I think the tears started when I asked “Ok, how many dollars a month is travel important to you?”.
I was sitting on my living room couch next to my mom helping her get her budget set up in YNAB. My youngest brother had gotten her signed up a week or two before, but she had some questions, so when she came to visit, I told her I’d sit down with her and help her get things set up and answer all her questions.
She was skeptical about linking her accounts, (“I don’t want anyone to have access to my bank!”—it’s okay, mom, we only get a list of what’s already happened, we can’t make any charges or anything like that), hadn’t recorded many of her recent transactions, and did not have anywhere near the number of categories she was going to need to get through the first month of her YNAB journey.
We went through her budget with a fine-toothed comb to consider how much she spends on each category and how much her targets should realistically be.
“We didn’t talk about money growing up. I asked my dad about how much he made once and I got in trouble for being rude.
Mom’s family had a lot of things they didn’t talk about. Anything that might be unpleasant or difficult was glossed over with, “It could be worse,” and family meetings, if there were any, were strictly an adults-only affair.
Neither of my parents had a budgeting bone in their body when my brothers, sisters, and I were growing up. None of their parents taught them how the whole money thing worked. Money was what you had once every two weeks between Friday and Monday and then it was gone until the next paycheck came in—you better make sure groceries get purchased!
Of course, my parents had a budget. They just didn’t know what it was. In fact, I’m certain they had two budgets—one that each of them thought was reasonable and that they individually worked from. You can imagine the difficulties of running two budgets at cross purposes to each other.
How could they have two budgets, but not a single thing written down?
Because a budget is really just your priorities. A good budget is written down, but everyone has a budget even if they never put pen to page (or finger to keyboard).
My parents’ shared priorities included things like mortgage, electricity, groceries, and gas. Their priorities didn’t usually include things like cable, travel, and extra-curriculars.
Those priorities are fine, of course—and probably necessary when raising 6 kids on one income. But the problem is that no one ever helped them see that if you write your priorities down, you can begin to see how the decisions you make are either helping you move towards your stated priorities or are hindering you.
And that’s why as we sat next to each other on my living room couch talking through her budget as we approached her 60th birthday, she said “I don’t even know why I’m crying—it’s just that nobody ever taught me how to do this.”
It seemed difficult and uncomfortable, so budgeting may as well have not existed in my mom’s childhood home. I think those tears represented a mixture of empowerment now that she had a new path forward, and a good deal of sadness at the realization of all the missed opportunities not having a physical budget had caused her in the past.
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Why was it travel that really caused the dam to burst? Well, I’d like to say it was my incisive questions. But as with many grandparents, the reason can be summed up with one word: grandkids.
My mom recently moved back to my hometown where about half of my siblings still live. But half of her grandkids (my kids) live a road trip away. To visit them costs money, and even simple family get togethers that occur in our hometown can be difficult and sometimes expensive when you have to plan for 15+ people.
So, it was the stark realization that every purchasing decision she makes either helps her make trips to see her grandkids or hinders her that brought that emotional moment to bear that evening.
“Of course,” I reminded her, “your priorities can change. Maybe a friend comes to town and you want to go out with her more than you want to buy a new blouse this month—that’s totally fine!” A flexible budget is far more helpful and realistic than a rigid one.
(That particular piece of wisdom relates to YNAB’s Rule Three: Roll with the Punches. What a role reversal that I was the one teaching my mom rules, for once.)
But an unwritten budget? Forget it. It’s far too hard to keep your priorities, your purchases, and whether or not they are matching up in your mind.
For mom, retirement and travel are now untouchable categories, but she might dip into the makeup fund from time to time to pick up a gift or buy dinner for a friend.
And that’s perfect, because that reflects her priorities. Her budget is a roadmap to the type of life she wants to live and I was so honored to help her start that journey.
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