Things I’ve learned so far: The margin

As a (still relatively new) mother undergoing some major life changes, I’ve started recognizing a lot of things about life that had never occurred to me before. They are not earth-shattering discoveries, but they are my major breakthroughs. In this space, I will share with you some of what I’ve learned so far. I hope the thoughts I’ve gathered will inspire you to reflect on what you’ve learned about life (or at least laugh at how long it took me to figure these things out).

The margin (in 4 parts)

Don't cry over spilled milk.  Keep a rag handy.
Don’t cry over spilled milk. Keep a rag handy.

My first two years of motherhood were fraught with unexpected overages, to borrow an apt term from the mobile phone industry. Diapers that leaked, food that spoiled, bills that were higher than anticipated, bills that were never anticipated in the first place, deadlines that took longer than planned, messes that had to be cleaned up, minor disasters that had to be handled, illnesses that required time to rest and recover, and so on. And I got angry nearly every time it happened (okay, every time). I hadn’t planned for this! I had budgeted a certain amount of time, money, and energy (or all three) to take care of {fill in the blank} and there wasn’t enough to cover the latest mishap.

So I ran short day after day, month after month. And then one day wh…..

[As if the universe were trying to send me a sign, my laptop battery died right here in the middle of typing this post – mid-word even. Thank goodness I had taken my own advice on building in a margin and wasn’t counting on publishing this immediately. Geesh! Okay, back to what I was saying…]

One day when I was revising our household budget and I realized there was no line item for the little things we forget about (e.g., Sirius radio – for the traffic updates) and those we can’t anticipate. Let me tell you, homeowner’s roulette is not my favorite game. Which appliance/structural feature/piece of furniture/part of the plumbing system will need repair or replacement this year??? I have no idea. But I’ve finally realized that at least one will, or maybe more.

In the back of my mind I guess I kept thinking that it would all even out. Sure, we couldn’t know everything that was coming down the pike, but the overages would surely be balanced by the underages. Wouldn’t they?

Wait. An “underage” sounds more like a reference to the under 21 crowd than the opposite of an overage. Perhaps there’s a reason that the term “underage” hasn’t entered the vernacular.  Like a unicorn, there’s no logical explanation for why such a thing couldn’t exist, and yet it just doesn’t.

cable bill border

Think about it. You’re never gonna get a bill from the cable company saying: Surprise! This month is on us! Not gonna happen. Your dishwasher, on the other hand, will break. Over Christmas. When you have houseguests and are hosting two large dinners. (Ask me how I know.)

Or maybe your dishwasher makes it another year, but you have a hot summer and the electricity bill is higher than expected. Or you lose track of an upcoming birthday and you have to pay exorbitant shipping charges to get a gift delivered on time.

Or you go to vacuum the carpet and discover the vacuum bag is full. Take it to the trash and notice there’s no room. Take out the trash. Return to discover you can’t find where you’ve stashed the vacuum bags, if you have any spares left at all. Before you know it a 5 minute job has eaten up 30 and the carpet is still dirty.


And your pets? They’re never gonna cost less than you anticipate. You’ll take a trip and need a petsitter. They’ll get sick and need vet visits and special food. The only way they will cost less than you planned is if they die young. Harsh, I know, but it’s true.  But there’s gotta be a better way to stay on budget than to hope Sparky kicks it.

After several years of mounting frustration, I finally learned that while I can’t control the situation or prevent such overages, I can account for them. I can’t know what exactly will go wrong or how much it will cost (which irritates me, I assure you), but I can be certain something will crop up (many things, in fact). Knowing that is better than nothing.

And that’s where the margin comes in. Accepting that overages are inevitable, I can adjust my expectations of the financial, time and energy resources that will be required for a given aspect of life. (Even if I don’t always take my own advice and occasionally come up short.) Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but that won’t stop me from continuing to try.

Determining an appropriate margin when budgeting each type of resource is a bit of an art form. Many books have been written on time and money management. I have benefited a lot from reading and taking workshops on the subjects, so I thought I’d write a short series on how the concept of building in a margin applies to budgeting your time, money and energy. Over the next few Thursdays I will post a piece outlining my thoughts on each topic, some specific tips and techniques, and a few references that I’ve found helpful.

And now I must sign off as it’s past my bed time, and staying up too late will eat into my energy margin tomorrow.  No one likes a crabby person, especially the crab herself.

I know I’m not the only one that faces this issue. How do you deal with overages? Do you build in a margin? Plan for the worst case scenario? Please share your wisdom.