s expenses along with clear transaction memos. But I didn’t have a good way to silo those trip-specific expenses – which would be a great help in budgeting for future trips home. Enter the hashtag (click to enlarge):


*Those of you worried about that big, negative working balance can be at peace. This card is automatically paid in full every month on its due date. :)

Brilliant, right? My #greeley2013 hashtag let me keep all the expenses in their proper category instead of lumping them all into a “vacation” category, which would be way too mushy for me.

Next time Kate and I are planning a trip to my parents’ house, we’ll know our last trip cost us a little over $300. We’ll plan accordingly.

Take the hashtag for a spin. I think you’ll find it’s a great tool for taking your budgetary nerdiness to a whole new level.

72 Responses to “Using Hashtags in Your Transaction Memos for Improved Budget Granularity Without Needing 153 Categories.”

  1. Reita

    Love this! I get teased by everyone because I use hashtags all the time (fb, twitter, text, email, etc). And now that my hubby is on board and using YNAB on his phone also, this is going to drive him bananas. Perfect! hahahaha

    • Liza (@sunnycyclist)

      Love it! I’m gonna use #shared to help manage expenses I share with my boyfriend. We split the big things like rent, but things like groceries and gas are less clearly-defined. This will help me pay attention, without having to split and categorize separately (I so don’t want to do that).

  2. Eric Williams

    Nice! So, how do you budget for your vacation then? Do you still put $300 in your vacation budget and then just spread it out to the different categories when you get home?

    Or, next time will you beef up each category according to how much you spent last time?

    • Lloyd

      I agree. It seems like having a “vacation” category would make a cleaner separation between your vacation-incurred expenses, and your “normal” expenses. The only thing you lose is the detail about the nature of the vacation expense (unless you annotate in the memo field). And it lets you keep your categories for Groceries, Fuel, etc., from including the (infrequent?) vacation expense, and therefore more useful to predict average expenses in those categories.

      That’s not to say that annotating in the memo is a bad idea. I like it, and use it already. I just don’t know if it’s a good idea to rely on it in this case.

      Probably just a personal preference, I guess.

      • Matt Jacob

        I’m with you guys. If a vacation category is “mushy”, then why have any categories at all? Why not just have a master spending category and hashtag every transaction? Now *that* is mushy, in my opinion.

        Also, saving for vacation would actually be more difficult with this method. You would have to roll over a little bit in fuel, entertainment, food, etc. every month and remember that it was a conscious decision. What about airline tickets? Oh, just roll over a little in my normal, everyday air travel category and hashtag it. ;-) Right?

        I like the idea, but I’m trying to think of a good use case. The purpose would be to group related transactions in different categories. Aside from the vacation example, when would that be handy?

      • Lloyd

        I use a similar technique to annotate out-of-state or online-without-sales-tax transactions, so I can more easily find/calculate my “Use Taxes” (or whatever they call it where you live) in the spring.

      • David

        How about budget the money ($300 in this case) in the vacation envelope, so it accrues over the year. But when you actually intend to go on the next vacation, in that month you can re-assign the jobs for the dollars — only then put what you need from vacation into fuel, restaurants, gifts, etc.
        Reduces the need to think about the minutia throughout the year and just spend that time thinking about it during your actual trip planning.

      • msmo

        i do the same. and hashtag in the memo will be useful if i want to see how much i spent on a particular event or trip, without having to disturb the categories.

    • mark

      I’d probably beef up the category according to how I spent last time. But yeah, mileage varies with this one. People should play with it and see what they think.

    • Justin Miller

      I think that is what I will do. I’ll save a travel sinking fund, but then clean it out and allocate out as necessary. Incidentally, I wasn’t aware one could use hashtags with YNAB. That’s why I read the blog, to learn! :)

    • Christoph

      Yes, I have a “Vacation” category and put X towards it. That way when we go on vacation and we have to get, say, groceries, that comes out of the “Vacation” category and not out of our “Groceries” category. Sure, I could just ‘buff out’ the “Groceries” category for that month but why bother? We’re using only those groceries, say, during our vacation. My thinking is that A) I already have a “Vacation” category that I’ve been saving money to and B) I’m not going to have to worry about itemizing to that level while I’m on vacation. That X total can be used for anything. I’m not going to want to have to worry about calculating up all the grocery line items, dining out line items, entertainment line items and then adding those totals to their respective categories and then removing those totals from the “Vacation” category. Why worry about and/or deal with that? The only way I’d put any of those expenditures against one of my major categories is if we over spent our “Vacation” category and needed to use funds from the other categories (e.g. gas to get home). This way, when we do get home, we still have funds available to our various categories for our normal monthly expenses (e.g. clothes, groceries, entertainment, books & toys, etc.)

      • darragh brady

        This is how i do it and it works for me- no worries while on vacation and when i buy that odd fossilized leaf as a souvenir- its just another part of the vacation budget. Keeps the stress down!

      • Lawrence Dol

        I’m with you guys and the others who create and use a “vacation” fund. Putting all expenses while on vacation seems far simpler, less stressful and more sensible to me. One can still use the memo field to create greater visibility in to the detail of what what spent.

      • Tracy

        This is exactly what I do. Anything bought during/on the way to/from vacation (gas, food, souvenirs even) is under Vacation category and budgeted for.

  3. Lisa

    There is no way to fully express how much YNAB has completely changed my life, and my family’s life. Seriously. And your blog posts are friggen awesome! And hilarious, and I have the biggest crush on your program, for realz.

  4. Christoph

    The issue that I have with this method is that it takes the amount spent and applies it to your budget for whatever category you used for the transaction. So unless you change the values for every category for the month you go on vacation to account for what you’ve saved (or have spent) while on that vacation, you’re going to end up going over for that month.

    Personally, my preference is just to keep a separate “Vacation” category and both save up and spend under that label. That way I don’t have to worry about how much of what I saved for the vacation should be allocated for groceries, dining out, souvinirs, etc and then change the values fore each category when we go on vacation from the values they are set to for the rest of the year.

  5. Sherri

    For those of us who love to alphabetize our spice collection and store towel sets in ziploc bags, this is an awesome tip! I will use it on the other side of that kind of vacation, to see what expenses go up when our 20-something kids come home and by how much.

  6. Kenneth

    Couldn’t you just have searched on Greeley, which you put in all your memos already? And if you wanted the 2013 trip, contolled the search with the dates?

    • mark

      You’re really bringing me down right now, Kenneth. Just kidding. :)

      You’re right, though. You could just search by Greeley and control with date, but the hashtag saves a couple clicks.

      I think I’m forgetting some aspects of this tip that the YNAB devs had mentioned back in May, so hopefully they’ll chime in with anything I’ve forgotten.

  7. Tawnia

    A whole level of budget nerd for sure. My husband may not appreciate this.

  8. Zach

    This seems very useful for future planning since you can figure out which of your vacation expenses were gas – different each time based on distance you’re traveling – vs food or other

  9. Jim

    This is a helpful tip. One of my feature requests to YNAB was transaction tagging so that I could mark things extraneous to category and without the strictness of a category. My only suggestion to YNAB in order to make this tip more useful would be to autosuggest memo text as you type. I still think a tagging feature (kind of like Evernote’s) would be a nice column in the accont-transaction logs.

  10. Dean

    Great idea! Before I would mark the Payee as the trip. e.g. payee would be Las Vegas when infact it was the luxor casino. Thankyou for this tip!

  11. MGG

    I love it! Thank you YNAB team.

    I already have broad categories such as Beauty and Dining Out. The hashtag feature allows be to more closely and easily follow my subcategories such as hair versus makeup and lunch vs breakfast.

  12. Zuny

    I actually use several “vacation” categories.
    I have “Vacation Food”, “Vacation Fuel” “Vacation Housing” and “Vacation Fun” so that I always know how much to save up beforehand, and I still know the total amounts I have left in each vacation category while on vacation (don’t want to eat all the vacation money, right?), while keeping the amounts I have for normal monthly expenses untouched.

    I like the hashtags idea, I’ll have to take a look and see how I can incorporate it.

  13. Ann

    This post is worth it to me just to find out I can search from the checking register (and get a total of only the search items) and not have to go to reports. Did not know that!! I think the memo hashtags would be helpful within a category that is being used for various sub-purposes, such as fuel for one car vs. the other. Great tip!! :-)

  14. Stephen Emhof

    I like the hashtag idea, but I’d just hashtag the transactions within the Vacation category. Would let me look back and see on which trips we spent more/less money.

    Thanks for the tip!

    • MrMcLargeHuge

      This is how I would use it.

      When I’m on vacation, I don’t delineate between “Vacation Food,” “Vacation Fuel,” etc.; it just all goes under the Vacation category. So my vacation category is filled with trips taken over the past three years. Using the hashtag would be a good way to find the expenses for one particular trip.

  15. Angela

    We’re about to go on vacation ourselves. We’re camping for the first time. I have mixed feelings on how to categorize vacation. In the past I’ve used the grocery fund when we bought grocery items while on vacation. This is due in large part to having a food allergic child. We have to cook almost everything for him. I use the grocery fund for that, since I have to cook for him anyway, no matter where we are. As far as the other things for vacation, they come out of the vacation fund (i.e. zoo, hotel, campground, parks, anything special for the trip, etc.) For fuel, we happened to have extra in the category and I’m hoping it covers gas for the trip. If not, it will come out of the vacation fund.
    My two cents.

    • Angela

      And yes, I use the memo to specify what we spent the vacation money on!

  16. CT

    I use a separate vacation category, since it helps me save. I’m way more likely to put (and keep!) money in my “girls weekend” category than to remember NOT to spend the extra money in the restaurants category.

    But it’s an interesting idea…maybe you could switch what you use tags for (#cabs, #hotel, #restaurant, etc.)? That way you could still go back and use the data to estimate future vacation costs w/o messing up your current budget.

  17. Beth

    Love this! We have small bits of income from various side jobs, and I’ve been using the memo field to track them but hashtags will be much cleaner. I want to keep them under the general household income category, but want to be able to track them separately.

    Will also use this for Vacations – instead of 1 big trip every year, we take a lot of short weekend trips, and the expenses can occur over a long period (plane tickets bought 3 months before the actual trip, etc.). I tried having separate categories for each weekend, but that was way too complicated. Hashtags are the way to go for me! THANKS!!

  18. Sandee

    I used to use the equivalent of hashtags in the vacation category to subcategorize expenses according to the particular trip and the expense type. But it became such a pain to enter that I finally created a separate vacation budget, and just dump the total into my main budget under vacation.

  19. Jennifer

    I have a master category for Vacation then the spending gets listed under subcategories. I do wish you could use sub-sub-categories in YNAB then Vacation could be with savings.

  20. Ken Raetz

    One approach we have used when we have a larger category we want to budget for, but really do want to see spending on a more detailed level is the following approach (I’ll use Christmas as an example, doing this at the beginning of the year):
    1. Setup Christmas master category
    2. Setup detailed categories under Christmas for spending (Christmas-Wife, Christmas-Child 1, Christmas-Friends, Christmas-Parties, etc.).
    3. Set budget for those categories. This obviously leaves a problem – We don’t actually have the money to budget all of that now. This is addressed in step 4.
    4. Setup one more detailed category under Christmas called “Christmas – All”, and take the total budgeted in step 3 and multiply it by -1. So, if you budgeted $1,000 for Christmas categories, then set the Christmas – All category to -$1,000. Then, budget throughout the year the necessary amount in the Christmas – All category to reach the desired goal at the end of the year. This is called a “Sinking Fund”.

    The results:
    1. I can plan at the beginning of the year how much to spend in each category.
    2. I can see throughout the year how much I have in total for Christmas (as each month progresses, my net total for Christmas increases).
    3. If I need to spend on some items in Christmas through the year, I have the OK to do it.
    4. I don’t have to micro-manage budget amounts at the detailed category level because they’re already set at the beginning of the year.

    We use this for Christmas and Birthday primarily, and love it.

    • Annalise

      Ooh, thanks for this! I have used a separate spreadsheet to track my detailed Christmas spending throughout the year, this gives me a way to do it all in YNAB. Love it! Setting it up right now!

      • Annalise

        Okay, after looking at it this way, I can see Mark’s point with the hashtags. With 8 people in our family, this could really make the # of categories get out of hand if I’m doing this for birthdays and Christmas. Maybe I will try the hashtag method and see how that works for us. It does take the extra step of searching for each person rather than having their available balance all at a glance in the budget…Hmm, will have to think how I want to proceed.

        I will say that one of the things I love best about YNAB is how easily it adapts to each person’s needs!!

  21. Purfectoptions47

    Great ideas and comments, thanks everyone! I’ll use the hashtags for separating out the short trips I take (sometimes a few each month) and I’ll keep my Vacation Master category and sub-categories of “Food” “Lodging” “Travel Expense/ Fuel” ect. so they don’t ‘mush-up’ my regular everyday ‘at home’ expenses like groceries, fuel, etc. I too, would love to see an ‘auto suggest’ feature for memo typing since I use memos a lot.

  22. Thies

    I always wanted to have general tag functionality in YNAB instead of categories but never thought of the idea, to use the Memo field for that, so thanks for the inspiration! I try to use tags complimentary to categories for properties that could apply to transactions in various categories, e.g. i’m using the #avoidable tag for things like paying a taxi when i missed the bus or when i get charged extra at an ATM that’s not from my bank. This way i can make a summary of all the payments during the month that just came about because of my own sloppiness and still get the benefit of tracking in my categories. Also this gives me a sense of how much i realistically could save in total and in each category.
    Also at the moment i have three different categories which can include food (Groceries, Work Lunch and Fun Money) and i’m thinking about either merging Groceries and Work Lunch into a Food category and giving it tags like #work, or leaving the categories as they are and just add the #food tag whenever it applies. What do you think about that? Any experience what works best for you?

  23. Kurt

    Your opening line about the coke reminded me of a time my wife and I got into a not-really-argument about whether or not jewelry items are clothing. That was a funny day.

  24. Lisa

    I don’t use hashtags, but within some categories, like Gifts, I use the memo line to record “XMAS13: scarf for Mom” or “BDAY: gift card for Sarah’s friend” etc. Then, I can add up those transactions to see what I’ve spent for Xmas in any one year (always too much!) or on birthday party gifts for friends of the kids…

    I also do this for Medical/Doctor and Medical/Drugs…put the patient’s name in the memo line, then I can track medical expenses in case I have other health plan options or flexible spending account decisions to make.

  25. Mark

    From one OCD guy named Mark to another, Thanks!! This is awesome. I struggle with finding ways to eliminate some of my categories, but still track to the level of (way to much) detail I want. I did not know YNAB could do that, though now it does seem incredibly simple and obvious.

    Although, (shameless feature request….) I still would like to see tags fully implemented in the software someday. As simple and effective as #memo line is, I can’t use it in the reports section of YNAB and it’s prone to my typos. I guess I should try this by my guess is that that search for #greeley2013 would miss anything like #greeley 2013, or #greeley13 or #greley2013….things I could see myself doing.

    I’ve often wished I could have 2 sets of categories somehow magically related. For budgeting purposes I could get by with 10 or so. For example, a fun money category for me when budgeting could me eating out, or going to a movie, or buying a new gadget, I don’t care they are all fun. But then when it comes to tracking and seeing where my money goes, I need about 50 categories, because the prior 3 examples are all very different, and I like to know where my weaknesses are and where my money is going. Tags could do this for me.

    But after all is said….YNAB is still great software, an even better method and this little tip is great!

  26. Ted

    I am confused why you need a hastag. Would it not be the same if you put Greely2013 gas….

    • Charlotte

      yes, you don’t need to type the “#” symbol if you don’t want to

  27. Tom Bushaw

    I haven’t read all the comments in detail yet, so if I’m rehashing (ha!) something already covered, my apologies.

    I like this idea. This past summer we had a LONG vacation (road trip) for about 6 1/2 weeks. I had budgeted for all this in our “Vacations” category (not parcelled out amongs Gas, Food, Lodging, Entertainment, etc.). In this case, I think I could have used the hash tagging scheme on the memos to put these vacation expenses into #gas, #food, #lodging, #entertainment, etc. buckets and filtered to see, for example, how much gas was spent on the trip. Will use this scheme in the future! Thanks.

  28. Christina

    Tell your wife I do the same thing with the memos! There are a few from the summer that say “emergency food with the kids”. My husband knows what hunger does to me, so he doesn’t question it, but he does laugh.

  29. Ryan Means

    To really make this feature work well, it needs to be really hash-tag like. i.e. when I’m in YNAB on the desktop or my phone, tags should auto-complete to existing options when I start typing with #. I have used the “tag” concept before with just words and without the tag, but I have had times where on a single transaction I slightly mis-type that word. Then, that transaction get’s lost for the purpose of what I was trying to do. IF the app acted more true to the traditional tag functionality, that wouldn’t happen and it would be harder to mistakenly tag something wrong.

  30. Heather

    I LOVE this suggestion. I just started using #taxes for tax-deductible transactions to cross-reference with my spreadsheet for the account. Trips home to visit family will work great with hashtags, too. Thanks for the idea! :)

  31. Eva

    I did not know about this feature and the hash tag idea is fantastic! I love it! Thanks YNAB! I’m in love with the software. It has truly changed my life. I love the blog also. Thanks for the great posts, Mark! Keep up the good work.

  32. Diana

    Not related…. but it would really help me to have the YNAB classes during the weekday. I realize that a lot of the teachers are working jobs and doing the classes at night time, but maybe someone working from home?

    I’m working from home and taking care of a child. Once my hubby gets home in the evening, it’s all family time.

    I can think about money and budgeting much clearer in the am than later in the afternoon. Thanks! I do love this program, the budget reviews and the blog. I’m just getting started and trying to dig myself out of a huge hole.

  33. Jess_Esq

    I just implemented this! DH and I receive our normally salaries and throughout the month he occasionally gets a cash tip from a customer or bonus from his boss. We always input those as income. He also gets monthly bonuses based on the prior month’s sales. Now when I enter income I am going to hashtag it as #bonus, #tip, and #salary so I can go back from time to time to see where/how/when the extra money is coming from.

  34. Melissa

    My “Travel/Vacation” budget is extremely large because I travel a lot. Everything for Costa Rica (just got back), Toronto, SLC, LA, Boston, NYC, London, and Austin (through end of January) is sitting in my vacation category. However, having #costarica2013 lets me easily search to see how much money I spent one a SPECIFIC vacation within that balance. Then the next time I am heading to a similar location, or even the same location, I have an idea of how much I need to budget towards that trip. Its easier than having Travel: Costa Rica, Travel: Toronto. That being said, my travel is personal or “Soccer” related, so I may break down travel into those two specific categories, now that I am thinking about it…

  35. nondeclination

    It would be great to have some kind of autocomplete for these hashtags when searching for them. Either that or implement actual tags

  36. Rasta

    Not being a Twitter or Facebook person, does the hashtag actually DO anything or mean anything to the program or is it just an online convention? Does YNAB know the difference between a memo of “#Greeley2013″ and a memo of “Greeley2013″ ?

  37. saveourskills

    idk guys… i love the idea of using hash tags.. but the use case here doesn’t work for me. I find it to be more mushy to not save up and then spend from a vacation budget.

    BUT not to poop on the point.. using hash tags definitely seems useful. Just have to come up with a use case that makes sense for me.

  38. Joel Friedrick

    Ok, I originally thought this was stupid. But I just found my use case. My wife and I (mostly her) just had a kid. We had all sorts of expenses from all different kinds of places, OBGYN, hospital, pharmacy, neurologist (epidural), etc, etc. So we wanted to find out how much we actually paid for our son, and then I remembered this post. I went through and tagged the expenses (wish I would have done it from the start) and finally got our sticker shock, awesome!

    Yeah, using #[something] is still the same as [something], but using a # or any other symbol allows us to easily identify a tag that belongs to a group, vs just some stray word in the Memo.

    Anyway, looking forward to using this from now on!

  39. Kathy

    First off – I like the idea of using the hashtag to help categorize items within a larger category. I could see this as useful for a Gifts category to group Christmas gifts from other occasions during the year.

    But I really find the following comment more than odd: “My #greeley2013 hashtag let me keep all the expenses in their proper category instead of lumping them all into a “vacation” category, which would be way too mushy for me.”

    Seems to me that categorizing clearly vacation-type expenses into an “everyday expenses” category is incredibly mushy, if not downright misleading. If these expenses had been categorized into a vacation category, then you wouldn’t have needed a hashtag — you could just look at that month’s expenses and instantly known what you spent.

    • meganne

      Here’s where I disagree with that – let’s say that you went on a two-week vacation last month (like I wish I could have – can winter be over yet, please? Sorry, back to the topic at hand). You categorize all of your spending under the main Vacation category, which is where you saved up the money for said trip. You get home, resume everyday life and everyday budgeting. This month rolls around, and you look at last month’s budget. Wow! You spent SOOO little on groceries last month! Gas was less than half of what you usually spend!! And you were really good about avoiding luxuries like going out to eat, too… great month.

      Oh, wait. You spent didn’t spend less on groceries than usual, and about the usual amount on fuel (only used one vehicle for two weeks, but more driving), and even with spending on groceries while on vacation, still went out to eat plenty. So not using your regular categories makes those categories look “wrong” when you look at the whole month – hence it’s mushy. At least that’s how *I* feel about it.

      To me, the right way to do it (that is, the way we choose to do it) is to use a general Vacation category to budget way ahead for the trip – we’re going home for a visit in June, so I would start budgeting money to that category now. By the time the trip rolls around, I should have my $900 saved up for it… then when we’re preparing for the actual trip, I can break it down. Okay, the priceline on the hotel was $260, that stays in Vacation. Gas price is $3.08/gallon? Okay, I can budget a closer amount now than I could have 4 months before the trip anyway – move that amount into the Gas category. We usually need about $70 in groceries there, and spend around $300 going out to eat, so move those into their categories. That leaves us with about $200, mostly for entertainment while we’re there, so move $150 to Entertainment, leave $50 in Vacation to cover anything that looks like we might want to choose to increase while we’re there – I like to leave some leeway in vacation budgeting.

      I have also been known to budget everything to the Vacation category DURING the vacation, making sure to include enough info that I can break it out later, then afterwards when I get home, I can pull up all my Vacation transactions and recategorize them then. I just keep track – if I move 3 $60 fuel purchases to Gas, then I go into the budget and move $180 from Vacation to Gas.

      Either way, at the end of the day, I want to end the month knowing how much I spent to feed my family that month – regardless of where my family was.

  40. Seposm

    I love this idea for another purpose. I have been looking for a way to see how much I spend on each kid (we have 8) in categories like clothing, activities, school expenses etc…

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