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Girl Math 101: Why this TikTok trend can cost you

Hot girl walks, girl boss, girl dinner – the girl algorithm is working overtime. As tomato girl summer started to wane, the concept of “girl math” began picking up steam on TikTok as women around the world jumped on the trend of sharing the mental gymnastics that they use to rationalize everyday spending habits. 

It’s basically just feminine-coded financial accounting: think “If I buy a top that costs $50 but I return it, I make $50,” or “If I don’t need to reload my Starbucks card to pay for coffee, it’s free.” With 1.1 billion views, the #girlmath hashtag has spawned dozens of articles debating the seriousness of a social media joke, but it’s also a reminder of the gendered stereotypes that persist in personal finance. 

What is Girl Math?

The term “girl math” was around before TikTok, but a video from Toronto-based user Samantha James popularized it on the app and kicked off the latest discourse. In a follow-up video, James calls girl math “fun logic” and says “it’s not about good vs. bad financial decisions…We can be silly – it doesn’t mean that we’re bad with our money.” 

A few examples of girl math shared on TikTok include:

  • If something is on sale and you don’t buy it, you’re losing money.
  • Spending more to get free shipping actually saves you money.
  • If you pay for a trip in advance, by the time you go on the trip, it’s free. 

“There's often shame attached to wanting, especially for women who have been stigmatized with the stereotype of being a frivolous spender. Meanwhile, research has shown that men are just as likely to splurge, spend more when they treat themselves and are more likely to make riskier purchases,” says Melissa Leong, author of the award-winning finance guide, Happy Go Money. “So female content creators have reclaimed the joke and have used the hashtag to bond and unite.”

Why Girl Math can be a financial slippery slope

Girl math isn’t necessarily meant to be taken seriously – some examples play off of Gen Z ironic bimbo culture, while others are self-aware, silly and self-deprecating. It’s popular because it’s relatable – many people (not just women) feel the need to justify their purchases to themselves or their spouses. But depending on your point of view, the girl-coded language also can have a sinister underpinning of perpetuating long-held stereotypes that women are frivolous spenders and bad at math. 

“We all need a break, and we all need a way to make finance fun and cute. But when is it cute and engaging, and when is it giving permission to abdicate financial awareness and confidence and rewarding yourself without excuse?” says financial expert Kelley Keehn, bestselling author of 10 personal finance books including Rich Girl, Broke Girl

Keehn says having biases and faulty mental accounting when it comes to money certainly isn’t gender-specific.

“We’re just not wired to connect with our future self, so we have that present bias of this is what we understand now,” she says. “But I think the whole girl math thing irks me because it’s asking for permission to do these things. ‘Well, I did this calculation in my head, so I can spend money.’ No, you earned that money – take ownership of your money. And if you want to spend it, more girl power to you. Spend it.” 

Is there any merit to Girl Math?

Girl math is mainly about spending, but Leong says it can also encompass savvy things like credit card tips or travel point hacks. Calculating cost per wear before buying a piece of clothing has been around long before girl math, but it popped up as an example of how to reframe buying new clothing or restyling something from your closet.  

Also read: Credit card churning 101

“Girl math should be a part of a larger financial strategy and process; we have limited resources and it is up to each of us to decide how we should spend our time, our money, and our efforts,” says Leong. “Girl math can be about figuring out what you value and then diverting resources to that. If calculating cost-per-wear or couponing to get something for free inspires you to think more about finances, that's fantastic. I'd just take it a step further and step back and look at the bigger picture.” 

Using girl math doesn’t mean you’re bad with money, but Keehn says she would like to see women use more empowering examples of girl math. 

“Imagine if girl math was, ‘I can buy this $1,000 bag because I negotiated my salary and I brought in 20% more, and I invested in an income property with five other friends and brought in money on a side hustle.’ Or, ‘I called up my back and got my annual credit card fee waived.’ If that was the girl math I was hearing, that’s so empowering. Let’s show how smart we are and how shrewd and thoughtful we are with our money. I’d love to see more of that,” she says.

How to make your finances work for you?

There are certain personal finance basics everyone should follow: building a budget, tracking expenses, having an emergency fund, saving for short-term goals using a high-interest savings account (travel, concerts, etc.) and opening an RRSP to save for retirement. 

As a spender at heart, Keehn says she isn’t a big fan of excessive budgeting – like dieting, it creates a scarcity mentality. Instead, Keehn and her husband do a 30-day “anti-budget” twice a year. With this exercise, you write down every single purchase you make with your debit card and/or credit card(s) over a 30-day period – including any subscriptions, memberships or payments that automatically come out of your account. The next step is to create categories and look for trends, then multiply how much you spend in each category by 12 to see how much you roughly spend in a year. From there, you can decide if you’re comfortable with how much you’re spending, or whether you want to cut back in certain areas and put your money toward saving or paying down debt. 

Keehn says it’s an exercise in choice and behavioural awareness. When you’re aware of where your money is going, Keehn says you’re more likely to feel empowered to make choices that don’t feel like sacrificing. 

“I don’t think you need to count your calories every time you eat, I don’t think you need to count your financial calories every single day. But if you do that a couple of times a year, it really helps you connect and see where your money is going,” Keehn says. 

The bottom line

Girl math has spawned spinoffs including boy math (“Boy math is how 5’10” measures 6’”), Toronto math (“Making double the money your parents did at your age but not being able to afford half the stuff they had”) and even dog math (“When you break one treat into two, it’s actually zero treats, because you’ve committed a crime”). Ultimately, girl math is just math.  

“Everyone has a little judge in their minds with lawyers arguing why a want is really a need and why anything has value. Girl math just makes fun of this process,” says Leong. “But with anything on the internet, we need to encourage everyone, including younger audiences who use TikTok as a primary search engine to use anything they see online as a prompt for more research, rather than the last word.”

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