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Business News/ News / If It’s Under $5 It’s Free: The Logic of ‘Girl Math’ and ‘Boy Math’
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If It’s Under $5 It’s Free: The Logic of ‘Girl Math’ and ‘Boy Math’

wsj

Consumers are sharing the crafty ways they justify discretionary spending. ‘Oh, I’m not the only one who thinks like this!’

If you wear a $100 sweater 50 times, how much does that sweater cost? Premium
If you wear a $100 sweater 50 times, how much does that sweater cost?

The rules are simple: Using cash doesn’t really count as spending. Prices should always be rounded down. Savings are earnings. And anything under $5 is free.

“A refund is free money," explains Nniffer Guldner, a 39-year-old social worker in Royersford, Pa. She’s returning a bunch of Halloween purchases soon and is excited to feel like she’s making money—so she can spend that dough all over again.

Guldner is one of many Americans embracing the latest personal-finance pastime: justifying discretionary purchases with artful arithmetic and then sharing that handiwork with friends, family and even strangers.

Millions of consumers are gleefully touting their twisty spending logic on social media, often under tongue-in-cheek hashtags—and the tabulations are now jumping into real-life. A few days ago, for instance, Sparrows Tattoo Company, of Mansfield, Texas, publicly cited the funky arithmetic to demonstrate how getting inked makes financial sense.

“Tattoos are basically free because you pay for it once and have it till you die," says the company’s Facebook post. “Which means it only costs cents a day when you divide total cost over how long you’ll have it." More than 900 people weighed in.

This wisdom rings true to Josh Benevides, 47, the co-owner of a used-sporting-goods store in Juneau, Alaska. He says he bought an exercise bike for physical therapy after he tore his ACL, and felt hesitant about the bike’s $400 price tag until he soothed his mind with an equation.

“If I ride the bike 400 times, it only costs me a dollar a ride!" Benevides recalls realizing. He’s since used it about 4,000 times, so thus, he says, he is now “riding for a dime! Boom."

The recent airing of spending justifications appeals to people because it’s so relatable. Most of us have long done such shopping riddles, says Stacy Francis, president and CEO of financial advisory firm Francis Financial in New York.

“Regardless of whether you’re male or female, when you’re spending small amounts like $5, your brain doesn’t register that it could be a lot of money," says Francis. “Even though, in reality, $5 a day is $1,825 a year," and could be around $150,000 if invested over 30 years at 6%.

Illogical shopping math is also a diversion when prices at the grocery store, gas station and car dealerships are noticeably higher than in recent memory. It can feel extra good these days to psychologically discount that pricey latte or trendy jeans.

“As a mom, I have guilt if I’m spending on myself because I should be spending on my kids," says Guldner, the Pennsylvania social worker. “It’s a game you play in your head."

Recently, for instance, Guldner set out to buy a pair of Dr. Martens boots that cost $130. In her search, she found a similar pair that cost only $50. By her computation, buying the cheaper shoes meant she had actually made money. “There was $80 more that I could have for sports bras and sweaters," she says.

Businesses have long tapped into quirks in consumer behavior, and will price items just below the dollar threshold, so that a TV costs $299 and those headphones are $99.99. Researchers say some consumers simply associate 99-cent pricing with good deals.

More recently the droll phrase “girl math" took off thanks to a New Zealand radio show that created a playful call-in segment by the same name to help women justify purchases.

One segment featured a mother of two who wanted help rationalizing buying a $400-plus (in U.S. dollars) Dyson hair dryer. Though it was denting her wallet, it was taming her hair and taking her only two minutes to dry her hair versus 40 minutes before. The verdict? The caller was actually making money if an hourly rate of her time was factored in, plus the cost of frizz-taming hair products she no longer needed, and doctor-appointment copays she didn’t have to pay for because she wouldn’t have wet hair when she went outside.

The hashtag #girlmath, often promoted by women themselves, now has more than 844 million views on TikTok. There is also now #boymath—talking about oversights men make in their own mental calculations.

(Francis, the financial-firm president, says that women are just as money savvy as men, and that a better name for this kind of math, no matter who does it, should be “dumb math.")

Kayla Garza, a 22-year-old college student at the University of Houston, says it has just been nice to see other shoppers talking freely about their logic and realize, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one who thinks like this!’"

When Garza looks at price tags, she says, she often ignores the cents. She recently bought a pair of jeans from American Eagle for $95.95 but told her mom they were $90, and she understands why many Starbucks customers feel the drinks they buy using their app don’t cost anything; the transaction is frictionless.

Courtney Simmons, a 21-year-old housekeeper in Philadelphia, says there is some truth to her reasoning, flawed as it may be. When she nabs a discount she treats the savings as earnings. “If I was going to buy a $100 sweater, and it is on sale for $50, and then I buy something else for $60, I only spent $10," she says.

When Marley Brown, an 18-year-old college freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, buys concert tickets, she says she determines the cost based on total hours of entertainment. That is why paying to see Taylor Swift’s three-hour concert two times was worth her money, she says.

She also believes the cost of clothing can be calculated per wear. A $50 sweater worn 50 times technically means the sweater costs $1.

All of this is logic she has explained to her father, Austin Brown, a 47-year-old finance professional, in videos that have gone viral on TikTok. He often rebuts her arguments, pointing out the faulty calculations in a fatherly fashion. Their videos have received over 12 million views.

During a Google Hangout call, with a Journal reporter joining, father and daughter bickered over the wisdom of hitting a spending threshold to get free shipping.

“If the shipping is $5, I’ll get another $10 shirt for the free shipping because I’d rather pay for a product and not something I don’t have a return on," Marley explained.

Austin, naturally, didn’t agree. “You’ve just fallen prey to consumerism culture by spending money on something you didn’t need in the first place," he said, sighing. “You now have less money in your pocket than you already did."

Still, such spending riddles don’t bother him if people are financially responsible, which he said his daughter is.

“I’ve seen men spending $8,000 on triathlon wheels because it might save them a millisecond," he said, “and I’ve seen guys spend $3,000 on new golf clubs because it might save one of their strokes."

Write to Chavie Lieber at Chavie.Lieber@WSJ.com

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