You Need A Budget (YNAB) Budget Template System

Creator/Producer:   Jesse Mecham
Date Tested/Version:   January, 2006 // Version 2.0
Website:    You Need A
Price:   $19.95
See Also: YNAB 3 Review

NOTE: The spreadsheet version of YNAB is no longer available.

As of 2012, the new standard is YNAB 4, the latest, fully-standalone software version of YNAB. Please take a look at my YNAB 4 review for more info.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. And the guy behind the You Need a Budget (YNAB) spreadsheet, Jesse Mecham, has given us a mighty impressive invention.

Way back in 2003, Mecham and his wife Julie were recently-married students in Utah. Jesse began working on an Excel spreadsheet to help him get their finances under control. While enrolled in the Masters of Accountancy program at BYU, Jesse took what was initially a simple "expense recorder" spreadsheet and gave it bigtime functionality and customization capabilities. The goal?

Allow others to implement "the power of a great spreadsheet" into their own financial lives.

At first glance, the main "You Need a Budget" workbook for version 2.0 looks extensive. It relies upon three (out of a total of four) worksheets to do the brunt of its financial dirty work. There's a 10-page Setup Guide (.pdf) that takes you through the YNAB process step-by-step.

But you know what? Everything in version 2.0 is pretty intuitive — and that is where the strength of YNAB resides. Sure, you'll get to specify your household-specific information, such as custom spending categories, but you'll be surprised how much of this "customization" stuff is ready-to-go right at download.

All the You Need a Budget worksheets are professional in appearance, efficient in design (we Excel dorks love efficient design, you know), and aesthetically pleasing. Worksheet pages include helpful instructions and notes. It's a tribute that none of these interfere in the slightest with the number-crunching areas on the page. (That's a pet peeve of mine: spreadsheets with notes splashed all over their worksheets, rather than simply grouped together!)

Where many complex spreadsheets about with macros — they're typically used to automate some of the more mundane or expected tasks — YNAB has none. What's that mean to you? It means YNAB will work with pretty much any of the common spreadsheeting programs created in the last 10 years. Appearance-wise, colors and schemes are used effectively, but not overdone.

The Setup Guide, as mentioned above, is quite well-written. No, check that. It's really good. It contains helpful screenshots, and Jesse is right there, clearly detailing how to get the spreadsheet up and running and tailored to your situation. (None of that "throw a spreadsheet at your user and let her flail around until she figures it out" stuff here.)

As far as spreadsheet mechanics, YNAB's foundation is a simple one, and rather unique: Your expenses this month must conform to your income from the previous month. The reasoning for this? Rock-solid planning. No longer can you offer the middle-of-the-month excuse, "How can I budget for this month — or any month — when I don't even know how much I'll be making?" Or the always popular: "I'm self-employed, and my income just fluctuates too much from month to month for me to budget!"

Those excuses won't fly any longer. What you earned in January, for example, is what the spreadsheet makes available for you to spend in February. It stands to reason, then, that following the YNAB system pretty much requires that you have one month's income saved in your main checking and/or savings account. But never fear: If you don't yet have this level of security in your financial world, YNAB includes a separate workbook — the "Primer" — to help you elevate to this point quickly.

There are several aspects of the YNAB system which I adore. If you are familiar with and/or a user of Freedom Accounts, then YNAB might just fit your budgeting needs perfectly. Thanks to the cumulative manner in which spending categories are budgeted and expensed, from month to month, your Freedom Account deposits and balances integrate seamlessly into your budgeting. (Essentially, each spending category is treated as its own spending/savings account. And you don't have to do anything more than tell YNAB how much you wish to set aside for each Freedom Account expense each month.)

But YNAB isn't all about its fiendishly good number-crunching spreadsheets. It's accompanied by the website, which is clean, well-organized, and helpful. Potential buyers and other interested parties can find a healthy batch of YNAB spreadsheet screenshots. And even if the spreadsheet isn't your thing, the YNAB site is also crammed full of some great articles on budgeting, overall spreadsheet usage, and personal finance in general.

Version 2.0 of You Need a Budget (YNAB) is easily the most impressive budgeting spreadsheet I have yet seen. (I'm not kidding. My spending plans and other Excel spreadsheets are sickly compared to this!) It might not (probably won't, or shouldn't) entirely supplant Quicken or MS Money if you're a satisfied user of either of those two programs. But YNAB is an astounding performer in the lone task where Quicken and MS Money have, to this point, been lackluster:

YNAB gets a blue ribbon for pinpoint, strategic budgeting via Excel spreadsheet.

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Ratings are on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the top ranking.
Is it worth the money?
Could this work for me over time?
Is its usage intuitive?
Is it professional in appearance and function?
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