Is Girl Math Really Helping The Girls?

Photographed by Amanda Picotte.
If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of fans who went to see — or are going to see — Taylor Swift’s Eras tour, you likely spent a good portion of your paycheque on tickets, accommodations, outfits, and more for a single night of fun. Yes, the concert is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity but you may find yourself struggling to defend the hefty price tag. Our suggestion? Do girl math.
While this isn’t exactly a new way of thinking, New Zealand radio show Fletch, Vaughan & Hayley has pushed the practice further into the public eye with their new segment called — you guessed it — Girl Math. In a recent segment, the crew helps prove that a listener’s $330 special occasion dress purchase is reasonable, while an economist listens on and shares his opinion. “She’s going to wear it three times. This is not a $330 dress, it’s $110,” says Hayley. Another producer chimes in, saying that this dress has resale value and if the listener sells it for over $110, then one of the wears is basically free. They go back and forth and make such a case for the dress that at the end of the clip, the economist agrees that this purchase is, in fact, a good one — meaning that the girl math is girl mathing.
The segment — and consequential virality — all started off the air. “Our show producer Carwen needed to get her hair done but it was super expensive, and our social media producer Shannon started organically girl mathing it,” Hayley tells Refinery29. “I jumped in and the boys were gobsmacked at how we got the cost of her haircut down to next to nothing — basically free — so we put it on air.”
Before girl math had a name, we called it logic. At its core, girl math is a common thought process among people, most often who identify as women (hence its given name), that helps to justify how we spend our money, from big ticket items broken down by cost per wear to the feeling that using cash isn’t really costing us because if it’s not coming directly out of our bank account, it’s free. It’s the feeling that when you return something, technically you made money because it went back into your account.
While we’ve been using girl math for what feels like forever, the recent discourse around it has us wondering: Why do we even feel the need to dissect our spending like this? Tori Dunlap, founder of Her First 100k and author of Financial Feminist, points out that when traditional experts give financial advice, they often tell us to stop spending money on things they deem unnecessary. “It’s ‘stop spending money on lattes or manicures or designer bags.’ It's not [football] season tickets or video games or golf clubs,” Dunlap says. “We're told that the reason we're not rich is because we're spending money, and then we're told to stop spending money on things that are innately feminine. We're being told that those things aren't worth your money and aren't valuable.” Thus begins the cycle of justifying those purchases to yourself, aka girl math.
“The girl math thing is really showing us that we have to do these mental gymnastics about our spending,” Dunlap continues. “We've been judged for our spending and we feel guilty any time we spend money on anything ...”
It reminds me of the last time I got my nails done: I tipped $20 cash and the nails themselves — a bright, fiery red gel manicure — cost $60 that I charged to my credit card. Because I used cash for the tip it was, essentially, free, and because these nails will likely last me three weeks, I’m technically only paying $2.85 a day to have nice, well-groomed nails, which sounds a lot more worth it than a one-time purchase of ~$80. It might sound wrong and maybe even a little absurd, sure, but if you know what I’m talking about then you know. That’s girl math. Frances Solá-Santiago, fashion writer at Refinery29, recently used girl math on an incredible, highly necessary $100 purchase: six bottles of wine. “[Normally] $100 is five glasses at a bar, so five bottles were free,” she explains.
Of course, this isn’t a thought process reserved exclusively for people who identify as women. But it is called girl math because, one, they’re leading the conversation, and two, cis women’s purchases are often seen as senseless and frivolous, quite like the formal dress debacle the radio hosts were initially arguing about or even my bright red manicure. And many women feel the need to justify their spending this way because of patriarchal standards and the shame that often comes with money and the ways we choose to use it.
We tend to turn to one another to affirm our purchases, so the mental gymnastics we do internally end up coming up in conversations, too. “Arguably, all spending is emotional, even buying organic food for our kids... They are choices that reinforce our values, identities, beliefs,” says Paco de Leon, author of Finance For The People and Refinery29 contributor. “We're such social creatures, so I think if we're ever feeling insecure about the way we’ve spent our money, we're going to go to others for validation.”
There are parts of girl math that are obviously illogical, like the “cash isn’t real money” or “if the money is already in my Starbucks app, it’s free” way of thinking that we should aim to break free of. Your hard-earned money is real money and it should be treated as such, especially with the cost of living constantly skyrocketing. Even de Leon reminds us that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. “Nothing is ever free, there's always a cost,” they say. “Your past self and your future self and your present self, all those different selves are going to be the ones that pay that price and are going to feel that pinch.”
The concept of girl math is funny and senseless and oftentimes illogical but it can also be a legitimate way to reason with yourself and others about your purchases. In fact, it can be argued that girl math has a significantly positive impact due to people who identify as women driving the majority of the purchasing power, with 70-80% of consumer spending either done or influenced by women. The last month is the ultimate example, with Barbie making over $1 billion at the box office.
While we’re always striving to break free from the pressures society puts on us, in the end, girl math isn’t all that deep. As long as you’re buying things you truly love and not spending money just to cope or on things that you can’t afford, then I think us girl math truthers are on the money. Like when you buy that Taylor Swift concert ticket so far in advance that by the time the show rolls around, you feel like you didn’t really spend any money because it was so long ago, so it was actually free. Get it? It’s girl math.
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