The Five Stages of (Budget) Grief

exclamation copy_thumbOkay YNAB friends. Christy here, and I’m about to get deep. Are you ready for this? Turn on your favorite slow jam and pour yourself something dangerous. (Dr.Pepper on the rocks? Oh no you didn’t.)

My recent journey with YNAB has led me down a path of self-reflection. I’ve had to own up to some hard truths about the way I’d been abusing money. This process has forced me to grieve my detached, over-extended spending habits of the past. As I look back on the events that brought me here, I was shocked at how closely they resembled the stages of grief. Like clockwork, I hit every step—and it wasn’t always pretty!


We all have that “fight or flight” instinct that sends an urgent message to our brains in times of trouble, letting us know we need to react—and fast. Right then we choose our response and either we are putting up our dukes and karate chopping our way out of a difficult situation, or we’re hiding behind the couch cushions in the fetal position with our fingers in our ears. When it came to finances, I made myself a very comfortable cushion fort of denial.

When my better half would try to engage me in conversations about our budgetary goals, I would smile and nod and give him my best, “Team Hiniker! Yes! We’ve got this!” but I never fully engaged because I never connected to the situation. My head remained firmly planted in the sand while I left my husband to deal with the reality.


When it became clear that I could no longer hide from the stack of bills brought on by the previous year’s events, my bitter side got the best of me. We had been through one of the most trying times of our lives and I was downright mad that “Life” slapped us with a hefty price tag to match.

It became hard to watch the success of others and not feel the sting of jealousy. I envied those who seemed to “have it easy” and found myself trapped in the hamster wheel of comparison. The anger and resentment I felt for our situation stole my joy and overshadowed the countless blessings we were fortunate enough to receive daily.


This little fella has been my companion for years. As a girl with very few vices (“Don’t drink, don’t smoke—what do you do?”) I found comfort in “treating myself” when the emotions of what I was going through were too hard to face. It was a habit that developed during our 10 year infertility battle. (“If I can’t have a baby, then I should get this sweater.”) Needless to say, the more loss we experienced, the more I shopped away my sadness.

This unhealthy bartering system seeped into other aspects of my life and gave me permission to purchase a false sense of entitlement. When walls were crumbling down around us (literally and figuratively) I deserved some compensation. That was the deal I had made with Life.


Eventually the magnitude of the situation caught up with me. I rode the Ferris wheel of grief and was dropped off on a big black cloud of gloom. I went from blaming the government (Obamacare! State adoption laws!) to landing squarely on….me.

I threw myself a pretty lavish pity party complete with isolation, crying jags, an entire lemon meringue pie and binge watching 90210 reruns. (Another vice, I know. Don’t judge.)  The “sads” lasted longer than I’d like to admit, but looking back it was a necessary step. The cloud always comes before the silver lining…


What is it they say in the Serenity Prayer?

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

There were many things we couldn’t change about our current situation and I had spent far too many precious moments dwelling on them. My husband and I sat at the kitchen table early one morning having a hushed conversation about our finances. It wasn’t unlike the dozens we’d had before except for one thing: I listened, I processed and I made the choice to change.

Enter YNAB. I knew I couldn’t do it alone. Just like most addictions require a regimented program to keep them on track and accountable, I needed the structure of a system that would be forgiving of my past failures and mentor me as I created healthy new habits. I quickly learned that nothing would heal our monetary grief faster than actively streamlining and sticking to a budget. Actions speak louder than worries. YNAB taught me that.

Have you or a loved one experienced one or more stages of budget grief?  How did YNAB help you overcome your emotional and financial woes? Are you still trapped in the grief cycle? (Don’t worry; I’ve got a pie and a DVR full of 90’s reruns with your name on it.)

23 Responses to “The Five Stages of (Budget) Grief”

  1. Denise Canellos

    Oh, I have been there and am just coming out of it myself. Complete with lemon meringue pie and Buffy reruns. I will never judge you! I hadn’t thought of the process in this way, but it is exactly my experience. I’m glad we are not alone in this struggle – thank you for such an honest post.

    • christy

      So nice to meet a fellow YNAB friend who finds comfort in 90’s reruns! :) Thank you for your kind words Denise! It really is wonderful to be a part of the YNAB family. I hope you’ll come back and update me on your journey!

    • fuel

      You could hang with my wife and her Buffy reruns, though she is more of a white cheddar cheese popcorn girl.

  2. Heather

    Don’t be surprised if this is a “rinse and repeat” process, but the cycle gets shorter each time… After 4 years of using YNAB every day, I can re-enter the cycle at Denial on a particular purchase and find my way to Acceptance pretty fast. I tend to hang out in Bargaining a bit longer than I should. :)

    • christy

      Thank you, Heather! I do anticipate revisiting some of my financial crutches from time to time (Bargaining is my biggest downfall, darn it!) and needing to pull myself back up by the bootstraps. I appreciate you sharing your experience with me. It’s comforting to know others have been through similar cycles and come through the other side.

  3. Timothy Wolfe

    Thank you for sharing your story. You said you’d go deep and you really did. Your courage to share a little bit about your personal hardships and how they impacted your finances is nothing short of inspiring. Thank you for the lovely read.

    Wish you and yours all the best!

  4. christy

    You are so kind, Timothy! I’m touched by your sweet words. I admit I was hesitant to be so vulnerable with my experiences, but I’ve been doubly blessed to hear from lovely people like you who have been so encouraging. Thank you so much!

  5. Carrie

    Thank you for sharing. I went through the exact same bargaining thought process: ” I don’t get to have a baby, so I get to be pretty!” Which led to many clothing, make up, and MedSpa purchases. It always helps to hear someone else gets it. It also helps to look at YNAB’s reports, which are brutally honest!

  6. christy

    The “baby waiting game” is no joke, Carrie! You are so right! It can be both physically and emotionally devastating. I became a world class avoider of feelings and indulged in temporary fixes to take my mind off what was “wrong” with me. (As well as some late night therapy sessions with of pints of ice cream. ;) ) I’m sorry to hear you’ve experienced that same roller coaster ride. I wish you success in building your family. Much love to you!

    I’m extremely grateful for the accountability I have through YNAB. I’m much more aware of that personality flaw and I’m able to gut check myself when I have the urge to make emotional purchases. Hooray!

  7. Saskia

    Thanks for the post, Christy. I think my husband and I were in a state of denial for a really, really long time, just going along carrying debt, not planning ahead, and figuring one day things would work out. Fortunately, I found YNAB (through Mr. Money Mustache) and it whipped us into shape fast.

    I feel grateful that we were in a situation that allowed us to pay down debt relatively quickly once we faced reality, so I didn’t have a big anger phase. I definitely catch myself slipping back into bargaining every once in a while, though, and have to constantly watch out for that. It’s probably something that is a lifelong challenge.

    • christy

      Facing reality and finally leaving denial behind is life changing, for sure Saskia! It can be tempting to slip into old habits, but thankfully YNAB is kind of a watchdog on that front as long as we continue to use the Four Steps. :)

      It’s a huge accomplishment to pull yourself out of debt so quickly and make such positive financial progress! Congrats!! The next round of pie is on me! ;)

  8. Ola

    Dear Christy,
    Thank you so much. I am very happy that I am following YNAB on google+, I need to stay motivated to keep up with my budget, and this post was what I needed. Thank you so much! I am thinking of having a reminder sent to my email just to keep me going. This last paycheck, I was careless and did not do my budget and our finances suffered because I over spent, I did not have that constant reminder at the back of mind of how much I had allocated to each category, so I kept bargaining and rationalizing. Now that I’ve had to dip into savings to pay the mortgage, I am feeling pretty bad. So anyway, I am off to update the budget and keep it moving. Thanks so much!

    • christy

      You’ve made my night, Ola! Thank you for being willing to share your current struggles with us. I think slip ups are a part of the process. While it is important for us to get back on track and stay true to the Four Rules, we also need to be forgiving of ourselves and make room to learn and grow from our mistakes. Dwelling on them just sends us back into the cycle of grief. You’ve made the choice to do better and stay on budget going forward. That’s wonderful!! I’m sending you cyber hugs and cheering you on from the sidelines. We can do this! :)

      Please come back and let me know how things progress!

      • Ola

        Dear Christy,
        Last night I finally sat down and updated my expenses (I had about 25+) transactions to update! I managed to get it all entered and I am off by $22 but it could have been worse since I took so long to get everything in. I am so grateful that it’s all done and I am caught up. Now I can look for my errors. Yesterday, it felt good to be able to update my husband on how much money we have left. I scheduled the utility bills for payment and now I know how much we can allocate to regular expenses. It’s nice to have some of my mental clutter taken care of. I am so glad I found this post! Now, I need to go and schedule reminder emails to keep updating! Thank you again.

      • Christy

        I have been there, Ola! It’s such a relief to know exactly what state your finances are in and make a plan of action to get them where you need them to be. Thank you so much for coming back and updating us!! I’m excited for you to continue with YNAB and to reap the benefits of a healthy budget!! Lots of luck to you!

  9. Chris @ Flipping A Dollar

    We are going through move right now and I feel like we’re back where we started. We don’t have internet or any of our things, so my wife and I are just inputting our spending and saying “we’ll figure it out this weekend at Starbucks where we can borrow their internet.”

    Definitely a little denial and bargaining there, but since we are able to buffer and have planned for these expenses (paint, carpet, moving, etc.) using YNAB, I don’t feel as worried as I used to!

  10. christy

    I agree Chris! One of the wonderful things about YNAB is that it gives you a strong foundation and creates healthy habits that will carry you through those unpredictable times when you cant be as regimented as you like.

    Moving can be so stressful! I wish you and your wife lots of luck and speedy Wi-Fi in the meantime! :)

  11. Eric

    Are you a mind reader? I LOVE Dr. Pepper. It’s my favorite drink lol. Really!

    As far as the budget goes, I really haven’t had this problem. I actually get excited with budgeting and like knowing that we have control of our situation. Plus, I really don’t buy much. I do smoke (cigarettes). I do drink (appropriately on weekends). I might buy a book here or there or some little thing I may want but over all, it’s not too bad really.

    One thing we are doing is working on saving up that buffer so we can live on last month’s income.

    The plan is:

    1. Give every category money (even just a dollar, at least)
    2. Build up buffer
    3. Save money for emergency
    4. Save one month’s income, then three, then six, then a year
    5. Pay off all debt
    6. Live IT UP!

    A few of those may not go in the order listed but that’s the over all plan. It may take a while, things could change, but at least I know what I want and where I’d like to go financially.

  12. christy

    Anyone who loves The Pepper is friend of mine! :)

    I love your plan and your dedication to a successful financial future! My hubby is more like you and gets giddy every time he opens up YNAB on the computer. It’s pretty cute, really. :)

  13. fuel

    I liked this post. The serenity prayer made me in want of a 12-step YNAB post. I say this because the wife and I fell off the budget wagon this week. Don’t worry we got back on before we caused to much damage to budget. More of a went a little crazy at happy hour versus a weekend of reckless binge purchasing.

    • Christy

      I think many of us have had those moments (weeks….years…) where we’ve gone off the rails a bit with our budget. Hey- admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? ;) You’ve already addressed the overspending and are getting yourself on track. That’s something you should be proud of!

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