How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Financial Math

I fucking hated math in high school.

It was torture. Though I did ok throughout Algebra I and Geometry, once I got to Algebra II… the wheels came off the bus. I listened to entire lectures on logarithms delivered in the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher. I didn’t understand why it mattered, its practical application, nor why I needed it.

And to this day I’m convinced my teacher was a sociopath who derived great joy from my confusion. Let’s call her Dorothy Ball because her fucking name was Dorothy Ball. (How you like me now, Dotty?) She was one of those teachers who, instead of motivating students to give it their all, slowly crushed the joy of learning out of me and convinced me that I was a feeble-minded and frivolous girl for not picking up what she put down.

Clearly I wanted to learn math—or at least I cared about my academic standing—because I remember sitting through a meeting with my mom and Ms. Ball to come up with a strategy for improving. I’ll never forget that meeting.

With great pity in her eyes, she said, “It’s ok that you’re not good at math. You’re good at other things. So let’s just shoot for passing, ok?”

The callous harridan was right: I was good at other things. Like mentally eviscerating those who dared to condescend to me.

But, as we all know… I still needed math to survive.

Ignorant and directionless

I started walking out of that hateful crone’s class to informally meet with another math teacher. And with his different teaching style, it all clicked for me. Algebra not only made sense, it became addictive. I found my groove and I got with it. (Thanks, Mr. I. I’ll never forget what you did for me.)

I don’t want to deflect blame for my own stubborn adolescent aversion to math. But this reveals a bigger problem. No one effectively explained to me how math could benefit my life if I wasn’t going to be an astrophysicist or engineer. Not my teachers, not my parents. You’d think financial math would be a thing American public high schools drill into their students.

You’d be wrong.

Life handed me the reins to my own adult finances while I had nary a clue as to how to steer them.

No one taught me how to make my money work for me. No one taught me how to budget or invest. And nobody taught me that doing a little bit of easy math and planning could make my life exponentially easier down the road.

A whole world of life-changing magic existed at my fingertips. Yet I was blinded because numbers were evil, boring, and painful (thanks again, Dotty).

From hatred of math to fear of money

I didn’t end up destitute and buried in consumer debt, if that’s where you think this is going. Fortunately, I was too afraid of money to let it get out of hand. From an early age I at least understood “don’t spend more than you make,” which was at least enough to keep me relatively safe.

But my ignorance and fear still had a negative effect.

I earned and saved without a plan. I did my job, I put my wages in the bank. But I was working blind.

I made as much money as I could in my college years working as a nanny for rich white people who preferred me to more qualified immigrants. My checking account filled and I fretted nervously any time I used some of it for basic expenses. I had no idea of the value of money, or what it could get me.

Like Lord Voldemort, my fear of money grew in the shadows while I dared not invoke its name. Maybe if I didn’t talk about it, it would stay dormant and unthreatening.

The value of money

I remember a conversation with Kitty back in the day. She’s always had a better grasp on these things (life in general, money in particular) than I do. Like me, she worked a grueling job. We were both looking forward to making Real Money at Very Important Adult Jobs after college.

“How much money do you ideally want to make after college?” she asked.

I had no fucking idea.

Like… I literally did not understand the value of a given salary. I didn’t have any notion of the kind of annual salary required to live comfortably, buy healthy groceries, and pay my student loans while saving for retirement. And I certainly didn’t know what a house cost. I was raised in privilege, and my family never worried about money in my presence. Such financial maneuvering was leagues over my head at that point.

I needed like $35 for my monthly student subway pass and $700 for rent (2007, y’all) and that was the extent of my understanding. I shit you not, I was that ignorant, that in denial. But the conversation got my wheels turning.

Ignorance is frightening as hell. Because when you don’t know things, you’re at the mercy of those who do. They can find new and exciting ways to fuck you over. And this is never more true than when it comes to money.

My wake-up call

I got that Very Important Adult Job. My employer made me an offer on the phone: $23,000 a year including benefits.

Yes. I know. But again, I had no fucking clue what money was worth. I had just graduated and I didn’t own a car—I didn’t even understand what my monthly student loan payments would be. If I had, I like to think I would’ve negotiated for more.

Not only was I ignorant of the impact student loan debt would have on the rest of my life, but I’d always been told that if I studied hard, I’d graduate and quickly get a job with a reasonable salary and be able to pay back my student loans while building a life for myself without any difficulty.

Which is… not necessarily true.

The limitations of my $23,000 salary rapidly became apparent. I thought back to Kitty’s question. I thought back to the goddamn pointlessness of my high school algebra class. And I thought ahead to everything I wanted to do in my life.

And it was at that moment, when I had supposedly “made it” with my real grown up job but felt so far from actually making it… that something clicked.

I couldn’t be afraid of money anymore, and I couldn’t live in ignorance of its magical properties. I was responsible for myself, and nobody else was going to manage my finances for me.

Taking control of financial math and my financial future

So I started reading financial blogs. I went to the library. There and online, I researched the actual cost of things like houses and cars and plane tickets. I found out about differing costs of living, the Great Recession, the disadvantages of student loan debt, and just how screwed my graduating class of 2009 was.

Slowly but surely, money began to mean more than numbers. It began to gain worth for me. I thought in denominations of my monthly rent. And I did the actual math to tally up my expenses—rent, groceries, student loans, gas—to see how much of my paycheck would be left over for anything else (normal Earth humans refer to this process as “creating a budget”).

And that little bit of financial math was super liberating. I definitely didn’t have a lot of money, but at least I knew exactly how much I didn’t have. What a revelation! What ultimate power within my grasp!

I understood that I could either buy gas to get to work, or I could go out to see a movie, but not both. My money had definite limitations. All I had to do to keep afloat was stay within them.

Started from the bottom, now we’re here

I’m a long way from that first entry-level salary now. But I’m so relieved I took the time then to educate myself, to break out of my cycle of financial ignorance before I had more assets to my name. Once I wrapped my head around the concrete meaning of my money and all the possibilities it opened up for me, the rest followed.

The fact that I am now one half of the bitchiest blogging team in the personal finance blogosphere should stand as proof positive that I have set aside my ignorant youth and truly learned to love financial math.

Now I love nothing more than calculating the compounding interest on my index fund. I’m a home owner and I put a little extra toward my mortgage every month. I paid off my dreaded student loans in record time. I’ve hacked my grocery budget to within an inch of its life. People come to me for financial advice! Behold my award-winning money blog!

In your face, Dotty.

16 thoughts to “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Financial Math”

  1. Way back in elementary school I won an award for math in second grade (despite my mild dislike of the subject). By high school that had turned into hating math and still getting As somehow (I cannot for the life of me remember a single thing I learned in calculus or how on earth I managed to get those grades). Thank god for just barely getting a high enough grade on the AP Calc test to keep me from needing to take a math class in college! #shithumanitiesmajorssay

    I was having a conversation with my brother yesterday about his plans for when he gets out of school with his Masters in the spring. He told me he’d save learning about personal finance for after he graduated, which resulted in possibly an all-caps overreaction from me. Learn from the mistakes of people who didn’t do this: the best thing to do is to learn about how to manage money before you have any to manage!

  2. Worst part of it is, they make financial math sound even more boring than all the other math I hated (which as you point out, felt weirdly geared toward future engineers). Which is ridiculous because I had a very similar hatred of math & shitty school condescension, before I realized how much fucking fun it is to calculate how much money you’re making and how to make it faster. (Paid off 26k student loans in two years, no thanks to you, asshole past teachers!)

    I think it comes from my parents and their generation not really understanding it themselves. My mom, and my boyfriends’ parents are scared to invest, thinking it as a rigged gamble in favour of the super smart elite. My dad is more into investing/strategizing loans and mortgaging and has an elaborate budget and I bug him about strategies for saving a lot, but I get the impression he started very late in life when he ran some numbers and realized retirement was going to be fucking impossible without some immediate overhauls. Otherwise, adults of their age seem to get disgruntled at the idea of any more than a modest hand in their own finances. Mom likes to tell me of the humble tale of her parents (so my grandparents) not needing any credit cards & barely making it by on some physical cash and no bank accounts. That’s nice mom, but it really don’t work like it did in the 40s on a farm.

  3. The only exercise or assignment related to finances or general life math skills we ever did in high school was in religion class, of all places. I went to a Catholic high school and our senior year Religion teacher clearly had no interest in actually teaching us about Catholicism, so instead it became a weird medley of general life skills and whatever the teacher found interesting (which also included teaching us all how to detect lumps in our breasts, how car insurance worked, and making us take Myers Briggs tests). She made us list our dream job and our dream city. We had to look up the lowest starting salary for that job, plus the average monthly rent in that city. We then had to create a monthly budget based on the rent, our phone bill, the average electric bill in that area, monthly transportation costs, a weekly menu of three meals a day and add in the cost of groceries to make those meals for a month. Finally, we wrote an essay with our findings, and described what we thought our general quality of life would be and what we would have to sacrifice to make it work, such as getting a roommate, or going out less.

    Damn, was that an eye opener. So many of us naive artsy kids were pretty horrified to realize that we would only be able to live on PB&J’s and share a one bedroom with four people if we followed our dreams to become a painter in San Francisco or whatever. I don’t think she meant to crush all our hopes and dreams, just give us a sense of perspective. I am forever grateful that teacher got bored with the Bible and decided to teach us some adulting.

    1. That sounds stupendously useful. I wish like hell I’d had the same experience. Perhaps this is what home economics classes SHOULD be like???

  4. I was scared to death of money when I graduated college. I thought I was doing something by putting $50 into a savings account every pay period.

  5. I have always loved math for some odd reason. And I loved the fact that, despite being one of only two or three girls in my advanced math classes, I often beat all the boys in the math contests.

    Not sure why I felt that need to brag. Maybe because I’m sitting in my grungy sweatpants eating chocolate peanut butter ice cream from a mug because I have used all the bowls to eat ice cream on other nights?

    I agree that it makes no sense that schools don’t teach more practical math. The teach us how to find the derivative of an equation but not how to balance a cheque book.

  6. There are few betrayals worse in the educational arena than dismissing a student’s abilities and crushing their self confidence, but I know it happens a lot.

    I was always convinced that I was stupid at math because my mom was brilliant at it so it couldn’t be a gender thing, but I kept failing to grasp the concepts after oh, arithmetic or something like that. Then I realized that if it’s money math I’m awesome at it because I love money so maybe that belief was flawed?

    I’m so happy when women are great at it and show it – Yay Solitary Diner!

  7. I read regularly but have never felt so compelled as RIGHT NOW to share my Dotty story: I had worked hard over the summer to get out of remedial math classes and back in with my peers. I had stayed after school to retake a test I had failed. I had failed the retake in new and different ways. I started sobbing. Dotty says “It’s ok if you have to switch to the remedial class. You have to understand your limitations. You wouldn’t try to take an AP English or History class, would you?” Reader, I was taking and pulling decent grades in BOTH AP English and history and I knew in that moment I’d never allow myself in a room with Dotty again. IT’S BEEN FIFTEEN YEARS AND STILL I REMEMBER.

    More to the point, I wish I could go back fifteen years and give high school me this blog post. I’m not exactly bad at money but like you I had no idea what the cost of life was and I could be in much better shape right now if I’d just… had an understanding.

  8. The only ever worthwhile course I ever took in College and in the public school system in North America was in senior year -Real Estate Finance where we actually did an assignment shopping for mortgages and figuring out which type to go with, going to actual open houses, and presenting to the class what happened in the sub prime mortgage collapse a year earlier.
    Class of 2009 ftw!

  9. I completely identify with having no idea what salaries meant in the real world. I have very vivid (somewhat traumatic) memories of getting my first paycheck, subtracting out my bills, realizing how little was left, and feeling like I’d been infinitely lied to for the previous 24 years about the life my education could supposedly get me. It was brutal. I never went into debt, but those first couple years of work were a struggle. Later on, people were giving advice like, don’t take out more student loans than you intend to make in your first year of work. I can only imagine what might have been if I’d looked into either of those two variables. Ultimately, I’m happy with my choices, but it’s not to say I wouldn’t have made different choices if I had been more aware. Financial education from both parents and in schools is critical.

  10. I loved money ever since I was little but did not learn about it in high school… even though my Mom did the budgeting for our family (so it wasn’t like I grew up thinking it was not a girl thing) and we were always open about stuff like that the only thing I came away with really was the debt was BAD. And I was really, really good at saving up my paltry allowance.

    And in HS I damn well better take accelerated math and get good grades at it because I was going to college, and it was going to be on scholarship because we didn’t have money. So not succeeding at least minimally was not really an option, but that didn’t lay a foundation for understanding adult finance issues. I took psychology as a HS elective and we had a project where we had to go around with a potted plant which was a “baby” and we were assigned to be couples and had to find out how much the baby cost and things like that. Somehow that didn’t click for me except that I thought it was freaking expensive to have a kid.

    I *did* learn about the value of math in college even though I tested out of taking anything. However as a psych major I had to take a math-based stats course and a psychology stats course. When I hit the psych stats it all clicked and I did more than my usual good because I knew WHY the hell I was doing it.

    I didn’t learn about finance and investing until my husband wanted to start shopping for a house after the market tanked. So, this was literally YEARS after I had started my first adult job after grad school (the early love of money had also led me to career choices as profitable as they could be and still be a psychologist). Good thing I had stayed away from debt and even squirreled away money all those years in grad school since when I finally figured shit out I was in good shape.

    But REALLY why is this not taught in HS??????? Even if it doesn’t click right away, you would then have the mental map.

    Also, Dotty should be shot. But, teaching does not attract the highest quality people – they usually go for something more highly paid. And it takes work to teach a kid that doesn’t understand your teaching method/lesson plan when you’ve got a zillion other students so it’s easier to go with the explanation that this is just not their topic area. All this to say that I agree with the poster that we should pay teachers more and have more of them rather than setting things up as a society so that the profession burns out the smart dedicated people and in general does not actually attract a whole lot of smart dedicated people.

    1. Solidarity, my friend. You went on a JOURNEY. I think a future article will need to be about why we don’t teach financial math in high school. There’s got to be a reason.

  11. Wow, can we please stop with the nastiness about teachers? Holy Moly! I teach and I work with a lot of awesome teachers, and yes, there are some who are not so sparkly and wonderful but still…anyway, the curricula we teach really come down from the state level, so if you are interested in changing that, by all means, please contact your state legislators. I think the idea of a semester of real life math instead of the more abstract stuff most of us still don’t grasp makes perfect sense. And yes, I work hard to be the kind of teacher whose most basic lesson is, “You can do this; I’m here to help” never “You can’t do this.” Yikes.
    btw: I teach art and I make sure that they know that math and money and history and politics are important for everyone; you don’t get to opt out because you are creative. It is all connected.
    A few more things to share: I also hit the wall at Algebra II and scraped through the year and never went back. But, my Mom, being divorced and having gone back to work and being an anxious planner type was constantly at her desk at night, with the bills and the numbers and talking our ears off about money and property taxes, and utility bills, and her IRA, so that sank in for me there. I never thought that because I couldn’t do Algebra II that it meant I had lost the ability to add, subtract, divide and multiply, which is mostly what you need to run your own financial life. Well, that and the ability to regulate your impulses and deal with your emotions.
    A final note, when I was buying my house on my own, I was doing a lot of research and picking a lot of brains and was shocked how many women I asked (math teachers!) said “I don’t know, my husband handles all of that” Wow. So kudos to you bitches! This is important, empowering stuff.

    1. Hold on there tiger, pretty sure I was only nasty about ONE teacher, one single teacher who did a shitty job. I’m not holding her up as the epitome of all teachers everywhere. In fact, please note this paragraph from the second section:

      “I started walking out of that hateful crone’s class to informally meet with another math teacher. And with his different teaching style, it all clicked for me. Algebra not only made sense, it became addictive. I found my groove and I got with it. (Thanks Mr. I. I’ll never forget what you did for me.)”

      Don’t infer that my dislike of a single teacher is commentary on all teachers or the curricula they’re forced to teach. Teachers make a goddamn difference, which is the entire point I was trying to make.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *