The Five-Minute Budget Routine

Why and How Routine Can Transform Your Budgeting

I always think that I won’t like routine.

Don’t hold me back, Routine! Stop trying to tie me down, Routine! I’m sorry, Routine, I just want to keep my options open, OK?

But it never takes too long before I come crawling back…. Routine, I’m sorry—I’ll never stray again! You complete me! I need you in my life! Take me back!

We need routine. It frees up brainpower, it lets us go on autopilot. Routine allows us to be more productive, more organized, and more centered. With routine, we get the space and freedom that we craved all along.

The Start of the Budget Routine

I’ve been using YNAB for ten years and through three different versions. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I applied this hard-earned wisdom to budgeting. Here’s what it looked like before and after:

Before/No Routine: Late nights catching up on old transactions and printing out my bank statement to do the dreaded reconciliation = BAD.

After/Routine: Less than five minutes a day, no need to dread a ginormous catch-up = GOOD.

It was a radical transformation once I settled into my budgeting routine. I saved time, saved stress, and felt like I was more in control than ever.

Here’s how I did it (and still do it):

Daily (Five Minutes or Less)

  • Every morning (okay, almost every morning) I open the YNAB app and my bank to compare balances and add any missing transactions. Usually I do this while brushing my teeth (really!), but a couple of times a week I make it official and reconcile on my computer instead.
  • I also check the budget for red or orange and move money and make adjustments if necessary.
  • During the day, I enter purchases on my phone as I make them. Usually. ?

Once a Week (About Ten Minutes)

For me, this once-a-week check usually happens on Sunday while I plan my week. I’m sitting on my laptop doing it while I watch TV with my family. Here’s what I do:

  • Reconcile accounts: If I haven’t actually fired up my computer all week, this is when I open it up and reconcile. Did I mention reconciliation is super-important?
  • Match credit card balance: I visually match the Credit Card Payment category and the account balance to make sure that I’m still a paid-in-full credit card user
  • Clear out transactions: I look at All Accounts and sort by cleared—I investigate any uncleared transactions that are older than a few days. Do I need to deposit any outstanding checks? Are they duplicates that need to be deleted?

Once a Month (About 20 Minutes)

I have a calendar item that repeats monthly on my calendar app to do this monthly check. I’ll start thinking about it naturally toward the end of the month when I’m wondering what I can buy next month. It often gets shuffled around to fall on the weekend before the month rolls over or when I get paid, but sometimes I get behind and it waits until a few days into the month. Here’s what I do:

  • Check my Next Month’s Money Category: We got a month ahead with our money, and I use a holding category in the current month that houses all money earned that month. I do a quick check against my checking account to make sure all the paychecks that month are accounted for.
  • Budget the money for next month: My favorite day of the budgeting month! I move the Next Month’s Money category to the Ready to Assign, click forward to next month, and then budget all of next month. I use the Auto Assign buttons with some manual adjustments to fund my targets, keeping in mind any special events or purchases I’m planning next month.
budget routine YNAB
  • Tracking Accounts: I reconcile investment accounts to the current balance and check out my Net Worth report. Usually I’m trying to meet an annual Net Worth goal, so this is when I celebrate progress toward that goal!
  • Then just lather, rinse, and repeat!

Making Your Budget Routine Stick

It’s worth mentioning, that part of the reason I’m able to budget so quickly is that, over the years using YNAB, I’ve simplified my accounts and aged my money.

Simplifying means having fewer accounts—which means reconciliation goes much faster. I never have extra transfer transactions to worry about, and my daily routine takes less than 5 minutes.

Aging your money means that all your income this month just sits around until the end of the month (or even longer!) so you can budget only once a month. It took me awhile to get there—but, boy was it ever worth it!

The biggest hurdle is making the routine…well…routine. To help a shiny new habit like this stick, set an alarm for the daily check and calendar events for the weekly and monthly checks. 

Before long you’ll be doing your budget routine with your eyes closed. Well, wait, no, we wouldn’t recommend the eyes closed piece. Keep your eyes open for that one. Happy budgeting!

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This post was originally published in June 2017. It’s been given a sparkly makeover to reflect some updates we’ve made to the software between then and now.