Most of you have heard me talk about Mvelopes ad nauseam. But there’s another product in the envelope budgeting space, and that is the topic of today’s review–YNAB 3. Version 3 is currently in Beta testing, and is only available by invitation. Yours truly obtained a copy for review. Why?
I have been watching the development of YNAB with great interest. I’ve been mostly sitting on the sidelines, entrenched in the Mvelopes system, and feeling like YNAB 2 was a bit too clunky and missing functionality and refinement for my taste. But I love envelope budgeting and want to stay informed on the latest and greatest tools.
When the YNAB 3 beta was announced, I decided it was finally time to give this software a fair shot at competing in the space. With Mvelopes the only other realistic competitor, I was desperate to have YNAB perform at the same level and give them a run for their (and our) money. Where there’s serious competition, there will be innovation, and we (the end consumer) stand to benefit.
To avoid “cheating” and give you an accurate picture of how the experience went, I canceled my Mvelopes subscription in late December, 3 days after purchasing and transferring my information to YNAB. I wanted to be sure the whole experience was based on nothing more than the information YNAB was feeding me.
Purchase & Installation
The product purchase and download was fairly seamless. The download is performed through a link that is emailed to you, so you need to save the email somewhere.
I don’t particularly like not having an installation file for a piece of software I bought, but I guess as long as YNAB’s servers are up, the download will work if I ever need to re-install.
After the standard hoop-la of inputting serial codes and Adobe Air installation (the platform the software runs on), everything booted up smoothly.
Setting It Up
Initial setup was also non-eventful. After selecting a currency (of which there are many supported) and a date format, the program takes you to a Welcome page that explains the four rules of YNAB (scroll down halfway on the YNAB main page to read about them). If you’re familiar with envelope budgeting, they should resonate with you.
You’re then left to your own devices to add accounts (manually, since the software does not support direct links to banks), and tweak the budget categories to your liking.
First Impressions: 2 vs. 3
The first thing you’ll notice between Versions 2 and 3 of YNAB are the visual improvements. The software is very sleek, clean, and information is easily read off the screen.
There are also a slew of non-visual features that are new for this edition, including changes to how funds roll forward from month to month, search capabilities, reporting improvements, options for treating overspending, and drag-and-drop capabilities.
My first impression of the program? “Nice! I can see the appeal!” And the program does have an appeal and a huge fan base, as well as many successful users who have paid off debt, increased savings, saved their marriages, and other feats of financial glory. And for that, I’m thankful.
What I Liked
The program and I got off to a promising start, and I really enjoyed some of these features:
- Clean, well-designed interface. Probably the first thing you notice about YNAB is the visual design, which is very pleasing on the eyes and makes information easy to digest. Even the major section icons are bold and flashy.
- Solid reporting tools. YNAB features a high-powered reporting engine that is capable of spitting out spending and income/net worth reports and organizing them in a way that won’t make your head spin (for example, only showing the top 5 spending categories). Percentage-based reporting can easily show you percentages spent on each budget item, which makes things much easier for those following a 60% budget or something similar.
- Well-executed basics. Everything you’d expect from a basic financial manager is here, including the often-neglected features, like split-category transactions, automatic transaction matching (after manually downloading a statement file from your bank), payee management, and scheduling transactions.
- Cost. Clearly, it’s a deciding factor for many, and there are big savings in making a one-time purchase of a program versus using a subscription service.
- Principles. YNAB is based around four “rules,” which makes the concept of envelope budgeting very easy for many people to understand. Additionally, the ultimate goal of the program, to live on last month’s income, is unique to YNAB and built into the framework of the software from Day 1.
What I Didn’t Like
The honeymoon period was great. In fact, until about 2 weeks ago, I was pretty much enjoying myself. But it didn’t take long to start noticing some of the other features that were not so good, in my opinion, especially after having just come off a software that was very intuitive and easy to use. Here are some of the major things that didn’t click with me:
- Performance Issues. Adobe Air-based programs are unfortunately a little sluggish in responding when loading and re-loading sections, and YNAB is no exception. The more information I added to the program, the slower the three sections would take to load (Budget, Transactions, and Reports). Typical load times on my mid-level machine were 5-10 seconds. Certain commands were also sluggish to execute.
- Lack of budget. Okay, so it might seem a little strange that the “budget” is missing from a budgeting software, but let me explain. What I was really looking for is a baseline, which was one of my favorite features of Mvelopes. I could set up what I wanted my monthly budget to look like, and try to match that every month. With YNAB, it was more like a guessing game. True, budgets can be “copied” from month to month, but if I made changes to the baseline in the previous month, I want that change to revert, not copy.
- Budgets and transactions of different pages. This was a big one, and it’s a killer for me. Mvelopes solved the problem by presenting envelope balances in the sidebar. When inputting transactions, I could see envelope balances being reflected instantly, and it was ingrained in my head. With YNAB, I have to switch to the budget screen, and the process has been disconnected. I no longer know what my balances are by heart, and it makes daily spending more difficult (or actually, a lot easier…to overspend, that is).
- Transaction focus. YNAB is strongly based around inflows and outflows, while envelope balances are downplayed a bit. This is reflected in the visual design of the software, as well as the way the budget screen and transaction screens work. This is a cash-flow-centric approach that I felt was inferior to the balance-centric focus of Mvelopes.
- Envelope management. For example, deleting an envelope makes all the previous transactions in that envelope uncategorized (alternatively, you can hide envelopes). This is related to my beef with being transactions-focused, rather than balance-focused (see above).
- Manual Import. Initially, this was the primary reason why I stayed away from the software, but I decided to give it a go anyway and deal with the extra steps of downloading transactions. Now I understand why I was so hesitant… I have to be extra-diligent to enter receipts on a daily basis, automatic transfers and small transactions get missed and only update when I import, manually approving and matching transactions is a process, not a breeze, and the whole thing just adds 10 extra steps where there really could be only one. I understand there may be some monetary costs associated with setting up direct linking, but perhaps it’s worth it…
- Help. Heeeeelp! There is a help function in the program, so that’s a good start, but the impression that I got from reading through it (and referencing it when I needed something) was that it was rushed through. There just wasn’t enough information to go on when trying to understand many of the program’s features.
Mvelopes Killer? Sorry, But No
YNAB has one important up on Mvelopes–a fixed fee for the program that lasts indefinitely (vs. Mvelopes’ subscription-based system). But even that criteria is not straightforward, because Mvelopes rolls out updates on a monthly basis, making a direct comparison more difficult.
Based on a few critical factors–visually linking transactions to budgets, and automatic downloads, Mvelopes is a clear winner for me.
So while my Mvelopes subscription has been on hiatus for a few months, I’m going back next week.
So Who is YNAB for?/Final Thoughts
Let me contradict myself for a minute and say that YNAB is a great piece of software. It implements the principles of envelope budgeting with remarkable skill, and the principles are solid.
As I mentioned previously, many people have used it with shining success to open the floodgates to better finances.
But from where I sit, and in our own personal situation, Mvelopes still wins out as the better piece of software for our needs. We could probably accomplish solid results with either tool, but I am opting to stay as optimized and cutting edge as I can by sticking with Mvelopes. And it’s much easier to use in my wife’s opinion, and I need her on board.
If you like YNAB, I say go for it. Both software packages have free trials available, but then again–2 weeks is not very long to evaluate either. You may be forced to make a quick decision and go with one long-term to see how it meets your needs.
Either way, I think envelope budgeting is really a fantastic tool, whose power you don’t truly appreciate until you’ve had the chance to use it for a while. I encourage you to dive in!
There’s much work and progress to be made in the space, and YNAB is leading the way as much as the other guys.
Budget icon from the YNAB Blog