The Similarities Between YNAB and College Football

I know a few games have already happened, but for me, college football begins today (4:00 PM MST to be exact). All of this football talk has me thinking of one thing of course: budgeting.

I just finished reading JD’s story on our YNAB forum. He’s 1 1/2 years into using YNAB and he’s done some amazing things. He checked in to report that they’ve fully-funded their emergency fund (so if, heaven forbid, JD were to lose his job, he’d have six months to find a job he wanted, instead of just taking whatever he could get and closing the door to a better opportunity). JD was also amazed that they’re able to concurrently contribute 15% gross to retirement, fund college 529 plans, and pay down the principle on their mortgage fast enough to pay the sucker off 7+ years early.

While YNAB’s focus is purely on the budgeting (you decide what to do with all the extra cash you’ll find lying around), JD used YNAB in hand with Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps. In short, JD found YNAB, then found Dave. I’m hoping eventually Dave finds YNAB of course.

The success of YNAB users has very, very little to do with the software. I know, the software’s fun, and with the most recent update, it’s become even more enjoyable, even invoking a few “SQEEE”s out of people. (I’m told the sound of a SQEE is similar to the sound a teenage girl makes when she sees her boy idol come out on stage).

But again, the software being what it is, the key to success is with the methodology. What it is about the methodology that breeds success such as JD’s? Why don’t we see people using Quicken, or MS Money touting the same amazing results? What is the big difference?

Let’s be brutally honest here, both Quicken and MS Money do mountains more when you compare them to YNAB on a feature by feature basis. Again, it can’t be the software. From a methodology standpoint, Quicken and MS Money both do very well in helping you track your spending, analyze spending habits, even set some budgets (heck, Quicken has a whole financial planner built in there!). Why aren’t people paying down mountains of debt and saving a ton of money when using these programs?

Or, phrased differently, what is it about YNAB that allows people to just go after this stuff and get the job done?

It’s the first Saturday of college football, and I want to share with you the similarities I see between good football (from the coaching perspective) and good budgeting.

(And, before I get into this, I should say as an aside that when we talk about good “budgeting” what we’re really talking about is good reaching-your-financial-goals-and-getting-the-job-done budgeting. Call it whatever you want — I LIKE the word BUDGET.)

Imagine a football coach who focuses solely on the progress of the ball. If he is on offense and it moves forward, he’s happy. If it moves backward, he’s mad and throws his clipboard. The team all huddles around the coach and he gives them their instruction:

“Move the ball forward.”

When they’re on defense, the instruction changes ever so slightly:

“Move the ball backward” or “Try and grab the ball!”

The players would do their best with the instruction given and very little progress toward their vague goal would be made. The coach would be frustrated. The players would be frustrated. And the fans would boo. You would LOSE.

But that’s not how it works at all is it? That’s not how a successful team is run. Quite the opposite actually. (Disclaimer: I’m a football fan — college football specifically — not a coach.)

How many coaches are there on a typical football team? At a high level, there are a TON! You have the head coach, quarterback coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, special teams coach, kicking coach, linemen coach for defense, linebacker coach, safety coach, secondary coach, etc. Each of these coaches are giving very specific instructions to the players under their supervision. Each player knows his job and also knows all of the other players know their jobs. You have a lot of moving parts, moving in concert.

Block here, be strong on this side, fake a pass, hand it off, receivers become blockers further down field, etc. There’s a lot going on during each and every play. Every single player on the field has a specific and important purpose. If each purpose isn’t important, then there’s an inefficiency and the team won’t operate at its highest potential.

All of these moving parts, specific instructions, special exercises, training regimens, techniques, goals, statistics, KPIs… all there just to

“Move the ball forward,”


“move the ball backward.”

In other words, to WIN.

Your success with YNAB stems from the fact that you are acting like all of those different coaches. You’re getting down into the detail of the execution with your money and at that granular level (how granular? Food:Boneless/Skinless Chicken may be a bit overboard) is where you truly make things happen. You may not think it’s important that you’re sitting there thinking about a $50 bill that’s only due once per year ($4.17 per month set aside will get you there) or recording the fact that you just spent $.85 on tolls. You may think that type of detail isn’t necessary.

But that is where you win. When you become the coach that works with a quarterback for days on their foot position, or the coach that implements a flexibility regimen for the punter, or the team physical trainer that makes sure the team’s rotator cuffs are healthy, etc.

Will foot position win a game? Will rotator cuffs win a game? Absolutely not. But in concert, with all of those details worked out and focused toward a common goal…that will win the game. And that’s how YNAB helps you win the money game. You get focused on the execution of the details and the big picture all comes together:

“We have gone from aimlessly living paycheck to paycheck up to our necks in debt to properly managing money and now planning for our family’s future. If I had a five year goal when I first started out [one and a half years ago] this is where I would have hoped to be.” – JD