Christian productivity is a matter of efficiently and effectively stewarding all that the Lord has given us charge over for the sake of His glory. The eager servant is always searching out ways to better serve his Master. We have talked about how Jonathan Edwards advised believers in regards to time stewardship, but when we say the word “stewardship,” the first resource that normally comes to mind is money. And that brings up the dirty word “budgeting.”
But how do we best steward the dollars and cents the Lord has given us charge over? Every paycheck presents the believer with a question, “How will I use this money?” Of course there are many areas to which a Christian must give fiscal attention, providing for one’s family (1 Timothy 5:8), taxes and bills (Romans 13:7–8), and supporting the work of Christ’s church in our local assemblies and around the world (2 Corinthians 9:7; Luke 16:9). And in every one of those areas, there are dozens of other tiny decisions, “how much will I spend on groceries?” “Should I set aside a college fund for my children?” “What should I spend on luxuries like personal entertainment or going out?”
How you answer those specific questions is between you and the Lord. But for an excellent treatment on the subject of the Christian and money I recommend this series by John MacArthur. And for a biblical approach to Christian giving check out the book The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn.
You need a plan for stewardship, and you need more than just a plan, you need a way to manage that plan. You need a budget. Which is why I want to introduce you to a budgeting tool which I have been using for the past 6 years. And uncreatively enough, It’s actually called You Need a Budget. I want to walk through what makes YNAB different from other budgeting methods or software and why I think Christians would be well served by this tool in their financial stewardship.
A Different Kind of Budgeting
The problem I have always had with traditional budgeting was what to do when I went over on a line item. It was the same old story, things would be going great, I’d be staying on track with my budget for a few months, then I’d have one emergency expense or moment of weakness (new iPhone) that would blow the budget to bits. The budget was mangled and there was nothing to do about it. So, I would just give up. “I’ll try budgeting again next year.”
What makes YNAB different from traditional budgeting is that it’s built around YNAB’s “Four Rules.” These principles are really simple and, for me, resulted in a paradigm shift in how I thought about budgeting.
Rule 1: Every Dollar Gets a Job
Rule one states that every dollar gets a job. It means you treat your income kind of like an envelope system with cash. If you’re not familiar with an envelope system, it involves getting separate envelopes for every category, one marked “groceries”, one marked “tithe”, etc., and placing the exact amount of cash you want to spend on those things for the month in its respective envelope. Then, when it’s gone it’s gone.
For us, an envelope system was needlessly cumbersome. We’ve never had an issue with credit card debt and we love points and convenience. So, it was cool to find how YNAB’s software and rule one overcomes the cash-based envelope and digitizes the same process with additional flexibility.
Here’s how it works: Whenever you get money, you look at your priorities and sort every single dollar into a category. Water bills, car insurance, rent, savings—it all gets assigned the right amount of money. No dollar is left behind. Our family sets aside a certain amount for groceries each month, so before we walk into the grocery store instead of checking our checking account balance, which tells us nothing about how much we actually have left allocated to groceries, we check the YNAB app to see how much remains in the groceries category. That way we never accidentally spend dollars that are reserved for another job, and we don’t have to rifle through dozens of envelopes of cash at the checkout counter like drug dealers.
Rule 2: Embrace Your True Expenses
But what about long-term expenses? Early on in our marriage Christmas travel and gifts killed our budget every December, leaving us bitter, cold, and bereft of holiday cheer/cash. Then we would have to spend January and February recovering from our poorly planned Christmas spirit.
This is where rule 2 comes in, embrace your true expenses. When you know big expenses are coming, like Christmas, you simply set aside a little each month in that category. So, when the big day arrives, you’re ready. Say you spend $500 on Christmas presents for all your kids, nieces, and nephews, well just set aside $42 a month. Then, when December rolls around, it’s no biggy. And you don’t start the new year with a financial hangover.
Rule 3: Roll With the Punches
Now, you’re thinking, “yeah if only I was actually able to predict what my bills would be every month.” If you’ve ever had a car breakdown, you know the limits of traditional budgeting. Spreadsheets get blown to pieces when an unexpected expense blindsides you.
Rule three is all about rolling with the punches. When you overspend in a category, by a surprise expense, poor planning, or a moment of weakness, you simply move money from one category to another to cover that expense. So, if you overspend on restaurants, that means that money has to come from somewhere, but YNAB makes it easy by letting you move an extra $20 out of your vacation fund. So, you’re good to go no matter what happens. But you also want to be working towards being ready for the unexpected.
Rule 4: Age Your Money
Finally, rule four is “Age your money.” The idea here is about getting ahead of living month-to-month. You are trying to reach the point where you are allocating the income you made this month for the expenses and plans of the following month. You are planning for the future instead of just scraping by. This type of long-term thinking also frees you up to make plans on how you can serve others with the money you are stewarding.
We have a category in our budget called “gifts” which we put a little money into each month so that we can buy meals for church members in need, or get something nice for a friend or family member. And we can buy these things with a clean conscience, not fearing that we just blindly spent money that should have gone to another obligation. There’s a great sense of freedom in being able to be both generous and responsible at the same time.
Automation Where You Need It, Not Where You Don’t
We all want things to be more automated, to be easier and more convenient. But there is no such thing as completely hands-off budgeting. There is, however, no reason to do everything by hand. I like YNAB for budgeting because it strikes the right balance between automation and manual control.
On the extreme side of manual control is a traditional Excel spreadsheet. In this method, you have to input all of your transactions manually and run your own calculations. If you miss something, it can throw off the whole budget. And moving money around when things change can be a real drag. An Excel budget gives you a lot of control, but it is in exchange for a time investment. Because of this, many have opted for more automated budget solutions.
On the extreme end of automation sits services like Mint. It’s just so easy. The system auto-categorizes your purchases for you so you can see where your money is going. I think of Mint as more of a spending tracker than a budget planner. It’s just too easy to set it and forget it. It doesn’t really empower you to be proactive in the same way YNAB does.
YNAB strikes the right balance between automated and manual. It’s just the right level of hands-on to keep you aware of how you are spending, but it doesn’t waste your time with tedium. YNAB can automatically import transactions from your bank but doesn’t let you get away with not keeping up with how you categorize them. Throughout the week, you need to continually categorize and approve new purchases as they come in. This is super easy using their phone app. The effect is that you always have a thumb on the pulse of exactly where your money is going. That sounds kind of annoying, but what’s weird is for some sick reason I’ve actually started to enjoy categorizing my transactions throughout the week. Something about seeing the budget actually working is really satisfying.
YNAB is a software as service with a web interface and both iOS and Android apps. It costs $6.99 per month. If you think you can’t afford that, I would pull a classic salesman technique and ask if you can afford not to pay that! YNAB’s website points out that “on average, new budgeters save $600 by month two and more than $6,000 the first year!” I don’t know if that will be true for you, but I know that our monthly expenses have dropped dramatically since starting with YNAB, and there is a peace of mind in knowing that I am responsibly stewarding God’s money with a plan. And this has enabled us to experience the blessing of 2 Corinthians 9:7, knowing we have carefully considered our giving in wisdom and joy.
As a Christian, you have a responsibility to steward God’s money with wisdom. You can’t do that by crossing your fingers. It requires deliberate planning and action. If this is an area you would like to improve in, the first step is to make a budget. So, try taking advantage of a tool like YNAB.
You can try You Need a Budget free for 34 days. And if you like it and subscribe to You Need a Budget using this link, you get an additional month free.
Full disclosure: That link also gets me a free month of YNAB. So, win-win. But don’t do it just for me.Try YNAB for Free
What do you think?
Any fellow YNABers out there? How do you budget? Let me know in the comments.