Friday, January 2, 2009

The Margin of Mastery

"We are concerned that some Church members ignore the oft-repeated direction to prepare and live within a budget, avoid consumer debt, and to save against a time of need."

- From the first letter sent to the general membership of the Church from Pres. Thomas S. Monson, 27 February 2008.

This site is designed as a repository of thoughts, helps, and resources regarding personal financial management, with the goal of sharing information that will help readers obtain the sense of peace and comfort which comes from living providently.

"The Margin of Mastery" is a phrase and concept which I first heard from Wendell J. Ashton many years ago. I have spoken about it many times over many years. By way of introduction to this site, here is a brief excerpt from a talk I gave a couple of years ago.

It is unlikely that, years from now, you will remember any of the specific talks given at this stake conference, including this one. Yet most of you can remember a handful of talks that you have heard over the years that stand out in your memory. One such talk for me was address given at a conference of the East Millcreek Stake when I was a boy, by our stake president, Wendell J. Ashton.

President Ashton spoke of going to the store to purchase a new wool blanket for his bed, and discovering that the blankets came in a variety of sizes. The salesman advised him to purchase a blanket larger than the mattress, but President Ashton objected, saying in effect, “I only need a blanket large enough to cover the mattress, not drape over the sides. I only sleep on the top of the mattress, not the sides.” But the salesman explained that this “excess” blanket, wrapping around the sides and tucking under the mattress sealed in the warmth. It was, he explained, that extra margin that made the difference.

President Ashton then applied that principle, which he called the margin of mastery, to other aspects of our life. How much richer, how much warmer, how much more peaceful our lives would be if, instead of living on the edge, we always had that extra margin – the margin of mastery. In financial matters, always keeping that extra margin can make all the difference. If you can afford an Avalon, buy a Camry. If you can afford a Camry, buy a Corolla. If you can qualify for a large home with a 30-year mortgage, buy a smaller one with a 15 year mortgage. If you can afford a house payment of $2,000, get one for $1,800. President Gordon B. Hinckley said,

When I was a young man, my father counseled me to build a modest home, sufficient for the needs of my family, and make it beautiful and attractive and pleasant and secure. He counseled me to pay off the mortgage as quickly as I could so that, come what may, there would be a roof over the heads of my wife and children.

He summarized, “prudence should govern our lives.” Developing the margin of mastery in our lives allows us to become the master of our affairs. We develop control over our wants and desires, which naturally results in the reduction of debt and the building of a reserve.

A few years ago Jeff Edwards and I were backpacking in a remote area of the Grand Canyon along a route called the Beamer Trail. Calling the Beamer a trail is an extreme case of flattery. It is a vague route, much of which runs along the top of 200 foot cliffs above the Colorado River. One of the challenges of this section of the Beamer is that it is plagued with strong gusts of winds which can catch a backpack and move the hiker several feet from the trail. Needless to say, it is essential to stay away from the edge of the cliff, lest a gust of wind come and send you to the rocks and river below.

The margin of mastery means staying away from the edge. When we have that margin in our life, the winds of adversity will still come but will not be disastrous for us. President N. Eldon Tanner taught:

Those who structure their standard of living to allow a little surplus control their circumstances. Those who spend a little more than they earn are controlled by their circumstances.

Noted financial writer Andrew Tobias likes to quote Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield:

Annual income, twenty pounds; annual expenditure, nineteen pounds; result, happiness. Annual income, twenty pounds; annual expenditure, twenty-one pounds; result, misery.

Tobias adds: “That’s pretty much it. Spend less than you earn.”

There are some simple ways to begin developing the margin of mastery in our financial affairs. One is to stay out of stores. I can always find something I “need” if I walk through the store. Ditto for catalogs and eBay. Why go to the home show unless you are in the market for a new home? Why do we feed our desire for things?

Consider the cost of ownership. As the comedian Steven Wright says, “You can’t have everything – where would you put it?” Many items cost both in time and money far beyond the original purchase price. Anyone who owns a dog is familiar with this principle. Linen table cloths have to be cleaned and pressed, large lawns have to be watered, fertilized and mowed, boats have to be maintained and stored. Someone once said that a man’s happiness in inversely proportional to the number of gasoline engines he owns.

Elder Bruce Porter summed up this counsel in a recent Area Training Meeting with these three words: stop buying things.

Sometimes, in spite of all we can do, we find ourselves economically dependent on others. Family members, and sometimes the Church must come to our aid. But if we have developed the margin of mastery in our lives, we can receive temporary assistance in good conscience knowing that we have kept our needs to a minimum and have done all that we can. And that, in all likelihood, we will have the opportunity of helping others in the future. The peace which comes from developing the margin of mastery is worth far more than the worldly trinkets we might have foregone in developing this self mastery.


  1. I remember when you gave this talk. It made an impact on me. JT & I have talked a lot about "the margin of mastery". Very wise counsel. I'm still enjoying "The Mormon Way of Doing Buisness".