You Don’t Have to Be Good at Math to Be Good at Personal Finance

Happy Friday! Who’s looking forward to an awesome weekend!? 🙋‍♂️🙋‍♀️

Today I’m gonna share something a little embarrassing… It’s the final report card from my graduating year at high school. Check this out:

A bad Math report card doesn't mean no early financial independence

As you can see, Math was my worst subject. 29 out of 100… I’ve never scored lower than 29% on anything in my entire life! This class was the rock bottom of my formal education.

But, before you label me a complete idiot, you should know a few things about Australian high school vs. American high school:

  • Australia has wicked high standards for curriculum. For example, this high school Math class “1S PES” included Applied Calculus – stuff most Americans usually don’t get taught until later in college. No wonder I sucked at it, I was only 17!
  • The grading system is wacky down under. For example, I received the highest Art Design score in the whole school (and still only got 87%). In the US, many schools give the highest person 100%, then grade the entire class based on a curve.
  • In the USA you must pass every class to graduate from high school. For AUS they go based on weighted averages. You can suck really bad in 1 subject and make it up by overachieving in others. This is how I passed high school.

Anyway, no matter which way you look at it, I was labelled “bad at Math.” All my teachers, my peers, and my grades told me that I would never be a numbers expert. I received merits in every other subject.

This report card is from 18 years ago. Today, I have a job writing about finances, of which some stuff has a heavy math focus. How can a guy who barely scraped through high school get a job writing about numbers? How can a guy like that become financially independent and be able retire early in life?

Here are a few things I’ve realized about math and personal finance. I hope these insights encourage others who may have been (or currently are) a similar type of student as me.

1. You don’t have to be good at math to be good with money

Many people think becoming a millionaire is complicated and you have to have advanced knowledge in investing, economics and complex math. This simply isn’t true.

Kicking ass in personal finance is a simple and repeatable process, no matter your level of education. It’s based on proven principles and habits…

  • Work as hard and smart as you can
  • Earn as much money as you can
  • Spend less than you earn
  • Save and invest the difference
  • Repeat this for many years

After high school I jumped straight into the workforce while my ‘smart’ friends went to college. I always felt bad about this, like they were getting smarter and smarter, and I had given up on education. I hate to admit it, but I let my high school report card define who I was for a long time. Big mistake.

Then somewhere around my late 20’s, I looked around and realized I had more money than most other people my age. I realized that my growing wealth wasn’t because of my academics, or lack thereof… It was due to my subtle daily habits and following the basic money principles.

You can be the smartest math genius in the world and still be flat broke later in life. And you can be a high school dropout and become financially independent in your 30s. Don’t ever let bad math grades convince you that you’re bad at money or will never be wealthy! If you’re not convinced, just read The Millionaire Next Door and learn what most true wealthy people are like. :)

2. Formal education vs. self education

School while you’re young is important. Your mind is a sponge, you have unlimited spare time, and education is packaged nicely into 1 hour classroom learning sessions.

Learning as an adult is much harder. And inconvenient! It requires self motivation, discipline, and time to acquire knowledge. Many young kids think that when college is over, the learning stops. This isn’t the case at all!

The reason I’m better at math today and can comprehend finance stuff is because I slowly built up knowledge over time. Books, podcasts, blogs, independent courses and asking good questions all contributed to my education. And, I’ve still got a loooong way to go!

If I could go back in time and give advice to my high school self, it would be:

  • Just because you’re not great at something today, it doesn’t mean you will never be good at it. Learning never stops.
  • If you didn’t learn something in school, or from your parents at home, that’s OK. There are a ton of places you can pick up knowledge and learn as an adult.
  • In school, a report card tells you how well you’re doing. In personal finance, your net worth is your report card. It is the single best tool that tells you if you’re on the right track, or need to study harder! Your school report card goes away in your 20’s. Your net worth report card never goes away.

3. There’s a calculator for that!

My grandpa once sat me down and said, “Joel, if you ever don’t know how to do something in life, that’s OK. Because there’s someone else out there who knows how to do it – and you can always hire them to do it for you.” 

As a kid I was self-conscious about my education (still am a bit I guess). But Grandpa helped me realize that it’s OK not knowing everything. As long as I know where or how to find the information when I need it, I’ll be fine.

  • Don’t know how mortgages work? That’s what mortgage brokers are for! They do it all day, every day.
  • Not good at spreadsheets or calculating formulas? There are a TON of free resources online where people have created stuff and simplified it down for beginners.
  • Can’t calculate your effective tax rate based on your AGI or determine how much capital gains harvesting is best for your 2020 filing? Don’t stress! There are calculators to help you with all that stuff. CPAs, tax professionals, and random enthusiasts can point you in the right direction. It’s OK that you don’t know.

Giving up on improving your finances because “math is too confusing” is like slashing your other 3 tires because you have 1 flat. Just call in an expert for help and get back on the road :)

Have an awesome weekend, all! Stay safe out there!

– Joel

Friends on FIRE financial independence podcastPS: I was a guest this week on a fun podcast called Friends on FIRE! We chat about habits, happiness, and hard work :) Check the show out here, or wherever you regularly get your podcasts from. Cheers to the hosts Maggie and Mike for having me!

 

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14 Comments

  1. Bob September 18, 2020 at 6:45 AM

    Love this statement from your column, “it’s OK not knowing everything. As long as I know where or how to find the information when I need it, I’ll be fine.” I’ve tried to live by that philosophy for a long time, and it has usually paid off for me. One caveat, I would make, is you have to make the effort to find the information, as you obviously have.

    Reply
    1. Joel September 18, 2020 at 9:16 AM

      Great point Bob. Effort is still required!

      Reply
  2. The Millennial Money Woman September 18, 2020 at 6:47 AM

    Hi Joel,

    I think this post is extremely valuable because there seems to be a misconception that in order to be a millionaire (or successful with money) you have to be really good in math. And I know many people who shy away from all financial matters because they think money has a lot to do with math – which is not really the case.

    To be honest, I always thought that finance had a lot to do with math as well. Now that I am shoulder-deep in finance, I can tell you with certainty that personal finance really doesn’t revolve so much around math. It’s always a good idea to know basic math skills but we won’t need to know calculus to be successful! Rather, it’s more about the successful financial habits that you practice.

    Great article and great post. Thanks for sharing!

    The Millennial Money Woman

    Reply
    1. Joel September 18, 2020 at 9:21 AM

      It’s sad that people shy away, or use “bad at math” as an excuse not to take any action. Glad you know where I’m coming from and are helping encourage people to think differently! Cheers MMW, have a wicked Friday!

      Reply
  3. Christine September 18, 2020 at 7:54 AM

    Good points all! I loved to point out at my last job where I worked in Economics that I dropped Micro Economics in college. I also hated math in h.s. I did okay in it (even calculus!) but really hated it and it didn’t come naturally. Turns out, applying concepts didn’t require either of those things. It also matters how things are taught. I would have loved economics if it had been presented to me as more than formulas!

    Reply
    1. Joel September 18, 2020 at 9:29 AM

      Me too! The way we are taught resonates different for each person. I’m an ‘applied’ type of learner, so formulas don’t make sense without a backstory and real world example attached :) Cheers Christine!

      Reply
  4. JASON BROWN September 18, 2020 at 8:31 AM

    Excellent post! I tell people this all the time. You don’t need a degree in finance or accounting to be able to manage money. You need to willpower, self-discipline, logic, reason, and common sense. It’s about viewing money differently than our society and culture teaches us. Changing your mindset. And so much of this is behavior modification. Simply making wise choices. Sure, I want that new $40,000 car, but wait, I can’t afford that. Should I still buy it? What is the wise decision to make?

    Reply
    1. Joel September 18, 2020 at 9:43 AM

      Thanks Jason! Yep, so much of personal money management is about mindset and basic behaviors. Math skills certainly provide a potential advantage – but nothing trumps behavior and good habits – which we can all learn pretty easily.

      Reply
  5. Adam September 18, 2020 at 9:08 AM

    My goodness, point #3 resonates. If it weren’t for a spreadsheet that J$ posted on this here site years ago I wouldn’t be half as far along as I am toward FIRE. Everything we do is on the shoulders of giants; even those with the best ideas would never get them implemented without the efforts of talented colleagues and friends. All we’ve got is varying shades of attitude, luck, privilege, and inspiration.

    Reply
  6. Angelina September 18, 2020 at 11:44 AM

    I was horrible at math. I think my grades were not much better than yours. I live in Belgium, Europe and our school system was one of the best of the world for years, so thats also a bit of an excuse.
    Although I did finish a Master Degree in something not Math-related, the last job I had in my working career was beeing responsible for a big budget for maintaining 16 University campusses. I always thought that was hilarious, but apparently I did a good job. I stopped working 5 years ago at age 33 and since then my husband and I have been supporting our family with three kids with income from our investments. My husbands insists the financial independence part of our life has all happened because of me and the way I use our money.
    So yes, everything is possible if you just focus and keep your goals clear!
    Have a nice day,
    Angelina

    Reply
    1. Joel September 18, 2020 at 11:48 AM

      Great story and thanks for sharing! Love the clear goals and focus message. :) Cheers Angelina!

      Reply
  7. Donna Alderman September 18, 2020 at 9:27 PM

    Great article! Thanks so much Joel – have sent this to my sons, all 4 of them lol!!
    I’m such an advocate for continuing education once school finishes – in fact, that’s where the real education really begins, right?!
    Enjoy your weekend!

    Reply
    1. Joel September 19, 2020 at 11:52 AM

      Awesome Donna! I wish I had heard this message more when I was younger. The education never stops!

      Reply

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