Maths, the only subject that counts

24 April 2019
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Just because I write about money, and turn up on TV and radio talking about the stuff, people assume that I’m a maths genius. But I’m not a natural mathematician by any means.

I have an English degree (so useful!) and used to take so little interest in maths classes at school that I would hum absent-mindedly while working out figures, to the annoyance of my classmates. They were busy trying to hide the blackboard wiper from Miss Smith our bespectacled and absent-minded maths teacher. My school didn’t turn out many maths geniuses.

But I’ve developed an interest and ability in maths and, yes, a respect for it as I’ve seen and experienced the practical effect that it has on my day-to-day and long-term finances.

I can’t say that I love maths. I like angles… but only to a degree (sorry, couldn’t help myself). And numbers that can’t be divided by two just seem odd to me (ker-ching).

Personally, I blame society because it’s so much easier than facing my own faults. But look at how innumerate we all are.  For a start, we believe any old number splashed across the side of a bus. It’s a national disease this ‘antimathsitis’. In the UK, it’s quite all right to say: “I’m hopeless at maths; numbers make me dizzy”, but we would never say: “I’m useless at words – I can’t read at all”.

We are so afraid of numbers that we turn them into shapes or stories. When I was growing up things were routinely priced in Mars Bars: “That bike’s worth about 100 Mars bars”. Geographical areas are still measured in football grounds: “The Sheik’s house is as big as 20 football pitches.” Don’t even get me started on Wales which, to most commentators, only exists as a measuring stick for natural disasters. If it’s bad and big, it’s “the size of Wales”.

Like the Americans, we cling unaccountably to unhelpful measurements in 12s and 16s, rather than the easier and more logical 10s, 100s and 1,000s. Mind you, at least we’ve had the sense to accept centigrade for our temperature, rather than farenheit where the freezing point of water is a handy 32 degrees. In what universe would water want to freeze at anything other than a good old zero?

Britain may be a nation of shopkeepers but we prefer the romance of life rather than counting figures.

Perhaps that’s why we came up with romantic terminology in the 1824 Weights and Measures Act, which established imperial measurements, imposing not only feet, yards and inches across the British Empire but also fabulous furlongs, luscious leagues and fantastic fathoms. I have to admit I would rather fathom leagues and gallop furlongs than crawl over pedestrian kilometres. But ask me how long any of those are and I couldn’t tell you.

Then there is a dozen, another 12-based unit. Who came up with that idea? We’re not good at times-tables, so why make us work things out in multiples of 12? Even then, we couldn’t quite handle a proper number and added a ‘Baker’s dozen’ for 13. Who was the baker, why did he keep adding an extra bun in the bag and why can’t Greggs revive this great tradition?

Romantic, old story-tellers we may be, but our collective innumeracy is adding up to a big problem. We’re losing actual pounds and pence (maybe shillings and farthings) on a grand scale, thanks to our inability and unwillingness to grasp hold of day-to-day maths. To us, maths is an acronym for Mental Abuse To Human Species and we won’t stand for it.

We hold on to expensive credit card debts at 19% while still putting money into savings accounts at 0.5%, not ‘doing the maths’ and seeing how much we’re losing month by month.

We eschew stock market funds with upwards of 4% annual returns and instead hold on to Cash Isas paying barely 1%. In fact, the whole area of investing remains a mystery to most of us because it involves percentage signs and a bit of compound interest and who bothered with that at school? Humming was more fun.

It’s hardly a surprise that Asian economies, where maths reigns supreme, lead the world. China and its neighbours are at the top of the OECD maths capability chart every year. And it shows at the top too. Singapore’s President Lee Hsien Loong has a first-class maths degree from Cambridge, while the UK’s recent prime ministers studied politics or law, apart from Margaret Thatcher, the chemist (and geographer Theresa May.)

But then, as the politicians will tell you, maths is just 50% numbers, 50% functions and 50% imagination.

JASMINE BIRTLES is a financial journalist and founder of MoneyMagpie.com. Email her at columnists@moneywise.co.uk.