Planning my Christmas Gifts spending (or really, any category)

I have a problem that can be abstracted to nearly any category, but let's talk about a specific one - Christmas Gifts.

After running out of money in the "Gifts" category last year, my wife and I decided to create a separate category just for Christmas Gifts. We fund $200 a month (don't judge), giving us $2400/year to spend. I have 1 sibling; my wife has 9, and she's the penultimate child. We're in our 40s and we have a fair number of godchildren, nieces, nephews, great-nieces, great-nephews, 4 living parents, and umpteen friends... oh, and 2 children of our own.

Spending that Christmas budget is complicated and filled with tension. "Why did you spend $200 on your parents, but only $20 on mine?", "Does he really need the XBox Series S (yes, he does.)?", etc.

We're both good(-ish) at knowing/checking a category balance before spending; but we have no way of planning that spending. I need a way to map out how a category balance will be spent. Without that plan, we will wind up spending all $2400 and suddenly remember 10 more people that to whom we should give gifts, but have no money to spend on it.

Obvious solution: more categories. Except... I don't want to have even more hidden categories and broken reports. I want the spending to just show as Christmas Gifts. I'm also at the mental breaking point of categories. Despite all the grouping and prioritizing. I just can't handle the load of scanning & swiping (or scrolling) through an even longer list.

I've got a Feature Request in mind, but the product manager in me thinks it best to describe the problem and let others innovate the solution.

So, 'NABbers, what say you?

How are you planning your category spending? How should I plan mine? Is this also problem for you? How impactful would a solution be (1-Nice To Have ... 5-Shut Up & Take My Money)?

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    • Scott
    • In the beginning the budget was created. This has made many people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move
    • Scottgoeshiking
    • 2 mths ago
    • 1
    • Reported - view

    The reverse of my flex spending approach! Create holding categories for each person you're budgeting gift spending for. When you buy a gift for a specific person, assign that spend to your general "Christmas Gifts" category (which you don't budget into), and then move money from the category whom the gift is for. That way, you end up with all your gift spending in your Christmas Gifts category while tracking your spend down against the budget for each individual.

    I know this goes against your "no more categories" goal, but this method should make sense, and once you set the savings goals for each personal gift category, you can put them all in a single category group and collapse it, just being sure to budget towards them each month.

    Like 1
      • JerseyFrank
      • Green_Sound.9
      • 2 mths ago
      • 1
      • Reported - view

      Scott That's a lot of complicated Christmas category chicanery for a shared budget. Ultimately, that's what we need, but we want it without:

      • Breaking (rendering useless) the goals feature
      • Needing to slide money back and forth between the "organizing" category and the "spending" category

      The "wish farm" style decomposition is too cumbersome to use and explain with a spouse who's less geeked about the platform/technology. She's happy to categorize transactions and thrilled with our progress - but not at all interested in the minutiae.

      Like 1
      • dakinemaui
      • dakinemaui
      • 2 mths ago
      • 1
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      Scott A common issue with what you describe is there will be there's no money in the specific category to reallocate for a gift bought in, say, March. You'd also need to differentiate between when their allotment has been spent vs. they merely haven't been funded yet. There's also more effort spent moving money around than what I would prefer.

      None of these issues are insurmountable, but should at least be considered.

      Like 1
      • Scott
      • In the beginning the budget was created. This has made many people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move
      • Scottgoeshiking
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      dakinemaui Good points. Makes me wonder if this is something that should be tracked outside of YNAB? There are so many things that are "budget-adjacent" that don't really fall into what YNAB tries to do. If tracked outside of YNAB, I'd have an excel file with each recipient's name and the amount to be spent on them, and then make sure the sum of the amount to be spent is put as the savings goal for the "Christmas Gifts" category. Then as transactions occur, record the spending against the "Christmas Gifts" category but also manually deduct it from the amount remaining in the recipient's excel row. Maybe add a memo description with the recipient's name in YNAB.

      This still has the problem of spending before the budget is there, but that's easier to handle with just one category.

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      • Scott
      • In the beginning the budget was created. This has made many people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move
      • Scottgoeshiking
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      OH maybe instead of in excel, add notes to the Christmas Gifts category like this:
      Sally (40) - 22
      Mark (40) - 0
      Brian (100) - 80

      Where the total to be spent on each person is listed next to the amount remaining. It's still manual, but it's all in YNAB.

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      • dakinemaui
      • dakinemaui
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Scott Tracking in a spreadsheet is certainly possible, but seems like more work to me. You're already entering (or importing) transactions in YNAB anyway, so most of the work and computations are already done.

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      • Scott
      • In the beginning the budget was created. This has made many people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move
      • Scottgoeshiking
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      dakinemaui It's all work lol. Less work than has already been put into this discussion though ;)

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      • dakinemaui
      • dakinemaui
      • 2 mths ago
      • 1
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      Scott said:
      add notes to the Christmas Gifts category

      This would be my suggestion if someone were going to be diligent about recording things in addition to transactions. Yes, quite manual. One concern: are the category notes are available on the mobile app? (I don't use it.)

      I still think the dedicated categories would be more likely to be up to date. With the note approach, I can see conflict brewing when someone doesn't update the notes and money is short in Dec. 😉

      Like 1
      • dakinemaui
      • dakinemaui
      • 2 mths ago
      • 3
      • Reported - view

      Scott FWIW, I already do a variant of what I've described. It works quite well.

      (If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm quite lazy and highly value efficient workflows with clear indications automatically provided by the tool when any manual action is required. 😉)

      Like 3
      • Scott
      • In the beginning the budget was created. This has made many people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move
      • Scottgoeshiking
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      dakinemaui I'm in the process of making sure all my transactions have the same categories in YNAB and in Personal Capital right now, so I'll let you guess where that puts me by comparison lol.

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      • Bruce
      • Software Engineer
      • Bruce
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Last  year was my first Christmas using YNAB.  I just budgeted into my Christmas category, and categorized every purchase into the Christmas category.  We kept track of people and how much money was left in an excel sheet.  It actually worked out pretty well, although it was separate from the budget, so was a little bit of extra work.  

      To me, it wasn't enough extra work to make it not worth the effort.  We listed out all the people, and input the total dollar amount we had.  To begin with, we put everybody getting their fair share (average the total over all the people) We had some limits, but aren't afraid to go a little over, or a little under for certain people.  We don't do extravagant Christmases anyway, so we figure the gift is what matters, not how much was spent on it.  If somebody's going to get as much enjoyment out of a $15 gift as somebody else gets out of a $50 gift, then I don't see any reason to try to even it out money wise.

      So as the buying started, and we put in the amounts,  then the total remaining, and the average per person adjusts itself.  If we're happy with what we got somebody, and it's "under budget" for them, then that just gives us a little more breathing room for somebody else, if we wanted to get a more expensive gift for them.  Really, it all works out in the end, but having the excel sheet worked really well.  And we have easy access to the spreadsheet on our phones, so can quickly look at how much we've spent and how much is left and how much we're allowed per person, etc. 

      Might sound convoluted, but it worked for us, and the auto calculation thing is what makes me think it's what I'm planning to do again this year.  Less manual moving parts than a bunch of categories would be.

      Like
  • Categories exist to protect money from accidental spending. If you want to ensure $X is available for wife, $Y is available for you, $Z is available for Child 1, etc., then using dedicated categories will certainly get the job done. I would put this under a Christmas group so you can at least collapse/hide it. Put the intended amount in the category name for reference. I would also have a "Funding" category into which you would budget $200 every month. (Don't forget to put yourself "on-track" if you're starting this now.) When you buy someone a gift (anytime throughout the year), reallocate that person's ENTIRE allotment from Funding to their category. (Perhaps tack on a * to the category name to signify they've been "funded".)

    Like 1
      • JerseyFrank
      • Green_Sound.9
      • 2 mths ago
      • 1
      • Reported - view

      dakinemaui Good point about marking what's funded and not. I really don't like encoding more stuff into the budget. If I can be real a second, one day I will die. It will be long before my wife. There's a chance that I'll still be using YNAB... well... would've been using YNAB if not for dying. The less magic and secrets there are in the system, the better.

      Like 1
      • dakinemaui
      • dakinemaui
      • 2 mths ago
      • 1
      • Reported - view

      JerseyFrank I share your concern, but I have no idea of an automated solution, other than to get partner involved to understand the mechanics and make them as simple as possible.

      After further thought, when someone is funded, I'd just zero out the amount in their category name:

      • "Sally Joe ($40)" == planned funding of $40 at some point. No need to do it in advance, especially if you don't yet have that money in "Funding". Just do it when you buy something (assuming Funding has enough to reallocate).
      • "Sally Joe ($0)" == funds have been reallocated from Funding into the specific category. The Available has her remaining funds.
      • Any overspending should be covered from someone else's category (not Funding). If no one else is funded, then fund someone first and then reallocate.
      Like 1
  • Green Sound said:
    I want the spending to just show as Christmas Gifts.

    Yeah, that's a little difficult to reconcile with the desire to track remaining throughout the year. I think I would just leave it as is, with the "consolidated" spending at the Group level. (Christmas Gifts is the Group name.) It's certainly easy.

    One (messy) alternative is in January, buik-recategorize all those transactions as Christmas Gifts for historic reporting. (Christmas Gifts is a normal category.) Take the 5 minutes to move the various budget entries from each individual's category to Christmas Gifts in the 12 previous months' budgets.

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    • dakinemaui For Christmas Gifts, this is exactly what I'll do this year. It's inelegant, but it's familiar for my wife, and the cleanup is all afterwards. That's "easy" for Christmas. But it still leaves the elephant in the room: I have a dozen or so categories where I'd like to plan out spending.

      This is really just the same problem that YNAB solves, but on a smaller scale. What I need are envelopes with envelopes in them. Rollup Envelopes. Rollup Envelopes that I can hide in the UI and explore only when I need to.

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      • dakinemaui
      • dakinemaui
      • 2 mths ago
      • 1
      • Reported - view

      JerseyFrank I do the single-category approach with notes as well. It's just not as interactive (not sure of the right word) as a christmas situation. Outflows and dates are fixed with a single transaction per "sub-category" (e.g., Subscriptions/Memberships, in which I budget for Amazon Prime, yearly parking fee, yearly Nat'l Parks pass, online backup, yearly museum membership, AMC theater club, Turbotax, monthly music streaming, etc. ).

      Tracking "remaining" funds across possibly multiple transactions and multiple months is another level of complexity. That is exactly what forced me to into the multi-category approach (along with my desire for automation and error-checking/indications).

      Like 1
      • dakinemaui
      • dakinemaui
      • 2 mths ago
      • 1
      • Reported - view
      JerseyFrank said:
      Rollup Envelopes

      Those are better known as Category Groups. The main issue, of course, is budgeting (and reallocation) is a relatively manual process in YNAB since they don't want you to budget money you haven't yet received.

      Another possibility (though not immediate) is to convince the 3rd-party Toolkit developers to implement a Consolidate command. Vacations is another scenario where this crops up a lot in discussions.

      Like 1
    • dakinemaui Yeah, Christmas is a spending frenzy. It's all happening quickly, in short amounts of time, and suddenly over. That + the multitude of people and shoppers makes this category really illustrative of the problem.

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      • JerseyFrank
      • Green_Sound.9
      • 2 mths ago
      • 1
      • Reported - view

      dakinemaui You can't budget to those envelopes. The Category Groups are the index card dividers in the shoebox of envelopes. #OverextendingTheMetaphor

      Like 1
      • Scott
      • In the beginning the budget was created. This has made many people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move
      • Scottgoeshiking
      • 2 mths ago
      • 1
      • Reported - view

      JerseyFrank No, but you can make a "category" for the category group, so you budget to the "category group category" to budget to that envelope, then all the other categories in the group are the smaller "envelopes within envelopes". This gets complicated.

      Like 1
  • JerseyFrank said:
    the cleanup is all afterwards

    What do you get out of doing the consolidation rather than just "using" the category group as the consolidated record?

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    • dakinemaui having a record of what was spent on whom so that we can review if we had spending or just didn't budget to them. It only needs to survive until Dec 26-ish

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      • dakinemaui
      • dakinemaui
      • 2 mths ago
      • 1
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      JerseyFrank all of that is available with the multi-category approach... without any cleanup.

      Like 1
  • I have a seperate Christmas budget so I can break down my spending by person.  This is my first year but I think it will prove to be very helpful for the issues you mentioned!

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    • satcook my implementation dream is that the TBB in that new budget can be synced with the corresponding category in the main budget. Also, direct navigation between the budgets.

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      • dakinemaui
      • dakinemaui
      • 2 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      satcook I think a separate budget is little different than tracking in excel: duplication of effort. (At least the formulas are already built in.) I'm sure you can make it work this year, but please consider something else next year.

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  • Option 1) Make a separate spreadsheet in like October, to list who you need to buy for and then break down the costs individually in there. Make sure the total adds up to your Christmas Gifts category in YNAB.

    Option 2) Make a Christmas Gifts *category group*, and then subdivide into categories from there (DW's nieces category, Auntie Jane category, Grandpa Bob category, etc. etc.)

    Like 1
    • The advantage of Option 2 is you can collapse the category group whenever you don't need to look at the long list.

      Like 1
  • Oh and agree beforehand how much you're going to spend on each group of people. e.g. $100 on each set of parents, max, etc. Write this out so there's no questioning drama later.

    Also this may fall on deaf ears, but don't take things personally. It's just material goods. If you agree ahead of time on how much to spend on whom, overspending shouldn't happen, but if it does, then just roll with the punches and get a different relative a cheaper gift that year.

    Like 1
  • You could do categories by groups of people, like : Christmas gifts for siblings; christmas gifts for kids; etc. To break it down a bit but still keep it manageable. I think with a $2400 budget I would want a category group for presents and then have at least some categories instead of lumping it all together. Especially something like christmas for a LOT of people, where , since it's not just one purchase, I can easily imagine things going wildly out of control :) 

    Personally, I have one gifts category for myself & my immediate family and one for all others.  I like to buy gifts early and then not have to stress around shopping during the fall, so i can just enjoy decorating the house and fall/winter activities without stress.  A risk, though, is I forget that I already bought something for someone (last year, my kid ended up with too many presents because in October I forgot about stuff I'd bought him in May). So, I started using the memo field. I'm using the memo field a lot. I write present ideas, and then if I buy something, I write down what I bought all in the memo. I also write it in the memo of the transaction. Then I can easily filter my transactions and see what's been purchased.

    I am also appreciating the memo field for keeping track of purchases that I'll break up/distribute. For instance, I bought a big set of used calico critters (in nice condition). Now, I can use a few as stocking stuffers for my son, keep some for his Easter basket, then use the rest as stocking stuffers/presents for neighbor kids. Or, I'll buy a big set of molding clay in many colors, and break it up into smaller sets and put it in pretty envelopes I make and then give it out. It is a nice way to give gifts to large groups of people and keep the cost reasonable. I keep track of all that in the memos field. 

    Easter baskets too -- I keep track of ideas, plus what has been purchased, in the memos.

    this is my first year with ynab so we'll see if it helps. I do feel much more organized this year as I can easily see what I already purchased, what I'm planning to purchase, etc. It definitely reduces stress to have a bit of a system.

    Like 2
  • I have no advice, but I just wanted to vent on this topic. Mrs. nolesrule spends more money on her mother and sister than is spent on my grandmother, my parents, my 3 siblings and their spouses and my 8 (soon to be 9) nieces and nephews. For those of you counting at home, that's 2 vs. 17.

    Like 2
  • I only buy for my four children and partner and I have a limit of $200 per child and $300 for my partner.  My category is set to save $1,400, slightly over my target amount because I will usually pick up a few bottles of wine or chocolates to stash away for unexpected guests.

    So the first step for me is working out how many people, how much per person and go from there.  I do find that setting the limit early means I have to get creative when it comes time to buy gifts.  I will say that I made the decision many years ago to not buy for people outside my own children and I don't feel guilty about it.  I cannot abide by the kind of spending that is encouraged for Christmas and find most gifts unnecessary and/or a waste of resources.  That said, my method works for me because it aligns with my values.  

    I also have a Christmas Food and a Christmas Decorating category as well as a Birthday category and a more general Gifts category so my Christmas gifting category has a very specific purpose.  If there's any leftover it usually gets absorbed by the food or activities that occur more frequently at that time of the year.

    Christmas spending all gets put through the category.  Because I know what the budget is for each person and I don't care enough to extrapolate more data out of it, by the end of December I know exactly what I've spent on Christmas gifts and can adjust for the following year if needs be.

    Like 2
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