This post is about what happened when a glitch in my budgeting software rendered my budget meaningless, and what I did in the 48 hours that followed.
So last weekend, I signed into my YNAB account to do my regular budgeting activities. In case you are not familiar with YNAB, let me introduce you. YNAB is an online and app-based budgeting software (that I still highly recommend, notwithstanding this story) that has really helped me to gain some control over my money. Basically, you can set up your budget on their website, connect it with your online banking accounts, and it all corresponds with a parallel app on your phone that helps you keep everything up to date. YNAB only works with money you already have, so you start with the amount of money you already have access to, and then you decide how to allocate it to different categories. It’s basically just a virtual envelope system, where you have a variety of envelopes (ex: fun money, phone bill, etc.) and you can only spend the money that exists in each envelope. Once you have the money allocated to your different virtual envelopes, or categories, you go about your life. Then, any time you are thinking of buying something, you look at the YNAB app on your phone to check how much you have in the corresponding category to see it you can afford that item in your budget. Also, any time you buy an item, you enter it right away (I usually do this while still standing near the cash), and the amount is deducted from the total of that envelope or category. If you don’t have the money for something and you buy it anyway, it will show you the amount you have “overspent” by in red, and you have to refill that category from one of your other existing categories. For me personally, this has really helped me with my very basic & rudimentary understanding of money, which, admittedly, was quite lacking. That is, it shows you that if you spend money, it doesn’t just come from nowhere or seem to evaporate (as I would previously have thought), but that you actually must have the money to cover that spending. I have been using this program for around 3 years now, in both it’s previous and current versions. As a side note about YNAB, I don’t use it to do my future budget planning, as this program only works with money you actually already have. I tend to do my future budget planning in a spreadsheet I created in excel, that is separated into “Required Expenses” and “Spending Money”, each of which have a variety of sub-categories. I use this spreadsheet to plan out how I am going to spend my paychecks between 3-6 months in advance. When payday rolls around, I already know where all the money is going, and I just drop the predetermined amounts into YNAB (because at that point, I now really have the money, so the values are ready for YNAB). So far, this is a system that really works for me. It allows me to plan out my spending, and helps me to plan and achieve my goals. It also allows me to determine how long it will take to pay off certain debts, and I am very excited to say that, barring any unforeseen emergencies, I will have paid off the first of my two highest-interest loans by August 9th! August 9th just happens to be the day before my birthday, so needless to say that I am very excited about it. Best birthday present ever!
So anyway, last weekend, I signed into the YNAB website to do my regular activities: Balance my accounts in YNAB with my bank balances, and look at my budget and think about future financial planning (yes, I’m enough of a nerd that I have begun doing this on the weekends). So there I am, minding my own business, when up pops a dialogue-box that says something along the lines of “Check out the new YNAB account import update! It’s going to be so great! You’re not going to have to wait a couple days for your transactions to import anymore! Download now! Or if you don’t, it will just update automatically on July 5th.” The wording was different, but that was the basic gist of the message. So I thought to myself, “faster transaction downloading? That sounds great!”, and I clicked the “Update Now” button, ignoring that little voice in my head saying, “Wait, don’t download the beta, you’re supposed to wait until after they work out the kinks in the beta…remember?” But away I went. So I entered all my information, and once it completed it’s process, I looked at my accounts and realized, “Uh-Oh, that just changed my checking account balance in YNAB by SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS.”
Um…….what?! I think I just sort of sat there in shock at first. I then spent some time telling myself “It’s okay, you have made mistakes before, you must have just made some sort of mistake that you can fix. Everything will be fine!” Meanwhile, the narrator was probably saying “Everything was not fine.” Upon closer examination, I had not made a mistake. As I looked at my hundreds of past transactions in one of my accounts, I realized that a large number of the “outflows” (money spent) had been duplicated as “inflows”(money earned or gained). The result of this was that my bank balance, according to YNAB, had increased by over 6000$, while my real bank balance remained unchanged. This duplication and reversal of hundreds of transactions had also been applied to all the categories they pertained to. So if I had spent 20$ in the category “fun money”, and that transaction had been duplicated by the glitch, then I now had a transaction depositing 20$ back into the category “fun money”. There were also numerous transfers affected, and the overall result of the glitch was a cascading effect throughout my budget and all linked accounts. Basically, everything was obscured, and I no longer had any idea what was going on. I couldn’t tell what I was saving toward what, or what the existing funds were allocated toward. I shot off a couple panicked emails & requests to the YNAB help department, and then realized that because it was Saturday, I was probably going to have to wait until Monday to receive any response. I figured “Well, that should be alright, I’m not really planning on spending any money in the next few days anyway and they will help me fix it on Monday.” I accepted this, closed my computer, and moved on with my day.
So what happened? Well it wasn’t anything too crazy (I didn’t wake up surrounded by gigolos and drugs or anything) but I definitely spent a lot more than I would have if the budget had still been in effect. I was mostly blind to what any of my plans had been, and the only number I now had was my total checking account balance, so as long as I remained within that, I figured that I should be fine. Luckily, because this happened on the 10th, all of my monthly bills had just come out, and I just happened to also have recently paid for a couple larger expenses I had been saving for over the past months. This meant that I also knew I wasn’t going to be spending into my mandatory monthly bills, or going backwards on something important that I had saved for.
Earlier in the week (before this happened) I had allowed myself to buy a couple new clothing items for work, because I hadn’t bought any in 6 months or so, and I don’t have much in the way of office attire because I have never worked in an office like the one I work in now. My previous job was in a hospital, and even though I got to wear civilian clothes, it was in Hawaii, it was more casual than my current workplace, and I mostly just wore giant shapeless outfits to avoid giving my actively psychotic patients a reason to sexualize me. So for all those reasons, I didn’t have a wardrobe for the setting I work in now: In a section of the government composed entirely of high-level and high paid executives. I have read a lot of books on personal finance, and so I have an understanding of how this type of workplace, or certain types of jobs can make you feel like you have to look a certain way in order to play the role. I have also read a lot of personal finance material on how certain occupations, like lawyers or doctors, can feel like they have to live in a certain area, or drive a certain car in order to fulfill the expectations of their role. On the flip side however, I can also see that the way you project yourself has an effect on how people perceive you. If, for example, you show up to work in sweatpants all the time, people are not likely to think of you as someone who could occupy a prominent role (like many management positions). There’s a lot of psychological research out there about how the way you look and the way you present yourself affect what opinions people form of you. I apply my understanding of these concepts every day when I decide what to wear and how I will present myself to the world. Historically, I have mostly thought about this in terms of gender, and where I will place my appearance/presentation on the spectrum between feminine and masculine for a given context. For example, when I interview for a job, and for my first ~3 months of the job, I am likely to dress a little more masculine. For example, I will likely wear my hair up instead of down, I will choose clothing that is on the less-form-fitting side, and I will be conscious of wearing enough makeup, but not too much. This is because research shows that women who present themselves as slightly more masculine (hair up, less makeup) are more likely to be considered to be intelligent/competent than if they had, for example, worn their hair down and had full-makeup on (I may track down this research at a later date, but for now, I will just go with the general details). I also always consider the level of sexuality I am conveying in my clothing, hair, and makeup, and I tailor my appearance to the context I will be in. Wording it this way might make it seem more complex than it really is, but basically I just mean that I am probably choosing a very different outfit for a “hot date” than I am choosing for the office. My hair and makeup are also likely to be quite different across these two contexts. Anyway, this has been causing me to think about how we can present ourselves along the continuum from professional to casual, and what effect this might have on the opportunities we get as a result. Long story short, this line of thinking led me to spend 85.86$ on a couple items for work earlier in the week, before the YNAB glitch.
After the glitch, I knew my funds were already allocated toward financial goals, even if I couldn’t remember what those goals had been. Quite quickly though, it occurred to me that I might never get that information back. Then that little voice in my head started up, saying things like, “Well, now you can just spend that money on whatever you want!” I don’t know if you have ever been on a diet and eaten something off-limits, and then thought, Well I already ate this, I might as well eat a bunch of other stuff too and then just get back on the wagon tomorrow! My experience with losing my budgeting information was a lot like this. I ended up buying a couple more items for work, and when all was done, I had spent another 94.84$ on clothing, in the same week as the previous purchase. This made for a total of 180.70$ on clothes in the span of a couple days. I also ended up spending 62.09$ on groceries, when I already had food. Though groceries may seem fairly benign as a category, I could spend a LOT more money than necessary on them if given the chance. I love Whole Foods, and health-food stores, and I could easily spend all my money on fancy gluten-free cookies, toasted coconut chips, and the like. The weekend came and went, and by the end of Sunday night it occurred to me that I could probably do what YNAB calls a “Fresh Start”. I wasn’t totally sure how this worked, but I tried it, and it ended up clearing all my balances and transactions, but retaining all my budget categories and goals. This was perfect, because it meant I could just re-enter my bank balances as they were now, allocate my existing funds (though I wouldn’t know what categories they had been in before), and then basically just start all over. This worked great, and I was able to pick back up, and carry on. Now that a week has passed, the only damage I seem to have incurred is that I spent 80$ on clothing that I now realize was supposed to be used to pay for a physiotherapy appointment I had this week. This just means I will have to pull from other categories in this pay cycle to cover it. Overall, not a terrible result.
So what do I take away from this experience? One thing I noticed is that spending more freely made me want to keep spending more. New stuff begets more new stuff. I am going to observe this sensation and (hopefully) not act on it, but it’s pretty strong and interesting to watch. It reminds me, again, of the sugar analogy. If you don’t eat sugar for a long time, you sort of start to forget it exists, but as soon as you eat a delicious fluffy cupcake or donut, for the next couple days, all you can think about is sugar. You then have to go through that whole painful detox period all over again, where your brain repeatedly devises ways to have you eat more sugar. My experience with shopping has been a lot like this. I have been finding that since I bought these new outfits, and received compliments at work, my brain keeps thinking about how to buy more, and devising plans to make it happen. It’s not that I can’t occasionally buy some new clothes for myself, but I also don’t want to do it so often that it sabotages my financial goals. I find that this is a constant struggle for me, not just with clothing, but with wanting things in general. I grew up shopping a lot, and always getting a lot of new things, and old habits die hard. I have to monitor myself on an ongoing basis to notice if the things I think I need are really necessary, and also if I am depriving myself too much, because both things happen. This experience also made me think about the way I used to manage (or not manage) money, which was the same way my parents did. Basically the system was: there is no system. You would just get a bunch of money when you got paid, and then you would buy things you wanted until the money was gone, which usually happened well in advance of getting paid again. Then you would struggle with not having enough money, and not being able to buy things you actually needed like food, gas, or bill payments. Honestly, that experience was really stressful the whole time I was growing up, and I remember being so amazed at how calming and safe it felt to use a budget, and to actually have enough money to last until your next paycheck. I’m still amazed that we always lived that way, and that no-one thought “Wow, this is stressful, isn’t there a better way?” Budgeting can be hard to learn, and it can feel limiting at times, but when you start using one, you realize that it’s actually helping you to achieve your goals, and that you probably wouldn’t be able to accomplish the things you hope for without the planning. The bottom line is this: NOT budgeting is WAY more limiting and stressful than budgeting. It is stressful to feel out of control with money, and to continuously wonder why you can’t seem to achieve any of the financial goals you long for. When I first started budgeting (which was about 3 years ago), I would sometimes feel like the budget was controlling / limiting me. However, I also realized that I would never be able to get out of debt, or achieve freedom with money if I didn’t do it. About a year and a half ago, when I was struggling with the budget and with feeling limited again, I wrote the following on a piece of paper, and taped it to my wall above my desk, where I would see it every day:
“The budget is not limiting me, it is the life raft that is going to get me out of this mess.”
I looked at that piece of paper every day for probably a year, and reminding myself of that message has really helped with my motivation. I really feel believe that the budget is a life raft, and as time passes I begin to know it. Now that I am starting to see some small progress and accomplishments, I really see the life-saving power of the budget, and of all the other learning I am doing on the subject of personal finance. While I did do some unexpected spending while my budget was down last week, the whole experience reminded me of why I do any of it in the first place, and I’m very thankful and happy that I do.
Thank you for reading.