Interview with Jesse Mecham, Creator of YNAB Budgeting Software

Related Website(s):YouNeedABudget.com
Interview Date:Dec. 10, 2006

There are huge throngs of people out there who need to get a serious grip on their money. And Jesse Mecham has just the thing to help them build the stability their financial lives need.

What they need, Jesse says, is a budget. And I tend to agree with him. The problem, of course, is this: Mention the word budget to friends and neighbors, and they will vanish. They'll cast a quick glance at their watches, take a sharp breath, mutter something about needing to do some volunteer work at the orphanage ... and then they'll run screaming.

Call him crazy, but Jesse is doing his best to change all that. His You Need a Budget (YNAB) spreadsheet system (actually, it's now available as a standalone program, as well as a set of Excel spreadsheets) has earned legions of users who wouldn't be caught dead without it. David Bach might tell the world that "budgeting doesn't work," but Jesse, I, and all those YNABers know the truth:

If you want to get right with your money, then You Need a Budget.

The YNAB Way: Jesse Mecham, Creator, You Need A Budget System

Cool software isn't the only thing behind YNAB (and it is cool). The website that Jesse built to accompany YNAB is a tremendous resource for the cash- and time-strapped among us. There's lots to read and learn, and you can keep up with the latest info at his YNAB blog and YNAB forums.

So what kind of guy would go to all this work just to spread the Budgeting Gospel? Well, a guy like Jesse. Obviously.

And there aren't many like him, as you're about to see.

Jesse, take us back to the birth of YNAB as a marketable product. Other than a simple desire for some sideline income (especially with a baby on the way), what got you working on the idea? What got you going on the software and website? Do you enjoy the hands-on, creative aspect of your entrepreneurship?

We had been using YNAB (though it obviously didn't have a name) for a good year and a half — ever since we got married, basically. Things were going well for us despite our piddly income. I would show friends and such, and they all said it was an amazing conglomerate of spreadsheets. That helped me realize that I could maybe sell it. I remember asking Julie if she thought it would sell, and she said no. I still remind her of that.

I've always been a fairly motivated person, so it didn't seem like an insurmountable task to start a website. I love self-teaching. Learning how to make a website and sell something — that much was definitely self-taught.

I went live with it in September of 2004. The original YNAB (so original I didn't even put a version number after it; a wise customer told me I should start at about the third release) was pretty macro-heavy, and the macros didn't work on Macs. (Despite having the same root word. Go figure.) The first sale was to a lady on a Mac, and I had to give her a refund. I still laugh about that. Macs handle YNAB fine now, of course.

The second sale was to a guy named Seth. He found YNAB at 2am and wrote me this long email, telling me how excited he was, how this was just what he was looking for. From that point on, I was hooked. That one experience instilled in me the confidence I needed to keep going.

I do enjoy the creativity that goes into the site, but that's not my forte. Actually, I'm not sure where my forte lies, as I feel a bit like a jack-of-all-trades. I enjoy the writing the most, by far.

When you and your wife were doing the "broke and in college" thing, you were tweaking your spreadsheet system and sharing it with your friends. How did they respond initially? Have any of them stuck with it over the years?

They all responded that it was an amazing system and expressed interest in getting a copy. I'd always provide it, but as far as I know, only one friend is still using it. What I discovered was that if people didn't pay for something, the implementation rate was really pretty low.

Talk about your idea of "living on last month's income." It's central to YNAB, and since there are only about 37 people in our country who have saved up one month's income or more, I'm sure that premise has scared off more than a few customers. What would you tell the folks who say, "No way can I do that!" when they see it?

Well, I should probably mention that the Rules didn't exist when I first started selling YNAB. My first attempt at a pitch was just to walk the potential customer through every single spreadsheet. That's what I did, and it was somewhere between bad and mediocre. During January of 2005 I decided to revamp the pitch. In thinking about what I wanted to do, I ended up realizing that YNAB had four rules.

You're right that Rule One is central, but only because it's so powerful — and great — and wonderful. And many other things. At first I built a tool called the Primer that was specifically there to help people build one month's expenses, and show them I was cognisant of the fact that it was going to be hard (we used wedding money for our buffer, so we had it easy).

I soon realized you could just easily start using YNAB and following Rules 2-4 while you worked toward Rule One. And that's what I tell people now. I discuss it in the setup guide, how to use YNAB without one month's expenses saved.

The other day, I think it was on Thanksgiving, I realized that you really don't need one month's expenses, you just need to make it through the month without touching that month's paychecks. That's an entirely different thing! If you can scrimp and save and just go ballistic for one month, then you'll be there! Or you can use the Delorean and travel through time to the end of the month. Either way works great.

I'm always drawn to the section of your home page where you talk about what YNAB has done for you and your marriage — that "Life just got a whole lot easier!" part. As a guy who's spent a fair amount of time thinking about your money, how you handle it, and the implications of all this, how do you feel when you see people around you struggling with money?

I feel frustrated mainly. I feel that most money struggles are self-inflicted, and there are ways to get around it. I feel like people just don't want to face the music that maybe they don't make as much as they think they do. The thing is, money is so far-reaching. It's a lot more than just money — especially in marriage. Money can divide or unite a marriage. The most powerful part of YNAB (or any effective money management system, though YNAB is by far superior...) is that it maybe can smack you in the face and say, "Hey, You! You can't buy that because gues what? You don't have the money!" Or it can also just let you know that you're wasting money in places that don't really add any value.

I intend to write about this more, but, as Joe Dominguez says all through Your Money or Your Life (thanks for reviewing that, by the way!), you should only buy things that add value to your life. A budget is, in every sense, your money value compass. As Covey talks about in Seven Habits, your To-Do list should reflect what you value. A budget is your money's To-Do list.

Now that you've been at this for a while — for several years, anyway — what about YNAB's success gives you the most pride?

The testimonials page. People email me and tell me their eyes are opened, their marriage is better, their spouse is actually excited about the budget, etc.. Whenever I need some motivation to dig in and get some nitty-gritty work done, I just read the testimonials page for a little while.

Have you ever done "stupid stuff" with your money? Is there anything you've done that you particularly regret?

When I was fourteen I attempted to do one of those new (at the time) Ponzi schemes where you email a bunch of people with your name and address in position five, and people send you $5, and then move you up the list and send it out to everyone ... and so on.

Man, did I have dollar signs in my eyes. I kept envisioning going to the mailbox in the afternoon and pulling out hoards of envelopes, each with $5. I would then go to the ATM and deposit my stash. My parents would wonder how I was becoming so rich.

This was when SPAM wasn't yet called SPAM. And of course I had no idea what a Ponzi scheme was. I spent $90 buying a program that would send out massive amounts of email, and I think I sent $25 to the people on the list. I don't think I told my parents for a while.

What do you feel are the most financially-deadly aspects of our current consumption-driven society? Easy credit? Ridiculous lending terms? That all-pervasive, you-deserve-it-no-matter-what, keep-up-with-the-Joneses mentality?

I think the answer lies in the first sentence. The consumption appetite of people these days is unbelievable. We're blessed to live where we do, but we're not entitled to everything it offers. If people did a thought exercise to figure out what really, truly brought them joy, and then limited themselves to spending money on just that, then they'd find that their "overhead" dropped considerably. Most things that bring us real joy are conveniently free.

In your free Personal Budgeting Program, you mention that "...most personal finance gurus are doing you a huge disservice." Can you elaborate a bit on this?

They don't spend enough time talking about the huge benefits of actively budgeting your money. They all mention it, and some even talk it down, but nobody really says what can really happen to your money when you are actively budgeting your money. It's amazing. In the free course, I talk about how a budget is your foundation. When it is running smoothly, other financial matters can be handled much easier: retirement, college savings, large purchases, debt reduction, and pretty much everything else.

But the gurus don't talk about budgeting. It isn't sexy. It supposedly doesn't sell.

Suppose you have the opportunity to sit down over dinner and talk to any two financial personas for two hours each. Could be Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey, Warren Buffett, Donald Trump, Jean Chatzky, Bill Gates — anyone with a public financial side. Who do you choose, and where would you take them for dinner?

I would want to talk with Dave Ramsey just to pick his brain about marketing and building a business. He and I agree on most things, and we disagree on a few things. But I love his style. I'd also love to talk with Steve Jobs. I think he's a creative genius, and I'd love to soak up some of that. Honestly, though, I don't think I'd take them anywhere. I'd rather just have them over for dinner at our apartment. It's not a big place, but the food is excellent!

Surely your Day Job and your website and software sales keep you super-busy. What the heck do you guys do for fun?

My two-year-old and I love watching BYU football clips on YouTube (we had a great year). Honestly, though, there isn't a lot of time for "fun" in the traditional sense of the word. My real job is extremely demanding of my time, so if I make it home in time to roughhouse for a half hour and send the kids to bed, I'm pretty content. Julie and I love eating out together and having friends over for food and fun.

Oh — and we have a blast budgeting together.

Just kidding.

Well ... sort of.

DISCLAIMER
Purchasing the YNAB software via the links on this site supports IYM with a ~$12 referral fee.

Please know that I appreciate your support (and your taking time to visit my site!) tremendously.