There are two myths related to martial arts and money:

  • It is a good idea to make a living teaching a martial art
  • A dojo is above worldly concerns like money

Let’s dispel these myths as best we can.

It’s NOT a good idea to make a living teaching a martial art

We all have driven by myriad of retail stores that sell martial arts classes. Usually parked out front is some fancy car that is owned by the instructor, creating the impression that the instructor is raking in the money. And, in many cases, that may be true. But that does not make it a good idea to make a living teaching a martial art. Doing so is a very slippery slope. There are simply too many situations in which monetary matters can interfere with the quality and integrity of the art itself. For example, consider this: it’s the first of the month and rent is due. For whatever reason, you’re short on revenue. What do you do? Too often, a common solution is to promote some of your existing students, which results in increased revenue by way of test fees. As anyone can see, this has a detrimental affect, because you are promoting students not because they have earned the rank, but because you need money. This dilutes the meaning of the rank and reduces the overall quality of the dojo.

A second solution is to host a seminar, and gain additional revenue through seminar fees. The advantage of this solution is that you aren’t promoting anyone; you’re simply encouraging further training. The downside of this is that students only have so much disposable income. If you keep offering seminars over and over again, the odds are that you will have fewer and fewer attendees. Most students know that, when their instructor is teaching a seminar, there is a certain obligation to attend. When they can no longer meet that obligation, or when students feel that their loyalty is getting abused, then that generates a negative feeling, which also reduces the overall quality of the dojo.

A third option is that you could raise the dues, but that’s difficult to do on the fly and seriously risks alienating your students. Consider that you have 20 students, each paying $100 a month to train. You need more money, so you decide to raise dues by $10 to $110. In theory, that should move your revenue from $2000 to $2200. However, what is more likely to happen is that a couple of students, who may have already been on the edge of their comfort zone with dues payments, quit. Now, instead of having 20 students paying $100, you have 18 students paying $110.  The net result? Instead of $2000 a month, you are now receiving $1980. You have actually lost $20 a month.

This is not to say that testing is bad, or that seminars are bad, or that raising dues is bad. What I am saying is that doing these things simply to shore up a shaky financial situation is not a long-term solution, and in fact can have some serious consequences down the road.

A dojo needs money

Another common myth regarding a dojo is that, because it is a martial art and, hopefully, works at some sort of assumed higher moral level, the dojo itself is above concerns such as money. Instructors who make this mistake regularly find themselves without a dojo before too long. A dojo has expenses, and these expenses go beyond simply paying rent. I think of it as buying a house or a car. When I first bought a car, I thought the only payments I would have to make would be my loan payment and gas. Of course I was wrong in this assumption. There were windshield wipers to replace, headlights to buy, oil changes–not to mention repairs when something broke. The same is true with a dojo; beyond simply rent and utilities, there are always unexpected expenses or things that need to get purchased. One piece advice that I received when I first started my dojo was: “Be sure that you are compensated.” I’ve interpreted this advice to mean: “Be sure the dojo is fiscally viable.” If you shoot for break-even with a dojo, or “free,” then you are always putting yourself in the position of personally making up any shortfalls in the budget. Note here that I am referring to the dojo, not to the instructor or owner, as I was earlier. The differences in needs between a dojo and the corresponding instructor are vast.

There are students, also, who seem to think that, because a dojo focuses on big, philosophical, zen-like ideas, they might be able to train on a scholarship or free basis. I, personally, have rarely seen such situations work in a modern dojo. Even in dojos in which an uchi-deshi (live-in student) program is supportable, those deshis are still responsible for paying rent and other expenses. In the past, I have seen many students attempt to trade in work for training, but this never seems viable either. The failure of this situation is not necessarily because the student has any ill-intent; what typically happens is that the student in question is already working long hours just to make ends meet. As a result, they have a choice: either do the work they need to do in order to train, in which case they very likely don’t have time to actually train themselves, or train, but fall short on their assigned chores that are mitigating their dues commitment. To be blunt, we live in America, and we put a high value on things that cost money. I rarely meet people for whom this isn’t true. As a result, when someone gets something, like training, without paying money for it, it is very likely that the student will discount the value of the training, or take advantage of the offer. This is why most dojos try not to offer any sort of scholarship program–it avoids the whole mess to begin with.

(I’d like to pause here and say there is one great exception to this no-scholarship rule: existing students. At our dojo, I am happy to help students who have been training and then have hit upon a financially difficult time. These are people who have already become a part of our community, and I feel that, as a community, it is our responsibility to help each other out when there is a need.)

With all this said, it can be hard as an instructor, or as a dojo, to have to hold firm to the financial rules of the dojo. This is why many instructors wisely step aside from running the business-side of the school and let someone else handle it. I, personally, never want to see someone walk away because they can’t afford our membership dues; it is one of the reasons why I try to keep our dues as reasonable as possible. But when someone does require aid, I put their need against the need of the dojo as a whole, and it doesn’t take long for me to realize that if I let everyone train for free, then suddenly no one would be able to train at all.

Fiscal Viability

The advice I received long ago is probably one of the best guidelines for students and instructors alike. A dojo must be fiscally viable if it is going to survive. From the instructor’s standpoint, I interpret this to mean that the dojo must be profitable if it is to grow, and that I should ensure that my own needs (and the needs of my family) are supported by something else, such as my day job, to ensure that the dojo is only burdened with supporting itself. As a student, it means that I need to understand that the dojo has financial needs, and that my contribution helps ensure that those needs are met with the least amount of discomfort for the community as a whole. If both instructors and students approach the financial needs of a dojo correctly, then the result is a thriving community in which everyone can focus on training–which is what we should be doing anyway.

One thought on “Money

  1. Cool post. I’ve pondered on the whole money aspect of martial arts myself from time to time. Fiscal means is something everyone has to tackle at some point or another, either student or sensei. Back when i was still taking karate every so often my sensei would have a “private instruction saturday” where, for a rather hefty fee, you could have an hour of one on one time with the teacher. It never occured to me at the time that it might be extra income for the dojo, i just stared longingly at the sign up list and forlornly at my empty wallet.

    I feel the same way you do in regards to your comment about monetary concerns being a possible hinderance to the quality and integrity to the art. I was amused a few months ago to see that Miyamoto Musashi was concerned with the same thing as well. He wrote in the first few pages of The Book of Five Rings: “….Someone who might want to learn such a way with the goal of making money should keep in mind the saying ‘Strategy, inadequately learned, is the cause of serious wounds'” I think it’s interesting to know that a man that traveled around half his life trying to become an instructor to a lord wasn’t interested in the koku involved.

    Lol, I may have tsugi ashied into left field. Enjoyed your post.

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