Order Off the Menu


The YNAB full-time team just spent a week together in California and let me tell you: We. Ate. Well.

On our last night in Santa Cruz, we ate at at exceptionally nice restaurant whose name I’ve already forgotten (maybe a teammate will jump in and help me out).

As we got ready to order entrees,I had my eye on two options:

  • Some sort of filet of beef.
  • Blackened lamb with bread pudding and some other fancy sounding stuff (you can tell I’m quite the foodie).

The filet felt like the safe option, but I like a little culinary adventure now and again. I left my meal choice to Sage, our server.

“Sage, I’m trying to decide between the filet and the blackened lamb.”

“The blackened lamb.” It wasn’t a suggestion – he barely looked up from his notepad as I folded my menu and handed it to him.

“Good enough for me.”

“How would you like it cooked?” Sage asked.

“I don’t know. How would I like it cooked?”

“Medium.”

“Medium it is.”

Sage moved on to take Julie’s (Jesse’s wife) order as George (YNAB developer) turned to me and said “You’re a chef’s dream. All week I’ve been nitpicking every meal choice, customizing this and that. When it’s your turn, you ask the server what he/she recommends and then take it straight off the menu.”

George is right – I almost always let the server order for me.

Here’s my logic:

I rarely try a restaurant without reading Yelp reviews beforehand. If the place isn’t well-reviewed, I’m not going to eat there in the first place. In other words, I go in knowing plenty of other people vouch for the quality of food and service.

Whoever came up with the menu items did so with years of experience and experimentation. If the chef thinks mushroom bread pudding (whatever that is) goes well with blackened lamb, it’s likely she/he has tried it with other things and settled on the published pairing.

In decent restaurants, the service staff know what they’re talking about. Sage, in particular, was more than willing to discourage the group from certain menu items while enthusiastically recommending others. He’d obviously eaten the food himself and seen countless patrons react to it before us.

If my goal is an enjoyable meal out, am I likely to outperform hundreds of previous patrons, the chef, and the server? Will I end up with a better experience by customizing my order than I’d have had by simply taking them at their word?

My money is always on experience. During the many delicious meals out last week, my method didn’t fail me (so says my bathroom scale, anyway).

How does this relate to budgeting?

You’re here; you’re using YNAB. You have at least some notion of how your financial life works and how you want it to work. You want a tool that bends to your habits and opinions. That’s great – YNAB flexes easily in spite of its bias toward the 4 Rules.

But here’s what I’d tell you:

Tens of thousands of people have embraced the YNAB way of managing their money and reaped the benefits.

As an experiment, order off the YNAB menu for a while.

Follow our recipe for a while, and see where it takes you:

Hey, I get it. Many people reading this are what we’d call “super users”, meaning you’ve been at this YNAB thing for years, your workflow is nailed down, and your financial life is blissful. That’s perfect. This message is geared toward newish users who are still trying to wrap their heads around the whole budgeting thing and trying to learn the software at the same time.

Another great quote from George’s days as a skydiving instructor:

“You’ve got to learn to do it right before you can learn to do it wrong and get away with it.”

(Yeah, he was talking about packing parachutes.)