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What is margin?

margin: saving for a rainy day
margin: saving for a rainy day

Talk of money and our personal relationship to it are still taboo topics around most conversation tables in US American society. The prohibitions keep us from learning wise practices about handling our stuff and our money.

This church year my husband Lynn is chairing the Stewardship Ministry in our congregation, and we are in the midst of several conversations about our money and our stuff. I want to spend the next three posts before Lent addressing three questions, which are at the heart of our conversations. There is lot more to say, but this will be a start in this forum. The questions are: What is margin? How much is enough? And how can we live generously? I’ll take them in this order.

At our house we’ve been having a 20-year+ running conversation on these topics. Even before we were married we were talking about how to live with, relate to, detach from, and make use of our stuff, time and money.

So what is margin?

We didn’t learn this word until the week after I resigned from my church ministry position in 1999. I was attending an Alban Institute workshop on women leading in the church, an ironic event in itself – since I’d just resigned my leadership in the church. One thing I discovered in that workshop, however, was that we already had margin financially, which made my resignation less traumatic, even possible. What is it?

Well you could think of financial margin as being similar to that one-inch margin around the page you type and print out. So when you want to say something extra you can write without running off the page. If you have financial margin and something unexpected comes up, like your water heater breaks, or the oven dies, you can afford to fix them without going off the page and into debt. It’s like a cushion, or the shoulder on the highway.

Having financial margin is a new way to talk about the old idea of “saving for a rainy day.” And margin is not just a financial matter. It also comes in other forms. We can also build margin that is relational and emotional, social and with stuff as well as money. For instance it’s not running your gas tank down near empty. It is being early to events so you don’t miss important things. It is having family and friends to call on for help.

And having margin isn’t just about taking care of ourselves, our broken appliances or our own emergencies. It is also about having enough shoulder, extra, rainy day fund to be able – when needs beyond our own small households arise – to have the freedom of contributing financially to causes that need us: Haiti, Heifer, Habitat, or our own faith community.

Lynn and I have worked toward building financial margin in our live to give us greater freedom in the care of our household and to better members of our faith community and the and wider world. It is not a matter of luck – although we’ve had plenty of that. It is a matter of disciplined practice of living below our means, avoiding debt of all kinds, and delaying gratification by keeping the big picture in mind.

Working toward having margin financially or otherwise reduces anxiety, builds trust and makes decisions less about avoiding the worst case and more about deciding between good and good. Lest I sound too much like Polianna, building up one’s margin can also become its own obsession and distract from living with the grace that margin at its best creates. So how much margin do we need? That leads us toward the question for next time . . .

How much is enough?