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Money & Policy

Overcoming Money Math Skills That Haunt Us

How not to let percentages, tips and critical thinking spook you


Maybe you missed grade school, middle school or high school lessons in key math skills that come in handy managing money as an adult. Or you just don’t remember them. Either way, trouble calculating 40% off for shoes, the amount to tip in a restaurant and even critical thinking can haunt you.

Just ask Leslie Kiel, a former middle school teacher in Columbus, Ind.

When she was in 4th grade, Kiel had several rounds of strep throat, a tonsillectomy, and follow-up surgery, which led her to miss four weeks of school. Despite completing the work her teacher sent home during her absence, Kiel got some uncharacteristically low scores in geometry when she returned to school.

“For years, I tried declaring this as just a part of who I am (‘I’m not a math person‘) and actively worked to avoid math like the plague.”

Even though she received the “catch-up” work, Kiel confesses she didn’t quite catch the skills that were taught. “It felt as if I was missing a part of my brain,” says Kiel.

“For years, I tried declaring this as just a part of who I am (“I’m not a math person”) and actively worked to avoid math like the plague,” Kiel adds. “But you can’t outrun math.”

Laura Laing, author of Math for Grownups, says: “It’s important to remember that we probably missed lots of lessons in third or fourth grade, like how to spell ‘sincerely’ or the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ or the name of the third president of the United States. “Just like with any other skill, we can refresh our math memories or even learn math skills for the first time.”

If you wish you had better math skills for everyday life, here are some tricks to keep them from spooking you out:

Calculating Percentages

“Think of percentages as simple fractions, and then think of those fractions as money,” says Laing.

For example, if you need to know how much 25% off shoes costing $80 would be, think of breaking that $80 into quarters. One quarter (or one fourth) of $80 is $20, so the shoes will actually cost $60.

If the price isn’t a nice, round number like $80, round it up or down. Get into the ballpark, which is probably enough to figure out if you can afford something — or if the discount is enough to open your wallet.

Figuring Out a Restaurant Tip

If you generally like to tip 15% of a meal, take 10% (by moving the decimal point of the bill one place to the left), then  take half of that and add that to get 15%. Or just decide to be generous and double 10% to find 20%. Here are some examples:

A meal costing $55 (round up or down if you need to):

10% is $5.50

5% is about $2.50 (roughly half of $5)

15% is about $8 ($5.50 + $2.50)

20% is $11 (2 x $5.50)

Critical Thinking

Analytical thinking is one of the foundations of mathematics. It can also be useful solving problems you encounter in life. But it stumps some people.

“My favorite ways to practice analytical thinking are to learn how to do something new. The internet has made this so easy,” says Laing.

She recommends tackling a DIY home project, like fixing a leaky toilet. Or try taking up a hobby such as knitting or woodworking that depends on critical thinking skills to complete a project.

Other fun activities to bolster critical thinking: crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles and word games. If you have grandkids, play games with them that reinforce critical-thinking strategies, like Yahtzee, blackjack, gin, Scrabble and Monopoly.

If you’re trying to manage your household budget, draw graphs and charts to help keep track of spending. You’ll soon see patterns and types of purchases to eliminate or reduce.

Your brain automatically catches patterns, so pay attention when it does.

Use critical thinking by reviewing your past money problems and identifying their core causes: lack of planning or not enough savings, for example. That can help you avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

“We can literally build new brain pathways by simply practicing math skills when we need them,” says Laing.

One more thing: don’t be frightened if you need to whip out the calculator on your smartphone. Using technology to solve problems is one great thing about being a grown up.

By Jennifer Nelson
Jennifer Nelson is a Florida-based writer who also writes for MSNBC, FOXnews and AARP.

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