How to Be Bad at Math, But Good at Money

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I’ve heard a number of personal finance bloggers state that people aren’t interested in money because they’re intimidated by math. That seems like a straw man argument because in my mind, being good with money has little to nothing to do with math. Money is not about math; it’s about emotions.

Being Good with Money is Not about Math

I was very good at calculus but quite terrible at any kind of useful math. I tend to make egregious errors in arithmetic.

How can I be (often) bad with math and good with money? Well, why do we even think money is about math? Because there are numbers involved? I don’t think most people have a problem understanding that they need to spend less than what they earn. I don’t think most people have a problem understanding the percentages and arithmetic needed to create a budget. You can copy a budget from online or use an Excel spreadsheet if you’re THAT bad with math.

Creating the budget is easy.  The main problem is sticking to that budget and that involves self-control and emotions, not math.

Jason Kelly raised a good point for my last article – the differential between what I paid and what my boyfriend paid was probably inconsequential.
We could have spreadsheet-ed it out. I could have paid the next several meals out or frankly, just given him the difference in cash. But I think we all know that that would not have solved the problem. Like so many fights, what we were explicitly fighting about was not the real cause of our problems. You fight about chores with your spouse, but you’re really longing to feel appreciated. You fight about curfews with your kids, but you’re really projecting your own anxieties about your kid growing up.
Our fight wasn’t about money – it was about our expectations.

How Expectations Can Ruin Our Relationship with Money (and with Others)

Bob and I talked about this recently. (Bob reads my blog – I mean, I guess it makes sense because who wouldn’t want to read the inner thoughts of their ex?). I came from a background where my father paid for everything. Now, my parents made similar salaries and they had a joint account. So when I say my father paid, it wasn’t as if my mother was getting a free meal. The only sacrifice was that my dad carried his wallet around and my mom didn’t have to.
My parents hate the idea of splitting the check, but their way of paying wasn’t meaningfully different than going dutch. My dad could have paid for some of the meals and my mom the rest.  My mom could have paid for all the meals. It’s all exactly the same math-wise. Their payment arrangement had nothing to do with the math and everything to do with emotions. My mom liked feeling taken care of even if she was paying for half. I knew the whole thing was a ruse but it was a cute ruse. The money part worked because everyone’s feelings were attended to.

When Math Won’t Solve Your Money Problems

It was pretty stupid for me to want my parents’ situation in my relationship with my boyfriend. We weren’t married. I made more than him and we didn’t have a joint account. When he was treating me, there was less money for him. I wanted the same emotions but it wasn’t the same math.
Of course, if we had made it perfectly equal, I still wouldn’t have been happy. I needed to adjust my expectations. This was no place to think that, because I was a woman, I should have been treated to his money. I made more than enough to pay an equal share. I made more than enough to pay for everything. But I was equating money with affection, and that’s a dangerous misconception.

The Aftermath

I dated a guy recently and on our first few dates, we went dutch. This has rarely happened on my dates, but in terms of the math it made sense. He was a graduate student and I made 6x what he did. Still, I took the action as a sign that he wasn’t interested. But he kept asking me out on dates. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. So you know what I did?
I asked him if he liked me.
*Mind blown* What? Honesty has no place in dating, I can hear you all say. But I asked him, and he answered that he did. And that was the basis for our relationship. He liked me, I liked him and we communicated it via words instead of implied it with actions involving money. I’m not sure if this is how adults have relationships, but I’m going to try it more often.
We might say that we “need” the guy to pay for dates to show that he cares. The other way he can show he cares? By using his words. Money can’t solve these problems because money isn’t about math.