Why I Love Personal Finance: Universal Math Meets Individual Values

From about fifth grade forward, I wasn’t a big fan of math. Not to be too Barbie about it, but math class is tough, right? I apparently was fairly good at it, though, because I was put in an advanced math track in school (which just made it all the harder). By the time I got to calculus, I was pretty sick of the whole subject. Then, in my senior year of high school, I took calculus-based physics for the first time, and I finally got it. This was why math existed – for physics! (Well, that’s true for calculus, but not generally.) For the sake of being a physics major, I forced myself through a few more years of math – up through differential equations. It was difficult, but worth it to be able to study science.


All that to say: I’m not really into math, but personal finance math is pretty easy. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division? Compound interest that I throw into a calculator? Yes, please. No problem. I eat it up.


Math at this level is simple and clear (to me). It’s black and white. The numbers have to add up. There one right answer and anything else is a wrong answer. I find this very appealing, so that is one reason why I love personal finance. Math is important in personal finance and math can give you an exact answer.


But in personal finance, math is not the only consideration. If it were, we wouldn’t have discussions about personal finance, we would just help each other with our math and then move on. In personal finance, math is on a necessary collision course with values.


Values, or our priorities, are squishy. Each one of us has a unique values constellation. Our values can change over time, too. Values inform the financial goals we set and the tactics we choose to meet them. To be frank, in personal finance values can sometimes trump math, or mess math up. We won’t all arrive at the same decisions, not because math works differently for each of us, but because we all have different values, personalities, experiences, risk tolerances, etc. (Values are why people argue about snowballs vs. avalanches and other fiercely defended personal finance dichotomies.)


multiple choiceRemember back in the day multiple choice tests asked you to choose the correct answer? That’s like math alone – there is one correct answer. I noticed that, whether because of time passing or the level of the test I was taking, eventually the ‘choose the correct answer’ instructions became ‘choose the best answer.’ It was an acknowledgement that more than one answer might be correct at different times, but you are still going to be able to determine which answer is best. Personal finance is like an ambiguous-answer multiple choice math test where we are expected to choose the ‘best’ answer, and we each get to define what ‘best’ means. (That’s not to even mention multiple multiple choice test questions!) In this sense, there will not be one correct answer, but rather almost any mathematically reasonable answer may be right for some individual.


Instead of frustrating me, the values aspect of personal finance makes me love the subject even more. (Well, sometimes it is frustrating when I think the math is so stark it should trump any set of values…) Personal finance wouldn’t be so much fun to discuss if all our answers were always the same. I actually love getting to know other people’s values via how they choose to use their money (and time). I believe understanding each other’s values deepens our relationships. And I love encouraging, coaching, showing, and helping people to align how they use their money with their values. Only when we are deeply aware of our own values can we maximize our enjoyment of our money (and life!).


To my mind, math and values are the central players in personal finance. Without math, personal finance wouldn’t function. Without values, personal finance wouldn’t be interesting or important. Math and values are completely vital to the process of doing personal finance, and I find both aspects fun and captivating.


Why do you love personal finance? How much do you rely on math vs. plumbing your values when you make financial decisions?


photo by Dennis Skley


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8 Responses to "Why I Love Personal Finance: Universal Math Meets Individual Values"

  1. I love math too Emily! It’s very challenging for some, but when you find it interesting, it’s like every number or equation seems easy to solve. I actually apply what I learn in school when it comes to personal finance. The challenge is not about math, but it’s about organization and completeness, making sure I have included all numbers I need to get the absolute results.

    1. Emily says:

      I definitely agree that the organization and completeness is more of a challenge than the math at the personal finance level. Really, you never have full information (can’t predict the future!) so at some point you just have to make decisions.

  2. I’m a depressive, and both myself and my husband have health problems. So there are quite a few instances where the best answer just isn’t an option.

    Instead, we’ve (okay, I’ve) had to learn to work within our limitations to do the best we can without physically or emotionally setting ourselves back.

    It’s frustrating some days. But my Type-A personality is finally learning to relax and let it go.

    1. Emily says:

      Yes, I agree that health limitations would absolutely sit alongside values to frame your choices and that it would likely trump math in many instances. Can you give an example of when this has occurred for you?

  3. Zee Hamdani says:

    This is such a good view on the relationship between math and personal finance. But it really is true, that each individual is in a different situation and due to these different situations, each one has their own take on personal finance. What might work for you, may not work for me. And we need to learn that even if it doesn’t it is totally okay. What should matter the most is what works best for us. We should be open to advice but only apply it if it will be beneficial for our situation as well.

    1. Emily says:

      I totally agree with your last point – be open to advice, but don’t necessarily take it! You know you best.

  4. Erin says:

    I never in a million years would have pegged you as a person who didn’t like math out of the gate.

    1. Emily says:

      I still would say I don’t like learning new math. Stuff I’m super familiar with is ok, like using differential equations in biomedical engineering in grad school was easy and kinda fun because I’d done so much of it in physics in undergrad.

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