How we organize our personal finances is a symptom of our true values.
The Bible says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Words written thousands of years ago point to this truth—money is a thermometer gauging our heart’s temperature.
Taking a strategic approach to managing money is a crucial component to values-driven productivity. When strategy and discipline don’t exist, we end up in a perpetual reactive state and find ourselves being unproductive in what we claim to care about. The world ends up defining our values for us.
When we proactively execute a plan with a clear vision, however, we make progress toward displaying and achieving true value.
This post is going to be extensive as I share how my family practically executes a personal financial plan. In some ways, though, it’s not extensive enough. Personal finance is an expansive topic. What I hope you take away from this more than anything is a desire—with some actionable ideas—to have a plan for stewarding resources in a way that aligns with your values.
This is by no means the only way to manage resources, and we don’t claim to be perfect. Many financial experts might even disagree with some of the following practices, and that’s okay. This is simply our shot at being intentional with the things we’ve been given.
What we value
We live by three guiding values.
- None of this is ours. Our money has been entrusted to us by God, and it should be managed accordingly.
- Avoid consumer debt. Debt on things other than what produces an income (businesses, real estate, etc.) should be avoided and/or eliminated as quickly as possible.
- We will be on the same page. In our marriage, we’ve never had a significant conflict about money because we’ve taken a proactive approach to personal finances from the beginning. We went through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University before we got married. We don’t subscribe to everything Dave Ramsey says, but this class got our marriage kicked off on the right foot and unified us around our money strategy. And, if you're struggling with credit card debt, Dave has amazing resources to help you get out of the pit.
The important tools we use
We only use Mint to get a snapshot of our financial picture. We don’t use it for our budget. All of that power goes to…
I am a YNAB evangelist and believe it’s the most powerful tool in personal finance. YNAB stands for You Need A Budget and is an incredible budgeting tool.
This is our foundation. If you get nothing else from this post, get this: YNAB will change your life (if you commit and use it consistently).
Personal finance isn't just about making a plan. It's mostly about sticking to it. YNAB makes both the planning and execution much, much easier. During our first year of marriage, we were on the envelope system. This meant my wife and I carried cash around in coupon books and—when it was gone, it was gone. It helped us learn the discipline of living with a budget. We adopted YNAB because it’s essentially a digital envelope system.
Here’s the premise of YNAB: Too often, many of us live financially according to the sum of our checking accounts and savings accounts. If there’s money in there, go ahead and make a purchase. This is incorrect because it’s impossible to account for all the expenses in our life this way.
YNAB tells you to stop looking at your checking, savings, and credit card accounts and do something different. Instead, with YNAB, you allocate every single dollar you have into YNAB categories. These categories reflect your priorities. Instead of looking at your account totals, you only spend according to your categories.
Every time you make a purchase, you manually log your expense into a category from your phone. But isn’t that incredibly inefficient? Kind of, and that’s the point. By inputting your expenses as you go, you check to make sure you have the money in your categories before you spend it—and you become much more aware of just how much your Starbucks habit is costing you. (If you do forget to log an expense, though, YNAB gives you grace and allows you to import them from your bank).
YNAB asks you to put your values into categories, fund those values with money in your various accounts, and then spend from those categories on things that matter to you. Budgets often can invoke feelings of rigidity. But what we’ve found is just the opposite—they provide freedom.
YNAB only works if you follow their four rules:
- Give every dollar a job. Every single dollar and cent under your care must be put in a category or “To Be Budgeted.”
- Embrace your true expenses. Consider every expense incurred throughout the year and plan for them by stashing away monthly contributions toward those expenses.
- Roll with the punches. If you blow the budget one day, don’t freak out. Simply move money from another category to the category you overspent to cover the mess.
- Age your money. Work toward spending last month’s income (or older!).
Monthly budget meetings
Before each month begins, my wife and I get together and budget for the next month in YNAB. When we do this, we’re budgeting the last month’s income to be spent the next month.
Early on, we saved enough to not spend any money we earn in a month until the next month. In YNAB, this money just sits in the “To Be Budgeted” amount until we allocate it to categories at the start of each month.
I absolutely love this stuff, so I usually get the budget set up—allocating the money into the categories before the meeting. We have a default template we start from, but depending on what’s going on the next month, we’ll move money around in the categories. We’ve worked to make these meetings a dialogue, and both of us usually make suggestions for how the budget might look different.
We’ll go through each category and agree together on the amount. As Christians, we sometimes pray for conviction about whether we should do something different with the money that month.
At first, these meetings took a while. Now, they take about ten minutes. Implementing this monthly practice has been a driving factor for why we hardly ever have conflict about money in our marriage.
What our budget currently looks like
Here are the categories we currently have in YNAB. They’re destined to change as priorities change, but here’s what’s in there today.
We do all of our regular giving through National Christian Foundation. We allocate a certain percentage of our income to this category, and NCF distributes our giving to the organizations and people we support. NCF has a monthly fee to host your donor-advised fund, but we consider it a charitable donation.
We allocate a certain percentage of our income to a benevolence fund. We use this category to do things like buy dinner for people, give to immediate needs, and practice hospitality. It’s a place for spontaneous generosity.
This category contains the expenses for most food in our household, and we’re still working to get this amount just right. While we’ve been getting used to parenthood and understanding how much it costs to feed a child, we created an additional category for food specific to our son.
We often let unused funds rollover to the next month to help cover for road trips.
This category is important because tolls can easily be an underestimated expense, especially because we live off of a tollway. Every time our toll account automatically refills and hits our bank account, it’s another $40. This adds up quick.
We use this category to invest in our marriage. Allocating money to this category is a relational investment.
My wife and I have separate spending categories. We do this to give each other allocated funds to be spent however we please without the need for a discussion first.
My wife likes to buy clothes, and she’s incredibly reasonable about it. I don’t like to buy clothes (and hardly ever actually do), but I love my wife—so we decided together to create a clothing category.
See “Wife Spending” above.
It's the simple things in life.
As our son grows, so does the amount put in this category. We will probably combine this category with "Groceries" after we get a good understanding of how much it costs to feed our kids on a monthly basis.
Using Amazon’s “Subscribe & Save” offering, we save money every month on diapers and wipes. Plus, they get delivered directly to our door. If you're preparing to have a child—don’t forget to consider your budget with a monthly diaper expense after the child arrives.
This category covers everything else related to having a child.
Child Swim Lessons
A generous person funded summer swim lessons for our son, so we created a category and put the money there so it could remain allocated. That’s the beauty of YNAB. If you want to allocate money to something, just create a category.
Most medical expenses come out of an HSA from work (if you have this option, do it). We do, however, have times when we put money in here to cover medical-related expenses outside of our HSA.
Mortgage, Insurance, Taxes
Our mortgage and escrow account are all lumped into one category and are automatically deducted from our YNAB account each month (you can schedule transactions that automatically record expenses into your YNAB categories the same day those expenses hit your bank).
Extra Mortgage Payment
If we have extra money to throw at our mortgage, this is where it goes.
Knowing there’s an annual HOA fee in our neighborhood, we break that annual fee into twelve monthly savings amounts and put it in here. Over the course of the year, this category fills up and is ready to be spent when we get the bill.
Straightforward—although it’s one to remember if you’re about to have a child.
This cost is variable throughout the year, so we put the same amount into this category each month—letting the extra left in winter roll over to cover the expensive summer. It keeps predictability in our bills.
We’re currently under-budgeting this one and are rolling with the punches too often.
Internet providers lock you in for twelve months with awesome promotional pricing and then skyrocket the cost through the roof. Set a reminder in your calendar or phone to call them before the year is up and ask for an extension on the introductory offer. It can save you a ton of money.
Water & Trash
Similar to electricity, we put the same amount in every month and let excess accumulated in the down months cover the craziness of watering the yard during summer.
Physical fitness is a family value, so it’s reflected here.
Yes, these are expensive.
We currently carry the following personal insurance from Zander. All the monthly premiums for these products come out of this category. We also have an umbrella policy.
- Term life insurance on myself and my wife
- Long-term disability insurance on me
- Identity theft protection
When we got our homeowners insurance, we looked for lower car insurance premiums. Sure enough, one phone call saved us money. As my dad has always said, shop around.
Instead of adding retirement accounts to YNAB, we make them a category and charge our regular investments as an expense here.
Our investing strategy is insanely simple. We invest up to the match provided by employers and then invest a percentage of our take-home pay into Roth IRAs.
All of these accounts are invested with Vanguard, and all of the money is invested in only two types of index funds:
- Vanguard 500 Index Fund
- Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund
We keep it simple and ride out the bumps.
We’re just getting started on this one and put a percentage of our income into this category while we figure out how to best save it. We’ll probably end up investing in a 529.
Premium makes the ads stop. One of my favorite recent playlists curated by Spotify is "Productive Morning."
RAINY DAY FUNDS
If things get crazy, this is the trampoline catching us when we fall. We stock this category with enough money to get us through 3-6 months of joblessness. We also have to tap into it every once in a while when there’s not enough money accumulated in the car repairs category and something bad just happened to the engine.
Houses break and cost a ton. We put a little less than one percent of our home’s value into this category every month just waiting for the day when the air conditioning stops working and we need to open the faucet on this one to fund a new unit. Also, this category is used for things like air filters and light bulbs.
Cars break. It’s a guarantee. Putting money into this category each month helps ease the blow.
We use Amazon all the time. Putting a little into this category each month makes it easy to pay for Prime once a year.
When we bought our house, we had money in this category from our renovation budget. Now, we’ve got the money sitting in here for whenever I decide to drive to Home Depot and buy them.
Having a baby is expensive. Throwing money into this category helps us stay financially ready to pay for the birth of our next child and all the expenses associated with that process.
This may or may not be worth it for you. Mr. Money Mustache has an intriguing post on whether or not a Costco member is worth it. Check it out.
A little bit each month in a Valentine’s Day category makes for a fun Valentine’s Day date once a year.
This will always be an expense, and we incur it every summer. Again, we plan for it by putting a little bit into this category each month.
Similar to Valentine’s Day, we can celebrate our anniversary in a meaningful way each year by allocating a small amount of money to this category each month.
This is a big one. Just by adding this category to your budget, you might avoid unnecessary debt. We didn’t budget enough per month in this category last year, so we’ve upped our monthly contribution in 2017.
Yes, there’s a YNAB category to pay for YNAB.
I’d forgotten just how expensive tires were until one of mine exploded on the highway and needed to be replaced. Now, we’re saving for the day we need to replace eight tires on two cars.
Cars die. They need to be replaced. Slowly but surely we're filling this category up. The only thing in it right now is a portion of last year's tax refund.
Capital One CC Annual Fee
We use credit cards and also aren’t in consumer debt. See the section on credit cards below.
Kids’ Rehearsal Dinner
When our son gets random money for things we throw it in here. It’s more of a placeholder than anything and started as a joke. Our son is a toddler.
The only debt we have is our house. Because YNAB is amazing, credit cards are essentially treated as debit cards if you don’t have debt. (If you do have credit card debt debt, YNAB is a great tool to help you eliminate it. I'd suggest closing your credit cards, however, and waiting to adopt them again until you're out.)
You're only spending money you have in the categories within your budget, so if you’re faithful to keep your budget reconciled, you should always be spending money you actually have.
This means you can get a credit card and actively rack up the reward points as you spend money already allocated to categories within your budget.
When you pay your credit card bill (I do this weekly), all you do is transfer the amount due from your checking account to your credit card account in YNAB. Here's a helpful article if this is confusing.
These are the two credit cards we’re actively using:
- Capital One Venture Rewards Card – Two miles for every $1 you spend on purchases. Also, $400 in travel if you spend $3,000 in the first three months after your account is opened. No annual fee for the first year. $59/year after that. We use travel rewards for nights away at hotels and anniversary trips.
- Amazon Prime Rewards Card – We only use this card for Amazon purchases because we get 5% back as Amazon Prime customers when we tie this card to our account. No annual fee. Almost everything else goes on the Capital One card and is paid off weekly.
We've never carried a balance on any of our credit cards. The day we do is the day we close them and stick with debit cards.
The end game
Our bank statements help tell us what we value.
This comes up in the way we give, save, and spend.
You may not agree with the methodology, but I hope you'll develop your own strategy and stick to it, giving yourself grace when you don’t hit the target.
Getting this right is a lifetime of work—and it’s worth it.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”