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Girl Math 101: Believing that it's Real

Updated: 5 days ago

Written By: Kuhuo Bajaj | Edited By: Lavanya Goswami

I am a well informed, financially aware, modern woman. Of course I do girl math. Purchases that are returnable for a refund aren’t just free, but profitable. A Rs 13,000 handbag costs me Rs 35 per use if I use it every other day for the next two years. A concert ticket purchased in March for a concert that's in August–is basically free. Informed from the cinema classic ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’, all my clothes and accessories are not incorrigible spendings, but rather a very healthy investment. 

We've all justified unnecessary purchases before, but now social media has labeled the habit as "girl math." This heavily gendered, stereotypical term, which glorifies my money management and mathematical ability, existed long before the tik-tok trend and was widely used by men, women and gender non-confirming individuals alike. I say this because Girl Math isn't entirely a fluff delusional theory with the sole purpose of promoting capitalism (and all the pretty stuff that comes with it). Parts of it are backed by solid economic theory that dates back centuries. 

Breaking down the total expense into bite sized pieces according to cost per use is an example of mental accounting. Mental accounting refers to the different values a person places on the same amount of money, based on subjective criteria, often with detrimental results. The mental-accounting line of thinking seems to make sense but is in fact highly illogical, so is my girl math illogical too? Maybe, but if viewed differently, the expenditure in March on the concert ticket for August can be categorized as Sunk cost, i.e., money that has already been spent and cannot be recovered. And since sunk costs are excluded from future business decisions because they will remain the same regardless of the outcome of a decision, my concert tickets are basically free by August! The same can be extended to purchase returns, where getting a refund is seen as “earning money”. Scholars suggest that consumers treat refunds as money already lost, so spending these funds on another purchase feels less painful. People are more likely to spend money from a product refund than from a bonus, and even more likely to spend refunded money than unexpected income, like lottery winnings and tax refunds. We call this “the refund effect.” Companies have subtly been promoting this girl math concept by making returns easier because it's profitable for them as well. Research done at MIT finds that when a company has a lenient product-return policy, which allows customers to return almost any product at any time, they are more willing to make other purchases.  The knowledge that they can return a product reduces the risk customers might perceive in purchasing it in the first place. So the company gets higher sales, I get to make more returns and we both earn money. See, girl math. 

If this logic is so foolproof and widely used, then why is it girl math, and not just math? That's because, in our society there is a cost to being a woman, and thus, it's costly to be a woman. We pay the pink tax for almost every product that we use. Tampon prices are skyrocketing and no, inflation cannot justify that. A razor used by men costs Rs 60 while a women’s breeze smooth razor with avocado gel bars costs Rs 390, which is 6.5 times more expensive than their male counterparts serving the same basic hair removal purpose. As women’s products are generally more expensive, we have more buyer’s remorse. It refers to negative emotions—such as regret, anxiety or guilt—that consumers may experience after buying an item. And thus, we need a seemingly logical idea – heuristics and biases – to justify this heightened buyer's remorse. That adds the girl in math. 

I am a well informed, financially aware, modern woman. Of course I am not just reliant on girl math for my entire budgeting. But with the gender pay gap, occupational segregation and the expensive pepper spray that I need to carry in my bag, my calculations suggest that hauling at the next sale won't hurt a lot. It’s a comparatively smaller fraction of my expenditures.


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