How YNAB Helped Me Re-Learn Money

Changing jobs is hard. Along with learning about a new group of people, taking on a new set of tasks and responsibilities, and figuring out where the bathrooms are, you also have to pay extra attention to your money.

Maybe you’re switching from hourly to salary or vice versa. Maybe your income is increasing or decreasing. Maybe the new company has a different pay schedule than the old. Whatever it is, there’s always some kind of transition period for your bank account.

Unprepared For The Variable Income Cycle

And that’s exactly where I was when I discovered YNAB. I had a new job with a significantly higher hourly rate. But I was switching from a steady 40-hour week with a weekly paycheck to a variable-hour work week with a bimonthly paycheck. My first week was 8 hours of work. My second was 20. And to top it all off, because of the date I started and where it fell in the pay period, my first paycheck was only going to cover that 8-hour week. I was extra stressed about budgeting.

Desperately Seeking Flexibility

I actually considered myself a seasoned budgeter. But I’d never had a system that was flexible, that didn’t rely on set amounts for each category staying the same from month to month. And now, after a couple of years of freelancing and bouncing between jobs and projects, I was feeling the strain. Sometimes there wasn’t enough money to fill my rigid budget categories. Other times there was more and I didn’t know what to do with it (so I usually spent it). My credit card balance was rising with no specific plan for paying it off.

Seeing Red As Motivation

When I first sat down to try YNAB, I was very thorough. I set up all my accounts, read through the online guides, and felt like I understood the system. I was quite proud of myself. Then, a day or a week later, I made a purchase on my credit card. As always, I planned to pay for it out of the next paycheck. But to my horror, I suddenly had an ugly, red, negative number in my budget.

That’s when it really hit home for me. The only way this was going to work was if I budgeted for everything I bought. Right now. With what I have. Which card I used didn’t matter.

But First, Panic

I was horrified. My brain didn’t know how to readjust. How would I ever be able to afford that? Weren’t credit cards supposed to be for purchases you couldn’t pay for right now?

But once it really sank in, and I accepted it, it began to make so much sense, “Ohhhh, if you can’t afford to pay it off now, then you simply can’t afford it.” And I was weirdly excited about it. I felt like I finally understood how to manage money properly.

Knowing Is Half The Battle

It just clicked. This was how I could handle that credit card debt that I was ashamed of and didn’t want to talk to my boyfriend about. This was how that mountain of student loan debt might some day become scalable.

And once my thinking changed, I was off to the races. I love planning and I love control. I spend many weekend afternoons or nights setting up my planner for the next week—so managing my money and making progress on my debt became a total (but healthy!) high for me.

In nine months, I paid off all the credit card debt. I’ve paid off two student loans. But most importantly (and most surprisingly, for me), I found a way to pay for things I really wanted for myself—guilt-free.

My Priorities Are My Own

I started taking acting classes in 2015. I was a theater kid in high school, and as I sat at a desk every day for work, I found that I was really missing my former hobby. I put the first class on my credit card to deal with later (this was two months before YNAB), but once I decided to keep taking classes, I made a better plan.

I used the goals feature to figure it out for me. I need X amount by Y date—tell me how much to set aside right now. Last month, a year and a half later, I presented my final scene for my sixth class and my credit card balance is $0.

Money doesn’t have to be the enemy, variable income doesn’t have to be stressful, and lots of fun can be had with a little planning ahead.

In the past few months, my hours at work have been on the low side again. But I haven’t had to worry much about it, because I know how to adjust my spending when I need to, and I have an emergency fund that I’ve been building.

I no longer have a budget tailored to a specific income. I have a budgeting system tailored to me.

And that makes all the difference.


Genie Leslie is a writer and editor living in Seattle. When she’s not nerding out over budgeting or organizing, she loves to read.