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Advice | ‘Girl math’ is fun, but don’t let it fool you


I’ve done some girl math before. You probably have, too.

Once, when I forgot to return an item in time to get a refund, I put myself on a spending freeze. In my head, I sort of got that money back because I wasn’t spending on new clothes.

Or, you might tell yourself that if a friend repays you for their portion of a dinner after you put the meal on your credit card, the cash is basically free money.

In the latest viral TikTok trend, young women are explaining money habits or spending choices that make no mathematical sense. Such as if you buy anything that costs less than $5, it isn’t real money because, at that price, it’s practically free.

Here’s how one TikTok user explains girl math:

  • You’re losing money if you don’t purchase something when it’s on sale.
  • You’re losing money if you don’t spend enough to qualify for free shipping.
  • You’re making money whenever you skip your daily coffee or soda run.
  • Anything in your Venmo or Apple wallet that isn’t immediately spent is free money.

In response to this TikTok, one commenter shared her own accounting artistry: “When you buy something that’s like $100 and you do both cash and [credit] card you technically only spent $50 because cash is free money.”

The videos and comments are comical, as long as everyone is in on the joke.

“I hate to see this notion that women are spendthrifts or not good with money,” said Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning for Morningstar.

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I asked my 22-year-old daughter what she thought of girl math.

“They’re hilarious,” she said, waiting for my indignation at the absurdity of the financial contortions.

Watch what you say, Mom, because older people take the fun out of this stuff, she cautioned when I told her I wanted to write about the trend.

My daughter was right; I was dismissive at first. But the videos in their ridiculousness are entertaining.

There’s no need to have a “moral panic” about the trend, says Dan Egan, vice president of behavioral finance and investing for Betterment, a digital investment advisory firm.

Egan says what’s at play is psychology. And, it’s obvious this has nothing to do with gender.

Kidding aside, girl math represents the type of mental accounting many people do, guys included. It’s how we compartmentalize financial decisions. It’s also how we justify overspending.

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“Mental accounting is a facet of human psychology,” Egan said. “It is not necessarily good or bad. It’s that we keep money in separate little mental accounts that exist only inside of our head. And those mental accounts lead us to act very differently when thinking about spending or saving.

Companies use mental accounting on us all the time, Egan points out.

For instance, think about the times when you are making a return and the retailer offers you two options — a cash refund or a store gift card.

If enough time passes, you may think of that store credit as “free money.” It’s not, of course. It allowed the retailer to keep your money on their accounting books, Egan points out. We also know that when people use a gift card, they often end up spending more money when they finally redeem it. And with a gift card, they are more likely to spend impulsively.

Egan isn’t bothered by some of the tactics described in the videos. Sometimes it is fine not to worry about small purchases that, in the long term, won’t have significant consequences on building wealth, he said.

“Having a few things where I can say, ‘It’s okay to spend this,’ where I don’t have to get all antsy and have anxiety about it, is kind of nice,” Egan said. “You should not be beating yourself up about the coffee each day or the little spending here, the little spending there.”

However, there’s a “but” in this way of thinking.

“Don’t spend time on little things that are a waste of your time,” he said. “Do spend time stressing about the big things.”

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You only have so much mental capacity for financial decision-making, Egan said. So, focus on those choices, such as housing and health-care costs or whether you need to figure out a way to make more money.

Maybe you don’t sweat all the small stuff, but you better have a plan or a good budget to manage larger expenses. It’s also important to realize uncontrolled overspending on a lot of little things can add up to big money.

Kia McCallister-Young, director of America Saves, laughed out loud when I asked her about girl math. America Saves is a campaign managed by the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America that uses the principles of behavioral economics to encourage low- and moderate-income households to get out of debt and save more.

McCallister-Young, like Egan, is amused by girl math but says don’t be fooled into thinking you’re saving when you aren’t.

“I think listening to the Olympics of girl math is fun from a standpoint of, like, it’s all in jest,” she said. “What it tells me, what it signifies, is that a lot of people think about money only in the present.”

Here’s a “but” again.

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Don’t neglect to address your past (your debt), the present (building an emergency fund) and the future (major milestones like retirement).

“There is an important piece of this just from an educational standpoint,” McCallister-Young said. “You could be doing girl math and call it girl math all you want, but you still need to have a clear view of your finances.”

B.O.M. — The best of Michelle Singletary on personal finance

If you have a personal finance question for Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary, please call 1-855-ASK-POST (1-855-275-7678).

Recession-proof your life: The tsunami of economic news is leading consumers, investors and would-be homeowners alike to ask whether a recession is inevitable. Regardless of the answer, there are practical steps you can take to help shield yourself from a worst-case scenario.

Credit card debt: Carrying credit card debt is never good and you should ditch the habit. Here are seven ways to lower your credit card debt in light of the Fed continuing to raise interest rates.

Money moves for life: For a more sweeping overview of Michelle’s timeless money advice, see Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones. The interactive package offers guidance for every life stage, whether you’re just starting out in your career to living an abundant life in retirement.

Test Yourself: Do you know where you stand financially? Take our quiz and read advice from Michelle.

POST AUTHOR: Michelle Singletary

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