How to use your YNAB Categories: Elizabeth Warren "All Your Worth" style....

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What is the best way to use YNAB's Budget Categories? I've been using YNAB since way back when it was on version 3 where it ran on your PC or Mac (so around 2010) so I've gone through a ton of different ideas on category organization....

The default categories that YNAB defaults too are an okay starting point but it seems to leave out SAVINGS?!? which is a pretty big miss.

One category system that I've used in the past (and I am probably going to start using again in 2021) is inspired by Elizabeth Warren’s All Your Worth. This is a wonderful book that she wrote LONG before she got into politics where she recommends sorting everything into Category Groups of three categories: Must Haves, Wants, and Savings.

In her book, she recommend breaking down your expenses to 50% Must Haves, 30% Wants, and 20% Savings. Basically if you can keep your Must Haves to 50% you'll be able to stay ahead and not drown. It's a great book. Seriously you should read it.

I’ve found these three master categories to be a really great and easy way to organize YNAB into categories. Must Haves to me are things that you must absolutely pay every month if you don't want to be thrown out onto the street and have your power cut. These are your absolute Must Have expenses. This way I can look at my Must Haves category group and I can see for sure how much money I need to have each month just to meet basic expenses which is a GREAT way to try and calculate how much you should have in your emergency fund if you are following the advice of Dave Ramsey's "Total Money Makeover" (3 to 6 months of expenses)

You can then also bring up the reporting view and quickly see if you are close to the 50% Must Haves, 30% Wants, and 20% Savings that she recommends.

She also recommends spending all of your wants with COLD HARD CASH. This worked fine for me 10 years or so when I followed this method... but in this day and age with COVID-19 I don't want to be handling cash. In fact my preferred method of payment now is all on my phone whether through an ordering app or waving my phone over a terminal. Touchless for the win. I used to just withdrawl a set amount of cash each month and work from that. But we're not doing that anymore.... so here's the updated idea on how to do this for 2020.

So here goes:


  • Housing - Mortgage/Rent
  • Housing - Property Taxes
  • Housing - Home Maintenance
  • Childcare (I recommend one line item per child for tax tracking purposes)
  • Auto – Gas
  • Auto – Registration
  • Auto – Maintenance
  • Insurance – Auto
  • Insurance – Homeowner’s
  • Insurance – Floaters (If applicable)
  • Insurance – Life
  • Medical – Health Insurance Premium (If applicable)
  • Medical – Health Insurance Co-Pay
  • Utilities - Cell Phone
  • Utilities - Internet
  • Utilities - Gas (If applicable)
  • Utilities - Electricity & Garbage
  • Utilities - Water
  • Education - School Supplies & Activities
  • Taxes – Tax Preparation
  • Taxes – Estimated Quarterly Federal Taxes (If you are self employed)
  • Taxes – Estimated Quarterly State Taxes (If you are self employed)
  • Basic Grocery Necessities* (Optional) - These are only groceries that you would buy in a true loss of income emergency. Good for estimating minimum needed for emergency fund but for simplicity I just put all my groceries in wants.


  • Groceries (Groceries beyond the basic necessities are a WANT using Warren's method. If you have a true income loss emergency you'll be stretching that pantry as long as you can)
  • Dining Out
  • Babysitter
  • TV & Streaming Services (Netflix, HBO, Spotify, etc)
  • Clothing
  • Clothing - Kids
  • Books/Movies
  • Vacation
  • Gifts - Birthdays
  • Gifts - Christmas
  • Gifts - Other
  • Kid’s Activities
  • Household - Supplies
  • Charity Giving (this could be a Must Have for you... but to me Must Haves are the necessary expenses if all income dries up for reasons)
  • Subscriptions/Memberships


  • Mortgage Extra Prinicipal Pre-Payment – The whole point of this site right here!
  • Emergency Fund (3 to 6 months of expenses)
  • Retirement - IRA
  • Retirement - Non Tax Advantaged Investing
  • College Savings 529
  • New Car
  • Home Addition
There are certainly many ways to organize your YNAB categories. What's best about this method is that you can easily see how much money you need each month if the proverbial $#$@ hits the fan and if there's one thing that we've been shown in 2021 is that the $%$# can definitely hit the fan. As they say, Murphy has punched all of us in the face in 2020.

Didn't Mike Tyson say "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face!"? I like that one.

I hope this helps everyone! How do you like to organize your YNAB budget categories?
About author
Started The Mortgage Payoff Club in 2015 after being inspired by Dave Ramsey's "Total Money Makeover", Elizabeth Warren's "All Your Worth", and the blog Budgets are Sexy. Life got in the way and I haven't been able to be as aggressive as I'd like in paying it off over the years but a total of over $29,000 has been paid down so far and I've saved $37k in interest. If I continue at my current payoff rate my estimated payoff date is 2/1/2029. I'm going to try and get that lower. (original payoff date was 6/1/2042!!)


Groceries is a want? Isn't food, water and shelter considered the basic needs? I get that you can go a bit using your pantry, but let's not kid ourselves you will have to buy food. You never have to go on vacation, but you will eventually run out of food if you don't buy groceries. Other than that your list seems good.
Yes. Groceries following the methodology in her book IS a want.

In a true income loss EMERGENCY you can (depending on circumstances) usually live out of your pantry for a while and certainly this pandemic has shown that to be mostly true for me.

In her book she does say that one can have a small Essential Grocery category in Must Haves for the very basics. But in the interest of simplicity I just put it all in wants.

Of course this is not set in stone and flexible and in a true emergency I'd probably make a small Essential Groceries category as well.

So for estimating needs for emergency fund simply add a small amount for essential groceries.
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Groceries is a want? Isn't food, water and shelter considered the basic needs? I get that you can go a bit using your pantry, but let's not kid ourselves you will have to buy food. You never have to go on vacation, but you will eventually run out of food if you don't buy groceries. Other than that your list seems good.
I went ahead and added a "Basic Grocery Necessities" category under wants that hopefully explains the method from her book better. I recently found a copy of it again in one of our boxes. I'll try to find the exact section from the book that goes over it.

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