Monday, March 27, 2006

My Achilles' Tendon - Bad Math Skills

I have a confession to make. I'm really bad at math. When other personal finance bloggers talk about ratios and calculations and algorithms and such, I tend to start tuning out. In the immortal words of my best friend, "How can you be so intelligent, yet so bad at math?" Hmm. Good question. If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn't be asking you to figure out the food bill, now would I? Thank God for online financial calculators and Quicken software. Even so, I recognize that bad math skills are a huge risk factor for me. I'm more easily swayed by fast talking sales people because I sometimes don't understand how they got at a specific number. And I definitely can't do quick calculations in my head. So it's sometimes hard to tell whether I've gotten a good deal or not.

Most of the time, I can just laugh and shrug it off. My standard response to criticism is that "I have many other fine qualities." :-) Usually this happens when I go out to eat with friends, and I ask how much I owe. Thankfully, there's always somebody else in the group who can figure out the food bill in their head.

But today, I went to lunch with a friend whose math skills are just as bad as mine are. Of course, I didn't know that ahead of time. I let her figure out the food bill, and we wound up under tipping the waitress. Believe me, it was purely unintentional. But the waitress quickly made her displeasure known to us. She practically threw a takeout container at me, as she walked by. To make matters worse, it took us a while to figure out why she was angry at us. My friend and I literally were standing outside of the restaurant arguing about the food bill. Finally, my friend agreed that I was probably right. So, she wound up going back into the restaurant and giving the hostess some extra cash to give to the waitress. The irony was that the lower tip was probably warranted. The waitress already had a bad attitude when she got to our table. She practically rolled her eyes at us when we didn't order drinks. And she got my friend's order wrong (dressing on the side, please). If we wanted to send a message to the waitress, that would've been the way to do it.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that I am bad at math, and I need to use a calculator next time. Sure, I might look like a complete idiot next to my math whiz friends because I can't do simple multiplication, division and addition in my head. But it's better than relying on other folks to do it for me and then getting it wrong.


Miserly Bastard said...

No offense, but if you can't calculate a 15% tip, your math skills are worse than bad... they are atrocious. If you plan to manage your own money, you need to get more comfortable with basic math. I'm not saying that you need to be able to do math in your head, but you should understand basic concepts like time-value of money/net present value, yield on bonds, etc. If you are unable to learn these basic concepts, you need to find an advisor to help you. I recommend that you go out today and purchase a used copy of the Wall Street Journal Guide to Money and Investing. It is a very slender book that you can find used on Amazon for less than a buck, and will get you on the path to financial numeracy.

IRA said...

Actually, it was a 20% tip :-) But just to clarify, I define 'bad' as being unable to do calculations in my head. In terms of formal education, I did well enough on the Calculus Advanced Placement test in high school that I didn't have to take the class in college.

mapgirl said...

Try the calculator that's built into many cellphones these days. Especially if you're tipsy figuring out the bar tab.

Miserly Bastard said...

Not being able to figure a 20% tip is worse than not being able to figure a 15% tip, since a 20% tip is just twice the size of a 10% tip... and a 10% tip just involves taking the decimal point and moving it 1 place to the left. Seriously, though, a good rule for calculating 15% tips is to double the tax, which is itemized on the bill. (This rule works only if you have around 7-8% sales tax.)

IRA said...

Hahaha. I figured you would say that, but I wanted to come clean.