Gaining momentum in the budget can take time

Jessiebird here.

Some people start using YNAB and find that it immediately changes their relationship with money. Within days they’ve paid off a credit card and started saving for their next vacation. Thanks, YNAB!

But not everyone finds that kind of instant success.

If you’ve been using YNAB a few months but read the words “Gain Total Control of Your Money” on the YNAB home page and wonder when — or if — that’s going to happen, this post is for you.

It can be tough to get traction when you start budgeting. Before YNAB, you paid for things — however frantically — as they came up. Now you’re faced with the triple whammy of trying to (1) pay (or get caught up on) your regular bills, (2) save for the future and (3) deal with the immediate unexpected or infrequent expenses you haven’t had time to budget for yet.

In the past, you drained your bank account any time a major expense hit. With YNAB, you see that there is a better way. But it can take a while to get there.

Starting out, you dutifully set up not only regular monthly bill categories but also those for car repairs, vet expenses, Christmas, annual fees, deductibles, etc., although they might be lean, or even empty, for now. That’s OK. However, highly scientific studies show that something will invariably break during your first month of using YNAB. Can your budget handle it?

Maybe not yet.

Say your washing machine stops draining and it costs you $150 to fix. Pre-YNAB, if you had more than $150 in the bank, you’d curse Whirlpool, write a check, and be thrilled if you made it to the 31st without overdrafting. To break that cycle, you have to accumulate money in your repair category. But how can you do that when things keep breaking?

Hang in there.

Even if you can only put a little bit in your repair and other non-bill categories each month, over time it will help. Every dollar you can budget is a dollar that doesn’t have to get pulled from other categories when something comes up.

Fast toward two months. One morning you get in the car and your “check engine” light comes on. This repair also costs $150. In two months, however, you’ve managed to put $80 in your car repair category. It’s not enough, but this time around you only have to scramble for $70, which means less raiding of categories and more equilibrium in the budget. You’re gaining momentum.

One day — possibly months from now — when your muffler falls off, you’ll look at your car repair category and find that you have more than enough to get the muffler fixed. For the first time, the bill will have no impact on the rest of your budget. Hallelujah.

How soon you reach that point will depend on your income, your expenses and, sorry to say, sheer luck. But eventually, it will happen: You will gain total control of your money.

It’s worth the wait.