The big problem with ‘girl math’

Financial Planning, Investing, Lifestyle
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Any item you buy that’s less than, say, $10 is basically free. If you book a fancy holiday for several months’ time from now, that’s also free. And if you drop a few hundred dollars on a dress but wear it a dozen times over two years, that’s not just free, but a sage investment.

Welcome to 'girl math'

‘Girl math’ became a popular online trend at some stage in the middle of last year, seeing young women take to TikTok and Instagram to share their own personal examples of mind-bending spending justification.

There was one about how if you bought and returned something that cost $50, you’d actually made $50, and another about someone balking at paying $5 shipping on a $20 item but being thrilled with paying $30 for something that ships for free.

The implication is that women both aren’t very good at mathematics or finances and will go to extraordinary and often logic-defying lengths to rationalise their money habits.

It’s all in good fun… right?

I’m not going to deny that the memes were mostly pretty funny, and the self-deprecating female creators behind them seemed to be aware of their nonsensical money rules.

But behind the virality lies a stark reality. Young women in Australia face significantly more financial stress than young men – and are at risk of falling into bad money habits that haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Recent data released by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission paint a grim picture. According to ASIC, Generation Z women are:

  • more likely than Gen Z men to be severely stressed about the cost of living (87 per cent to 77 per cent)
  • more likely than Gen Z men to feel overwhelmed by finances (57 per cent compared to 41 per cent)
  • less likely than Gen Z men to research ways to grow their wealth (14 per cent compared to 21 per cent)
  • more likely than Gen Z men to have no personal savings (11 per cent compared to four per cent), and
  • more likely than Gen Z men to use buy-now-pay-later services (32 per cent compared to 25 per cent).

So, Gen Z women – anyone born from 1997 onward – are worried about money, unlikely to explore ways to improve their situations, have no savings, and rely on AfterPay and other services.

The dangers of ‘girl math’

There are some hard home truths that need to be heard by the women who subscribe to ‘girl math’ and, even when laughing at it, don’t change their habits.

One of the most common ‘girl math’ examples was the so-called ‘cost-per-wear’ principle, which is basically the belief that something expensive used many times is a worthwhile cost because you get a lot out of it.

I’d be willing to bet that few, if any purchases justified with the cost-per-wear principle aren’t smart ones and won’t lead to financial security.

Instead, they probably come with high initial costs that deplete available cash and limit other spending opportunities. And how long will that item’s lifespan really be? If it’s an item of clothing, be it a fabulous dress or a pricey coat, will it still be on-trend in a year or two? 

There’s also the risk of loss of damage plus the ongoing cost of maintenance to keep it in tip-top shape, such as drycleaning, which is never cheap.

Also, just because something is expensive, doesn’t mean it’s of a high quality or well-made. You might not end up getting many wears out of that huge cost.

And, of course, there’s the argument that if you don’t have much money, spending a lot of it on something non-essential is fraught with danger.

Positive change is needed

‘Girl math’ doesn’t seem quite so hilarious when you realise what’s actually happening beyond the funny memes. I’m not alone in feeling this way.

The trend has been turned on its head by many and become a provocative movement challenging women’s financial confidence and literacy. There are calls for women, and young women especially, to be proactive and take control of their futures by investing time in education.

Buy a beautiful dress. Get your hair done. Go on a girl’s trip. I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t enjoy the lives they lead, but I’m saying the ‘girl math’ trend went viral for a reason – so many young women see themselves reflected in the memes.

‘Girl math’ also simplifies something that’s very complex. Personal finances and individual circumstances can’t be distilled into a 90-second video clip. There’s also a risk of letting ourselves excuse unhealthy habits because they’re ‘funny’ and becoming stuck in a costly rut.

If it takes an incredible or absurd feat of justification, it’s not a worthwhile or smart expense. If you can’t afford it, you probably shouldn’t buy it. And if you keep repeating the same bad habits, they’re harder to break and only become more and more destructive.

Being financially literate takes work, but it’s not impossible. And good financial behaviours aren’t innate – they can be learnt at any age. Whether it’s learning how to save, managing debt, creating and sticking to a budget, growing your wealth, or planning for retirement, there are effective strategies available to make it as hassle-free as possible.

The financial decisions we make today, both good and bad, compound over time and become bigger and bigger in our lifetimes.

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Andrew Mirams