Starting off with YNAB when paying credit cards in full

I have a couple friends who are YNAB-obsessed. I tried it like five years ago, and couldn’t get over the initial adoption hump — the UI was too clunky, I wasn’t willing to invest the amount of time it would have required to educate myself on the software to the point where it was useful, etc.

So I tried it again; I’m obsessed. The user experience is vastly improved, the documentation and learning resources are super robust — in short, most of what prevented me from getting into it years ago has definitely been addressed.

One thing I found lacking was a guide/resources for people who pay off credit cards in full every month. I feel like I’m over the hurdle, and want to A) write that for anyone else who finds it useful and B) be able to refer to it myself later.

I treat my credit cards like debit cards; I only spend what I have, and pay my balance in full. I put a lot of my expenses on my credit card for the miles, and because I’m afraid of how risky using a debit card is. I maintained a spreadsheet with my main monthly recurring expenses, but didn’t really “budget” super hard beyond that, mainly because I didn’t think I had to — I lived well within my means, I saved, I called it a day.

I called it a day because I felt my money was doing pretty much what I wanted it to do, and I thought looking closer at it would be stressful. It’s been exactly the opposite. Rule #1 of the YNAB method is “Give Every Dollar a Job.” I thought I had been avoiding stress, but embracing the control to give every dollar a job has given me a significantly fuller sense of financial peace I didn’t even know I needed.

So here’s my guide to getting started with YNAB as a heavy credit card user who fully pays off balances.

Day 1 with YNAB

1. Tell YNAB about your funds and debt.

When you start, there are only two things you need to tell YNAB: funds available (+) and standing debt (-). At first, it was very hard for me to think of my credit card balance as debt because in my mind the dollars I was spending were in my checking. But, of course, it is actually debt.

When adding accounts, you have the option to go “linked” or “unlinked”. “Linked” connects with your banking institution and automatically imports cleared transactions. “Unlinked” is fully manual. In my internet travels, I’ve heard the pros and cons of both.

Linked. Pros: Ease of automation. Cons: Bank connections can be unreliable. (Mine syncs once a day so far, which is fine for me). Can make you complacent. Security concerns.

Unlinked. Pros: You have full control. Some feel they have a greater awareness when having to manually enter all transactions. You can still download and manually import things if you want. No bank connection minimizes security concerns. Cons: You have full control. It’s totally up to you to make sure everything is up to date and accurate.

I have opted for “linked”, but I understand the pros of “unlinked”. I’m trying to go for a hybrid, where I take a few minutes in the morning to check in and do “YNAB gardening”, making sure everything is reconciled and categorized appropriately. Also if you manually enter a transaction, you can match it with the later-directly-imported transaction. (YNAB does what it can to match them up, but it’s not perfect, so this does take a mindful eye). So, in my opinion this method still requires awareness to maintain, but if you wanted to set it and forget it you could (although if you wanted to do that, I’d just use Mint).

Let’s say we added a checking account with $2000, a savings account with $5000, and a credit card with a balance of $600.

2. Budget your dollars.

It might sound weird, but this took some crazy getting used to for me. I’m accustomed to thinking about the money in my checking account as “available money”, and the money in my savings account as “unavailable money”. But after telling YNAB about my available funds, I had to face a question: Do I budget my savings money?

It made me think a lot more about savings in an active sense, rather than a passive sense. (“Aside from adding to it, just leave it alone and try not to look at it.”) What am I saving for? It’s not truly just a lump sum of savings, in intent. It’s a rainy day fund, it’s a checking buffer, it’s Christmas gifts, it’s saving for a car downpayment. It’s all of those things and more.

YNAB comes with pre-templated categories to get you started. What works for everyone is different; The first thing I did was create categories that made sense to me:

  • General spending (groceries, coffee shops, etc)
  • Fixed bills (rent, internet, auto insurance, etc)
  • Variable bills (electric, cell phone, etc)
  • Subscriptions (spotify, local NPR station, etc)
  • Fun fund (dining out, bars, entertainment, etc)
  • Savings (rainy day fund, car down payment, checking buffer, etc)

So now I have a categorized list of the things I spend money on, and a lump sum of available money (based on the funds available (+) I’ve told YNAB about).

Say I like to keep a buffer of $500 in my checking, and YNAB is showing I have $7000 “to be budgeted” (which represents all the funds I’ve told YNAB about). Possibly the first thing I do (just as an example) is budget $500 to my buffer category. Now I have $6,500 “to be budgeted” dollars remaining to distribute to my categories.

Now let’s talk about credit cards. The balance on the credit card I told YNAB about was $600. Once, and only once, I need to budget $650 of my available dollars to pay off the credit card. (Note again, I’m talking about paying off the full balance. If you’re trying to get out of credit card debt, YNAB has tons of support material about that).

Now I have $600 set aside for my existing credit card debt, and $500 set aside as my checking buffer, leaving me with $5,900 left to be budgeted.

Now I’d continue down my budget categories, giving each of my dollars a job, according to my priorities for the month, stopping when “to be budgeted” sits at $0.

3. Budgeting for credit cards without budgeting for credit cards.

I said above, once and only once do I need to budget directly to paying off my credit card when getting started with YNAB. Why is that?

When you give each of your dollars a job, the money goes toward that job — not the credit card. YNAB deals with this in a really nifty way.

Say my monthly internet bill is $50, and I’ve budgeted $50 toward it — I have $50 available for the job of paying my internet bill:

I pay my internet service provider with my credit card, and associate the transaction with my “Internet” category:

Heading back over to my budget, something interesting has happened:

Because the transaction was 1) a credit card transaction and 2) associated with the “Internet” category, YNAB has moved the $50 available dollars from having the job of paying my internet bill to having the job of paying my credit card company the $50 more dollars I now owe it for paying my internet bill for me.

Note: When you are fully paying off the balance, the balance of your card should always equal the amount “available” for payment. If it isn’t, it’s a good indicator something has gone awry.

Now let’s pay off the credit card:

In this transaction shown above, I’ve paid the balance of my credit card ($650) from my Checking account.

Looking back at my budget, the $600 that I gave the job of paying off my initial balance have done that, and the $50 that I gave the job of paying my internet bill have now repaid my credit card company for paying my bill.

Gotchas and takeaways

Only budget the dollars you have.

One mistake I made when starting YNAB was pre-budgeting. It was toward the end of the month. I gave each of my dollars a job for the month, getting my “to be budgeted” amount down to $0. (I’ll admit this somehow feels wrong at first, but now it feels very zen).

Then, perhaps being a touch overeager, I started “budgeting” the next month for the amounts I expected to pay for fixed bills. (Bear in mind, I had assigned all my dollars jobs for the current month, and had my amount down to $0).

Instead, set a funding goal. For the internet example, I’d set a funding goal of $50 a month. As more dollars come in to be budgeted, you can fund your budget in order of priority.

Reconcile often.

Basically the YNAB version of personal hygiene. To trust your budget as a foundation to make spending decisions on, it needs to be in total agreement with your bank records. The longer you go unreconciled, the greater the opportunity for inconsistency and mistakes to creep in, and the uglier it will be (probably) to try to untangle it later.

When you reconcile, transactions are “locked” — you know they are trustworthy. If something goes wrong, the number of transactions is more limited; If the pool is smaller, the mistake is easier to track down.

Use the web version for heavy lifting.

I can’t speak for the iOS app, but on the Android app, the ability to undo/redo and manage categories is so limited compared to the web app. I only use the Android app for a few things:

  • Reviewing my budget.
  • Getting notifications that new transactions have been imported and require approval/categorization.
  • Adding transactions on the go.

Do the workshops.

I consider myself pretty financially literate. I thought it was a bit silly to take some of the basic workshops. 100% do it. I had several ‘aha!’ moments that contributed to me finally getting over the hump I couldn’t get over five years ago. They are also live, and free. You have instant support for answering a question that has been plaguing you.

The YNAB workshops are basically no-cost financial literacy courses. They’re about the software, of course, but anyone can benefit from the principles covered, even if they never use YNAB.

Reddit. Read it?

The r/ynab subreddit is awesome. You see every issue under the sun, and there are some very knowledgeable folks there willing to lend a hand.

My evolving relationship with my sister with Angelman syndrome

[This post was originally written for and published on The Arc’s blog on March 19, 2018 for Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.]

It’s now been almost five years since I first wrote about future planning. I was 22, and living in Washington, DC — 1,300 miles away from my family in Dallas.

At the time, my sister Caroline was 18. We were both entering new phases of our lives. I was fresh out of college, and she had just reached legal adulthood. (Her birthday milestones honestly were always more striking to me than my own). Caroline was born with a rare neuro-genetic disorder called Angelman syndrome. The prevalence of AS is estimated to be somewhere between 1/12,000 and 1/24,000.

I was in third grade when we finally discovered my sister’s diagnosis. I know, because my mom tells the story of how I went to school, and told my third grade teacher that I was worried about how I would take care of Caroline when something happened to our parents.

Years later, when my parents took our family out to dinner to celebrate my high school graduation, I have a perfect memory of sitting at the table feeling deeply guilty, and near tears. I was soon to move to DC for college. At the table, my parents expressed how important they thought it was that I go. When I later moved away to college, it was deeply unsettling for about a semester. Everything I had to do every day suddenly only revolved around, well, me.

The years passed, and I thrived in DC. I love that city. It’s my home away from home. But I felt those tugs. Sometimes the feeling was quiet, sometimes it was loud; but it was there. Feeling too far away, feeling too selfish. Feeling the desire to be a present fixture in the lives of my family members — to be a more active part of Caroline’s care network.

I’m now almost 28; she is almost 24. I lived in DC for eight years. Two years ago, I moved back to Texas. For one of those years, I lived in Dallas. It’s hard to explain the internal battle between feelings of obligation and not knowing with any certainty what you really want, personally. But you know what I’m talking about. It’s part of the human experience. It has nothing specifically to do with having a sibling with disabilities. It’s a universal experience. This is just a particularly salient part of how I experience this struggle. None of us can know if we’re making the right choices; We just do what we can, and keep moving forward.

What I can say with certainty is that living in closer proximity to my sister deepened our connection considerably. When living further away, I could still say hi to her on the phone. (Or like when she somehow figured out how to FaceTime with me while I was at work and she was in class).

Screenshot of FaceTiming with my sister

But living back home, she would spend the night over at my apartment. We’d make dinner, and watch The Great British Baking Show. She loves to watch my pet rabbits run around. I got back in sync with her nonverbal cues, and she got back in sync with my micro-movements. (I swear to you she can tell when you’ve had a thought, and haven’t even said anything yet — her emotional intelligence is through the roof). It’s these subtleties that were difficult — near impossible, even — to maintain, in a long-distance relationship with her.

Me and Caroline


There’s no right decision for me, or for other siblings. But I can say for certain that I don’t regret moving back to be closer.

I was reflecting on these past ten years just recently; I was doing some work in a coffee shop, and a family came in. A mom, dad, older sister and younger brother. The younger brother had Down syndrome. They were all hanging his art on the coffee shop wall. As I understand it, the sister had independently reached out to the coffee shop about featuring her brother’s work, and the other artist currently featured on the wall had volunteered to share space. As I chatted with them, and watched as they arranged his art, I had an odd sense of deja vu. Reflecting on being the sister’s age, and pondering college. (She appeared to perhaps be in high school). These thoughts can feel so isolating, but they are such a deeply shared experience. Meeting them by happenstance reminded me of that.

Growing up feels like continuously uncovering that behind the tapestry is a mess of loose ends. From chaos, comes order (or at least hindsight). When I was younger, I worried about Caroline’s future with a general sense of anxiety. Now that I’m older, I worry about increasingly complicated specifics. We have been having active planning conversations for years, and on some level, it grinds away in the back of my brain nonstop. Despite working so proactively, we still don’t feel close to having an answer, or feeling prepared.

I hope that for anyone reading this, these thoughts inspire thoughtfulness, not paralysis. I accept that we can’t ever know anything for certain. It can be overwhelming, but I fervently hope that other siblings and families don’t shy away from these conversations.

Amberley Romo is a software developer in Austin, Texas. She is part of a project to build a free, open-source, web-based communication app.

Event Roundup: Emberitas and Front Porch

Finally, finally, I have time to hit up local events and meetups again, and Austin has not disappointed. (See what I was up to the first half of the 2016.)


First up, Emberitas. I found out about this event through the Women Who Code – Austin network. Three awesome women in the Austin Ember community decided to organize this free one-day workshop to introduce women to Ember.js. (All bootcamp grads, by the way — two from MakerSquare and one from CodeUp).

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Async patterns: Promises

Given our understanding of what async is, how the callback pattern manages async, and some of the deficiencies of the callback pattern, let’s dive into another, newer pattern — promises.

Promises are clearly exciting the JS community. As someone who never really knew JavaScript before promises, I have only an academic understanding of the magnitude of this shift. In fact, I think I was exposed to management of async first with callbacks to make promises seem just that much more awesome (like building a node server before meeting Express). Understanding both is important to a deeper understanding of each, individually.

As with callbacks, for a new developer, it can be difficult to sift through the massive amount of information available online. For the benefit of anyone else newly exposed to promises, in this post I’ve attempted to cull the resources and posts that I have found most enlightening through my own learning.

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What is asynchronous JavaScript?

When people talk about asynchrony in JavaScript, what do they mean? First, a real-world example of an asynchronous process (summarized here, and originally here).

Imagine you walk into a coffee shop to get a latte. If they’re busy, perhaps you wait in line. When it’s your turn, you place your order with the cashier, and pay for the drink. The cashier writes your order — maybe even your name — on a coffee cup, and places it behind the empty (not yet fulfilled) cup of the person who ordered before you. Perhaps the shop is quite busy and there are ten cups ahead of yours. That queue of yet-unfilled coffee cups allows for the separation of the cashier (processing and queuing orders) and the barista (fulfilling orders based on the information supplied by the cashier). This queuing process results in increased efficiency and output. (The original source expands on the metaphor and is quite interesting). This is an example of asynchronous, non-blocking behavior.

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Let’s learn the Dvorak keyboard

In the last week, the subject of the Dvorak keyboard has come up more than usual. (‘Usual’ being not at all.) The Dvorak keyboard is an alternative to the widely-adopted QWERTY keyboard, and was patented in 1936 by Dr. August Dvorak and his brother-in-law, Dr. William Dealey. There are a couple of devotees among my coworkers at MakerSquare, and at some point in one of our discussions, I became inspired — how quickly could I pick it up? Or further, how long would it take to achieve at least half of my QWERTY speed? So I tested, to get my baseline, coming in at 120 WPM.

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 11.01.18 AM

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Intro to web accessibility

Through presenting at bootcamps, I’ve so far had the chance to expose over 100 devs- and engineers-in-training to web accessibility —- what are we really talking about when we say ‘web accessibility’, who does it affect, and what are some very initial considerations to take into account? This is a short blog recap, including the deck.

Update (7.29.2016): Slide deck updated.

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