Day 56: YNAB, Mint & Austerity.

There's no graceful way to segue from yesterday's topic to today's, so let's just get to it:

I'm in austerity mode right now. Do I like admitting this? No, I do not.

Other freelancers and business owners will understand the way cash flow in a service business can be completely erratic. Actually, it's not completely erratic. There's a pretty obvious pattern. Get a project, work a bunch, forget to look for new work, have no money. It takes about two months for me to see payment on most work I do, so even if I get another project right away, I will have to tighten the belt for a while. Yes, of course, I'm working to even out this stupid cycle, but y'all, there is a lot to do and I really do like to sleep, eat and pet my cat.

Anyway, I've tried a few different austerity modes over the cycle of my freelance life, and let's be real, they've all sucked. The current mode is the best so far, but it still sucks.

I'm relying crazy hard on YNAB, which I think I've finally got my mind around after restarting three times. On this last (I hope?) go-round, I pre-budgeted my life out at the beginning of the month, based on actual money in the bank and anticipated expenses, and now I'm sticking to that. Because I have a budget.

Do I like this method, where it feels like there are no money pillows to catch me? No. Do I think it's a good long term strategy? No. But it's giving me power to make smarter decisions right now. The number of categories I need to worry about is pretty slim (groceries & eating out) because I've gotten super good at not buying other things (makeup, clothing, books, etc.) It requires preparation and regular book-keeping. It requires making choices. But you know, most of those choices so far don't hurt--not nearly as much as my previous austerity plans of "buy nothing ever" and "oh god you already ruined your month just put it on your card".

As a result, I'm becoming a solid YNAB convert. It helps me know that it's actually okay to spend the money I've set aside, without lots of transfers into and out of savings accounts. I no longer look at my bank account and feel like I'm inside a washing machine during the agitate cycle.

Turns out part of getting your money management system in order is figuring out how hard or easy it needs to be. Some people who are pretty good at money (also, people with steady income) can hook their bank accounts to Mint and be like, "Oh hey, I guess I should cut down on buying petunias next month." Me? No. When I look at a month of data in Mint, I get grumpy. What if things aren't correctly categorized? WHAT GOOD IS THIS MONTHLY AVERAGE IF I DIDN'T CATEGORIZE SOMETHING RIGHT LAST YEAR? Why did I make such questionable decisions at the petunia store? Why am I dumb? Why can't I figure things out?

In case you're not a self-denigrating type, let me explain something: Those questions are not meant to be answered. Once that cycle starts, you may as well go lay down on your face and just hope someone runs you over.

So, anyway, Mint and me didn't work out. A lot of people hear I'm using YNAB and they just nod and say something like, "I couldn't really get into it." And I get that. It's weird. It's a pretty big time commitment. It requires that you play by the rules of YNAB. In Mint, if I wanted to spend $400 or less on groceries in a month, and then I spent $500, there was not much to do but throw my hands up and say, "Whoops!" With YNAB, I not only can fix it--but I have to. It requires just enough attention that I stay engaged, that I keep adjusting my system to reflect reality. It rewards me for doing a good job, and if you've ever tried to reward yourself for doing a good job with finances, you've undoubtedly run up against the whole "But I just saved this money that I now want to spend on a petunia barrel" quandary.

One other trick that's been useful to me during Nouveau Austerity is to start counting as an asset anything I own that costs more than $1. I'm not actually DOING this (though I am vaguely planning to) but I read about it in a book and it's been interesting. I have $30 at least in black eyeliner. Knowing that completely removes any desire I have to buy more of it (it even removes a tiny bit of my desire to buy rose gold eyeliner or pearlescent lime green eyeliner or...). I have SO MUCH STUFF and I feel so much relief to let go of the desire to get more stuff (which let's be real has been a years-long struggle, not some little moment of reading a book and learning all the things.)

Anyway, it's a glimpse into where I'm at right at this moment. Some day soon I hope to be able to brag about how good I am at money, but I really, really super hate those blogs where a five-year-old has an idea, tries it for 45 minutes and then blogs about the life-changing magic of filing all your emails this one particular way. So it'll probably be a while with lots of long confused posts in the meantime. Enjoy!

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