If you ask me, taking a break from YNAB while traveling is like deciding not to take your passport. Being in a foreign country is one of the worst times to be ignoring your finances. So why do people do it? Most of the time, it’s because of the complexities of dealing with different currencies.
See, traveling is already pretty stressful. There are flights to catch, ATMs to find, foreign languages to learn, new public transport systems to figure out, and having to do all that when the prices are expressed in a different currencies can be jarring.
“Is 800 dinar for a plate of čevapi a good deal? How about langoś for 640 forint?”
How do you know when you’re overpaying? And how do you know how much you have left in your account when you’re spending in pesos but your accounts are in euros? YNAB budgets require all amounts to be expressed in terms of one currency, but what happens if that doesn’t fit your life?
As a digital nomad, multinational, and YNABer since the early days, I’ve found a few ways that work well while on the (international) road.
Option 1: Have a separate budget for each currency.
I have three budgets in my personal YNAB account, one for each of my main currencies (PHP, EUR, AUD). I use this solution for currencies that I think I need to have a more permanent solution for because I’m going to be using them all the time.
For example, since I am renting out my old home in Australia, that means I still have both income and expenses denominated in AUD, so I prefer to have a separate budget for that. It’s just easier than having to convert everything to another currency.
The more the transactions in one currency, the easier it gets to track in its own budget.
Transferring money across two currencies
Moving money from one currency to another, then, just becomes a matter of entering the two parts of the transaction (inflow and outflow) into separate budgets. In each budget, I have a category called ‘Currency Transfer’. Let’s say I want to send 1000 EUR to an account in my AUD budget. I’ll create the outflow transaction from my EUR account, categorised to the Currency Transfer category. That 1000 EUR has now left my EUR budget.
When it arrives in my AUD account as 1600 AUD (or so), I add it as income into my AUD account and budget it to my AUD budget categories.
When I send money the other way, the process is the same but reversed. I use the Currency Transfer category in the AUD budget, which is then Income arriving into the EUR budget.
I like this method because all the currency fluctuations and charges are simplified. I record what I send, and I record what I receive—each one in the currency I actually received it in.
Option 2: Have one budget and convert purchases to your main currency.
This option involves working within only one budget, which will be denominated in the currency you’re using to fund expenses.
This is great for short-term travel. I use this when I’m traveling and I know I’ll be using a new currency for a month or so, but maybe never again after that.
I’ve been in Belgrade, Serbia for the last month, and their currency is RSD (Serbian dinar). I don’t have any significant assets here, and I don’t have any RSD-denominated bank accounts, so I’m using my EUR accounts to fund my expenses.
When I make a purchase in RSD, I record the original amount in RSD in the Memo field as well as what the purchase was for. For example, I’ll put “1500 RSD dinner at that awesome Serbian restaurant” in the memo. Then, in the outflow amount, I’ll put in an estimate of how much that was in EUR, which is the currency that the card I used is denominated in.
It doesn’t have to be exact (I might put in €15 for instance). That gives me enough of an idea of how much has left my account, even if it’s not completely accurate. This also has the side effect of forcing you to do the conversion in your head to your “main” currency. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get lost in a new currency and not realize how much you’re spending!
Then, when I’m reconciling, I’ll look up how much my bank actually charged me. In this case, let’s say it was €12,75. If it’s marked as “cleared” by my bank (it may take a few days to get out of “pending” status), I’ll mark it as cleared in YNAB and update the final amount. This is where that memo is handy—my banks always show me the original amount in RSD, so I use that to match up transactions because otherwise, it can get confusing.
Option 3: Consider using a third-party service – or writing your own
If keeping track of currencies manually isn’t for you, there’s also a Multi-Currency for YNAB service that YNABer created with our public API that takes care of Option 2 for you—just select what currency you would like an account in and it automatically calculates the conversion.
A few more tips for the road
Always keep account balances in the currency it’s denominated in.
Make sure all accounts in a budget are in the same currency. There’s a very good reason for this: exchange rates! It may be tempting to add your euro account to your US dollar budget, for instance, and simply convert the account balance to US dollars.
However, exchange rates are constantly changing, which makes it quite dangerous. You could get yourself in a position where you think you have enough money but the exchange rates have actually changed sufficiently that you have less than you thought. This could lead to you overdrawing your account—and I may or may not have already accidentally done this a few times before swearing it off.
These days, I am strict about all the money in one budget being in the same currency. Trust me—you’ll maintain your sanity that way.
Reconcile, reconcile, reconcile.
Reconciliation is always a good idea, but it’s especially important when you’re spending in a different currency. The exchange rate that will actually be used will depend on when the shop vendor submits the transaction (in some countries, shops send transactions only weekly rather than in real time) and when your bank clears the transaction. This means it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell how much you’ll actually be charged.
I can spend money like nobody’s business when I’m not careful (this is why I need YNAB), so when I’m spending money in a different currency, I reconcile my most commonly used accounts every day. Yup, every single day. I’ve tried reconciling every week, but daily reconciliation is what I’ve found it takes for me to feel like I’m still in control of my finances. If I don’t look back at my budget every day, I lose track of how much I should be spending, especially if I’m in an awesome new city and want to explore all the things.
Review your bank’s overseas charges.
Another factor that will affect how much you end up paying for a transaction is your bank’s fees. Some banks charge a fee for the privilege of using your card overseas, whether that’s to pay for a purchase at a shop or to withdraw money, and it can be either a flat fee or a percentage of the transaction. When I started traveling, I was shocked to find out that one of my bank accounts charged a AU $5 flat fee for every purchase.
When done correctly, using YNAB while you’re traveling isn’t a chore. If you’re like me, knowing how much I have to spend at any given time is exactly what gives me the courage to explore the world.