Where There's YNAB, There's a Way

I love my budget, especially when money’s tight. Here’s why.

You know that feeling when you’ve perfectly adhered to your budget, all month long, and everything seems right in the world? When the bills are paid, and there’s plenty left in your grocery category to last until your next paycheck?

That’s how I felt two Sunday nights ago—on track and getting ahead, bit by bit. It’s not a feeling I take for granted, either. The last few years were tough, with rough times whooshing by at such a velocity that they completely washed away every trace of my financial stability.

I got through it, though, and feel grateful to have just barely kept a roof over my head. Well, my head and my cats’ heads. Will and Lu make up the rest of my household. And that brings me back to my story …

A Not-So-Lazy Sunday

So, there I was, sitting in my living room when I hear a rare, but unmistakable sound: Will was losing his lunch (breakfast, actually). I figured, “Hairballs happen,” and cleaned it up. But then it happened two more times, and then he wasn’t interested in dinner.

Will is never not interested in dinner. That cat sits by his food bowl at 4:45 p.m., daily, chirping to remind me that it’s nearly chow time.

And, then, he started to go limp.

Drive Safely. Don’t Panic. Repeat.

At the emergency animal clinic, the vet explained that Will’s plumbing was blocked. He couldn’t go. It’s a common, but deadly, situation for male cats. We had to act quickly.

In addition to the $80 exam fee, I’d need to pay for his treatment. I was presented with two options: $2,300 for the un-blocking procedure (a catheter), plus a hospital stay, or $600 for just the procedure. I could only swing the latter option, and on my credit card (ugh), but I was so glad I could handle it. In he went!

By 1 a.m., we were home and Will was eating, again. I wish that was the end of the story but, by the next morning, he was limp. Again. This time it was worse. He could barely stand up, and I was beside myself. I rushed him back to the animal clinic.

They examined Will (at no charge because we’d been there less than 24 hours prior) and confirmed that he was blocked, again. He needed another catheter and a pricey hospital stay.

The estimate was over $2,000, and I didn’t have it.

Feeling Low

Sitting on the floor in the exam room with Will cuddled, uncharacteristically, in my lap I logged into my bank to double-check my available credit: $1,900. I was a bit of a mess and sensed that the vet was peeking in through the glass at me.

Desperate, I posted on Facebook: “ … He’s in pain, and we have to do another catheter. And I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay for it. So what then? He’s an otherwise healthy, middle-aged, smart cat. And I love him.”

Then the vet came back into the room. She’d trimmed the bill as much as she could. It was about $1,900—almost exactly what my available credit was. She told me that I could also apply for a medical credit card, but I didn’t expect to be approved.

Options. Options?! Yes, Options.

I told the vet I needed a minute, and looked down at Will. Oh, he looked bad! Then I checked Facebook, again, and two things had happened:

First, a wonderful human, who doesn’t know me nearly well enough to care about my cat, offered to hire me for some freelance writing—a $500 project.

Second, another wonderful human sent me a private message to tell me about another animal hospital. It wasn’t too far, and they offered a $1,900 service, too. It was the same price as the first clinic, but it included four days of hospital care, instead of two. This was a very big deal because, as the vet had explained to me, the longer the catheter remains in place, the better Will’s chances of recovery.

Guess where we ended up? Even better, guess who qualified for a medical credit line (much to her surprise)?

Sweet Relief

Will came back home on Friday, and so far, so good! I’m unbelievably relieved that he can, well, be relieved. And my budget was a huge source of comfort as this all played out.

Now, if you’re thinking, “But, Shannon, you used credit to pay for the procedure. How did your budget help?” I’ll tell you:

1. No (Further) Surprises

I don’t know if words will do this justice, but having a clear understanding of exactly what my finances look like—even though things aren’t pretty—gives me the ability to maneuver, and to do it quickly.

I didn’t have to rule out my checking account as a source of payment for Will’s treatment, and time was of the essence. I knew my budget, and paying cash was not an option. That freed me up to think in terms of credit cards, other people, hospital financing, or whatever. There’s real comfort and power in knowing your capabilities without a lot of mental math.

Mental math is how you accidentally overdraft on your $7.99 Netflix subscription or temporarily forget about your car payment (the kind of slip-ups that are completely understandable when you make in-the-moment decisions and totally avoidable when you keep a budget).

Plus, it’s far more stressful to walk around with only a vague idea of your money problems than it is to face them.

2. Goodish Credit

I’m confident that the primary reason I qualified for a medical credit card is due to my regular, on-time payments to my existing debts. My budget is, 100 percent, the tool that keeps me on top of those payments—in terms of setting aside the money each month, and simply remembering to pay them on time.

It’s also the reason that they’ll all get paid off, as soon as humanly possible. Every month when I get paid, I log into YNAB and follow the method. The act of allocating dollars to my budget categories is the ultimate exercise in focus. I see the debt, and I can taste the freedom I want to have from it, so I trim down as much as I can on things that matter less to me. It’s really great to see those balances owed fall.

3. Recovery

I’m not thrilled to be another $2,600 in the hole after two trips to the animal hospital (watch for my future success story!), but it’s a lot easier to accept because I see the bigger picture. Will is home, and his care is paid for.

I’ll work The Four Rules, and I know they’ll work for me. My budget has some new categories, too: ‘Will’s Bill’ (the debt) and, equally important, ‘Pet Emergencies’ (for when disaster strikes).

The clarity of knowing exactly what I’m on the hook for (including old debts and Will’s bill) helps keep emotional stress about finances from overwhelming me. If you’ve never budgeted before, that might be hard to believe. I challenge you to try it. For me, budgeting when you’re down on your luck is like a good rant. You vent (record transactions), talk it out (reconcile your account and prioritize your expenditures) and then you feel way better (know where you stand).

If things look tight, it’s better to know it. Part-time jobs, a side business and/or a good hustle will help you get through the lean times. And remember, it won’t be this way forever—this is about repair so that you can live a better life! It’s not about punishing yourself.

With time, I’ll be debt-free. For now, I’m free to put my emotional energy into Will’s recovery, where it belongs.