By HEATHER E. SCHWARTZ
I know it’s wrong to say (especially as a woman in 2019), but I do find math somewhat … difficult. I’ve been paying more attention to the numbers in my life lately, and I’m finding it takes a lot of work to keep them in order. Maybe I’m just out of practice. I’ve spent too many years calling myself a “word person”—as if you can’t be good at both words and numbers — and declaring outright that I’m “bad at math.”
Yeah, labels like that don’t help. I also have to admit this isn’t the best message to spread around to my kids (who, luckily, happen to be great at math).
In case anyone else has trouble with this stuff, here are a few things I’ve learned about math during the past months.
Calculators and computers cannot always account for the human errors made by the humans operating them. In other words, I need to check my work. Several times. I’m not exaggerating when I say I can add a column of numbers four times and get four different answers. Confusing? Yes. But only the correct one matters, so I’ve got to keep checking till I get it right.
Planning out an entire year’s budget means thinking in terms of weeks, not months. Multiplying a monthly budget by 12 won’t cut it because although we all know there are 12 months in a year, some of us (me) tend to forget there are 52 weeks. When I can remember that, five-week months are no longer an unwelcome and surprising financial problem.
If the question is, “Would you like a receipt?” I should always, always say, “Yes.” (Even to those 5-foot-long CVS receipts.) It’s a lot easier to rely on these physical reminders when tracking spending than my unreliable and overcrowded memory. By the time I get home from grocery shopping, my mind is busy strategizing how I’ll pull together dinner in the late afternoon heat, the total I spent easily forgotten.
Failing to budget for unexpected expenses doesn’t make them go away. This month alone, I’ve been hit with library fines (OK, that’s my own fault), ice cream truck purchases (again, a choice I made), and the costs associated with repurchasing pants I bought — and wore — in the wrong size (It was an honest mistake!). Where did this money come from? Next month’s spending budget. When that future month comes, the numbers will leave me short so I have to reach into the following month’s budget, and so on. Math itself demands that I create a change jar and sell some clothes (including those pants I can’t return) at a consignment store. I have to build up a budget for these “unexpected expenses” because honestly, they’re not all that rare.
This may sound simple, and really, it is. When I think about it, getting math right as an adult all comes down to correct calculations. It’s probably fourth grade stuff. Not algebra. Not calculus. There’s no final exam looming.
Of course, there is retirement… I guess that’ll have to be enough to motivate me to work my math over the next few decades.