Margin: A foundation for happiness

I was flying home from Indianapolis last week after a hard week of work and school.  I was exhausted and craving time with my family.   My plane was on the final approach for Atlanta and it was already dark so all I could see were the lights of homes and businesses spreading out all the way to the horizon.

I began to think about all the people, striving to own a little more land, a little bigger house, and a nicer car.  I started thinking about all the stress and anxiety that must exist just below me because of the down economy, strained relationships, hectic schedules, etc.  I also wondered how much happiness, joy, contentment, and fulfillment I was flying over.  I began to think about my own happiness and the goals I have set for my life and for my family.  I realized that what I am craving in life is not more money or success but simply time with my family (specifically time when I am not preoccupied with financial burdens, distracted by work, or cranky from exhaustion, stress, and personal commitments).

I realized that what I am craving is simply “margin”.  There are many definitions of margin but I am referring to this kind of margin:

“An amount beyond what is needed”

I realize that most people (including myself) rarely strive after margin.  We strive after promotions, bonuses, improvements, and upgrades (i.e. – a better paying job, a bigger house, a newer widget, etc).   Sometimes  we are trying to impress our ______, sometimes we perceive that we need a new ______ to make us happy, and sometimes we are just chasing after______ because we don’t know what else to chase after.

I listen to Dave Ramsey on the radio sometimes and one of the things I have noticed repeatedly is that when people call in to announce amazing amounts of debt that they have paid off, it doesn’t seem to matter how much their annual income is….they all sound intensely happy.  Why are they so happy? They are typically earning the same annual income now as they were before they were out of debt so the only good explanation I can come up with is MARGIN.  Now, whether they make $17,000 a year or $170,000 a year, they have “An amount beyond what is needed”.  I hear the extreme happiness in their voices and I know that what I should be striving for is not more but less.

It seems that the two prerequisites for margin are needing less (surplus) and wanting less (contentment).

SURPLUS – No matter how much money a person makes, if their monthly expenses consume all (or more) of their monthly income then they will usually be stressed out and unhappy.  Margin by definition is having a surplus.  We would all like to make more but that is much harder to accomplish than making changes so that we will need less.

CONTENTMENT – a feeling or state of being satisfied with one’s possessions, status, and situation in life.  Nothing changes in our external world, we simply have a new perspective that makes us appreciative of what we have instead of focused on what we don’t have.

This idea of margin is not limited to our finances.  For example, my wife and I found that our family was suffering from having no margin in our schedules about a year ago.  It took some time to implement the changes but we were able to free up time in our schedules by cutting out things that didn’t add value to our relationships or our goals.  Free time = margin in our schedules = peace.

As we head into this new year, I hope for myself, my family, and for each of you, a year of increased margin in all areas of life.

Blessings, BoB

PS – Just a couple last thoughts on this topic:
I am not suggesting that we should avoid taking better jobs or making more money…we should just try to lower our “marginal propensity to consume”.  A bigger shovel is better but not if the pile we have to scoop becomes too heavy to lift :-)
I am also not suggesting we should avoid responsibility or commitments…we should just make sure we set boundaries regarding our time so that we are committed to and responsible for the things most important to us instead of every distraction the world puts in front of us.  We are called to be good stewards..not just with our money but with our time, talents, relationships, and other resources.