As TikTok obsessives, we love a new trend, and this summer has been full of them. We've had ‘girl dinners’, ‘hot girl walks’ and ‘rat girls’, to name a few.
While most of these are a bit of harmless fun, one of the latest viral trends, known as ‘girl math’ has a darker side.
Allow us to explain. Girl math is a system used by TikTokers to justify big purchases or spending habits in a way that makes no mathematical sense. The phenomenon seems to have begun on a New Zealand radio show ‘Fletch, Vaughan & Hayley’, who have a segment on the topic. People phone in to to the show to share their extravagant purchases, including spending $1000 on a bag and $5,600 on four nights of Taylor Swift tickets. The hosts then help them to justify their spending by estimating the number of times they can expect to use it or what they may be saving in return.
In one clip, the hosts conclude that a designer bag is ‘basically free’ because its versatility means you’re ‘getting four bags in one.’ In another video, they work out that a Dyson hairdryer is actually making the caller money because they’re saving $100 on getting professional blowdries four times a week.
The radio show quickly resonated with TikTokers, who are sharing their own versions of girl math under the hashtag, which has garnered over 90 million views on the app.
One popular TikTok by user @portiawoolley explains ‘if I pay for something with cash, it’s free. Why? Girl math. If I pay for something in advance and then everyone else sends me the money later on, that money is extra money. Girl math.’
In another video, user @mckennaelianna shares some examples of this confusing way of thinking, saying ‘Anything under $5 is free, anything I buy with a gift card is free, if I buy something and then I return it, I’ve made money. Going to an event or a concert is free because I purchased the tickets so long ago it doesn't even count.’
On the surface, girl math is a tongue-in-cheek joke which I’m sure many of us can relate to. I often try and justify my new holiday purchases, or fill an online basket, only to come back to it hours later and change my mind.
But the trend also reinforces outdated stereotypes, one narrative being that women are frivolous and can’t control their spending. Millennial women will remember Carrie’s designer shoe obsession in Sex and the City or Becky Bloomwood’s spending habits in Confessions of a Shopaholic. A 2018 study by Starling Bank on the gendered language around money found that 65 percent of financial articles in women’s magazines categorised women as excessive spenders. In the case of those aimed at men, 70 percent emphasised making money. Essentially, these tropes suggest men earn the money while women go out and spend it.
Plus, why should women - or anyone, in fact – feel the need to justify their spending? While we’re all feeling the squeeze due to the cost-of-living crisis, that’s not to say that we aren’t able to make intelligent decisions about our finances.
We need to approach the idea that women can't be trusted with their money with caution. These tropes can be used to justify financial abuse in relationships, a worrying practice that involves limiting someone's access to money or exploiting their financial situation. According to the charity Surviving Economic Abuse, one in six women have experienced financial abuse by a partner. This made headlines in 2018 when Mel B revealed that her former husband seized control of her finances during their 10-year marriage.
The trend also seems to reinforce the trope that girls are inherently bad at maths, so they need their own system to calculate purchases. A 2019 study found no gender difference in the way boys’ and girls’ brains function when it comes to their aptitude for maths, but the stereotype still lives on both inside and outside the classroom. Would there ever be a trend called 'boy maths?' We're not so sure.
While it’s important we don’t take these TikTok trends too seriously, it’s also worth remembering that you don’t need to justify your finances to anyone. Frivolous or not, we shouldn't feel guilty about treating ourselves every now and again.