I accidentally spent $400 a month on stickers during quarantine, but a budgeting app helped me turn things around – fast

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The author, Jackie Lam.

During quarantine, my online spending got out of control. I was spending $400 a month on stickers.
I have tested and given up on many budgets, but tried You Need a Budget after a friend suggested it.
The app’s bucketing and real-time tracking helped me curb my sticker habit – fast.
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I spent much of my 20s and 30s trying out different budgets – the 50/30/20 budget, the envelope system, the zero-sum budget – only to become a bit of an anti-budgeter. I’ve long been proud of the neat money-flow system I devised, and rarely had problems paying bills on time or sticking to my general spending parameters. So I didn’t really feel I needed to live by a specific budget.

But then, during quarantine, my online shopping got a bit out of hand – we’re talking $400 or more a month on stickers alone. Spending all that time cooped up indoors, void of in-person socializing, and wasting hours on the internet, I’d often stumble upon an online shop, load up unnecessary items in my cart, and run up a balance on my credit card.

I was embarrassed by how much money I was squandering on frivolous purchases, no doubt. After sharing my online overspending woes with my friend Henry, he recommended I try You Need a Budget, also known as YNAB. A longtime subscriber, he swears by the budgeting platform, which is a digital hybrid of the envelope system and the zero-sum budget. Granular, sure, and you’re required to create a spending limit for each category, and track each transaction from your linked accounts, but it worked wonders for Henry.

I was a bit reluctant, and I generally tend to avoid nitty-gritty budgeting, where every expense needs to be tracked. But after testing out YNAB during the 33-day free trial period, I became a convert. YNAB was the only thing that helped me curtail my quarantine spending.

I cut back on some problem areas

Besides overdoing it with online shopping, I also found it far too easy to sign up for subscription services. By creating “envelopes” for each category in YNAB, though, I could assign a monthly limit to each. Then, should I happen to go over my set limit for that category, I would need to pull money from another “envelope.”

When it came to traditional budgeting, I felt a bit rusty, as it’s been years since I attempted to budget this way. But YNAB has a basic template with general buckets such as “immediate obligations,” “true expenses (AKA bills, gifts, and saving goals),” “debt payments,” “quality of life goals,” and “just for fun.”

Under each bucket, you can create spending limits for each category. For instance, beyond the basics, such as groceries, eating out, and utility bills, I have a monthly budget for pets, stickers, and fitness. This is merely a jumping-off point, and you can make adjustments – reorder categories, delete ones you don’t use, and add new ones, as you like.

In my first month, to no one’s surprise, I soon realized that I was spending way too much on groceries and, err, stickers. But by keeping close track of where my money is going, I can limit how much I spend each week. If I’ve gone hog-wild during a recent trip to the grocery store, I’ll spend less on my next trip. If I’m well stocked on food in my place, I’ll skip a week to the market entirely. And seeing how much I spend on stickers helps me stay within my set limits.

It helps me keep tabs on my automated savings

During my first month using YNAB, I also realized that I’ve long forgotten about all the small, automated savings I have running in the background – for investments, retirement, and different money goals. Besides a set amount each week, I save by rounding up transactions and also by way of different rules. For instance, each time I spend money at Trader Joe’s, I save $5 toward my vacation fund.

Because I was saving in small amounts here and there, I really didn’t know exactly how much I was putting toward my savings goals each month. With YNAB, I was able to more clearly gauge how much went into my savings. In turn, I was able to budget that back in, and not go over my spending limits. I’ve since created a spending line called “general savings.”

A built-in ‘splurge fund’ helps me spend spontaneously while staying within my budget

One of my favorite features of YNAB is a designated category simply called “stuff I forgot to budget for.” It’s freeing to have some money allocated just for those purchases you make on a whim. It also makes budgeting feel less restrictive.

Besides assigning a few hundred dollars to my splurge fund, I also set up a separate spending line for automated savings that’s more than I allocated. This helps add a bit of padding in case my spending went a tad over.

While the service has helped me quite a bit, I’ve found YNAB not to be terribly intuitive, and there’s a bit of a learning curve. Having only used it for two months, I’m still discovering new tools, features, and ways to manage my spending.

That being said, YNAB has been a nice supplement to help me keep close tabs on exactly where my money is going. I still largely lean on paying myself first, budgeting weekly, automating most of my bills, and paying the closest attention to my discretionary purchases, but YNAB has, at the very least, helped me get my sticker spending under control.

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