“Girl math” is pretty big right now. The tag has amassed tens of thousands of videos on TikTok. If you take a simple Saturday afternoon scroll through your For You page or even, God forbid, your Instagram Reels, you’ll be sure to encounter any number of videos featuring Gen Z and Millennial women excitedly sharing news of their most recent purchase with girl math money, be it tickets to the Taylor Swift Eras Tour, a Dyson Air Wrap, Starbucks or a fun vacation.
“Girl math” — coined in the trending tradition of affixing the word “girl” in front of an everyday term or action to connote an extra sprinkle of fun and frivolity — is in right now, another one of social media’s many comings and goings. The now hugely popular trend consists of women bonding over their purchases, spending habits and financial rationale, all while adhering to a unique money-spending mindset that has thus been named “girl math.” With the immense popularization of any trend comes its inevitable exit from the purely virtual realm of Instagram and TikTok as it trickles into public consciousness through news and media coverage. The girl math trend’s entrance into the “real world” has far exceeded the typical trickle, however — it’s a tsunami.
With popularity comes criticism. Media coverage of the girl math phenomenon has been quick to judge, voicing concerns about the trend’s perpetuation of stereotypes about women and money: Women can’t be trusted with spending, women can’t budget and, the old classic, “girls can’t do math.” The comments, concerns and complaints are many, and outlets from HuffPost to Fortune to the Washington Post have thrown their hats in the girl math ring. Even business publications like Business Insider and Forbes have attempted to analyze the economic and financial implications of the viral TikTok trend.
It is exhausting to scroll through the unnecessarily negative takes on what seems like a playful social media fad. Most outlets position themselves as well-meaning, seemingly wanting to help women save themselves from unnecessary stereotyping and being made to look foolish. Other coverage of the trend is just plain rude, claiming young girls don’t understand the meaning of money. In the Forbes article, author Pattie Ehsaei states that the trend “involves girls illogically justifying their purchases and spending habits” and serves merely to create “excuses to promote frivolous spending.” With this one social media trend, according to Ehsaei, women are setting society back almost 50 years. When I read those words, I feel just as belittled, devalued and infantilized as the writer claims girl math should make me feel.
When I consumed the slew of articles bashing a trend embracing fun and femininity meant to bring women together during times of economic challenge, I did not feel enlightened or educated; I felt angry. The overarching message from the media is this: Girl math is infantilizing, reductive and risky, both for your bank account and for the reputation of women everywhere. In actuality, nothing could be further from the truth.
At first, the anti-girl math argument that’s circulating may seem logical. A piece from Glamour Magazine labels the trend a guilt-trip tool that forces women to justify perfectly valid purchases simply because they are traditionally feminine. Pieces in this vein land some hits derived from perfectly reasonable arguments. Women are often guilted for splurging on a nice purse or top — things seen as non-essential and superficial — even if the buyer makes good everyday use of their Coach bag or cashmere sweater and has the room in her budget to make that purchase without guilt. It is also true that hobbies, behaviors and preferences that are associated with femininity within the social consciousness — like the desire to buy a forever purse, a cute outfit or nice jewelry — are typically devalued. While purchasing a high-end pantsuit or dress for a serious job interview might be considered a “splurge,” a man who spares no expense on a suit for the same purpose would be “investing.”
Stereotypes that paint women as unreliable, financial liabilities are harmful and difficult to tease out from the twisted mess of the collective consciousness. But they have nothing to do with girl math.
The girl math trend seemingly originated from a segment of the same name on New Zealand radio show “Fletch, Vaughan & Hailey.” Listeners call in to share a big-ticket purchase, and the hosts help them justify the splurge, walking them through the cost-per-use or per-wear of the item, breaking that credit card charge down to the last dollar until every cent is justified. Social media quickly picked up on the terminology, and the rest is history.
Now, the origins of the girl math trend may be dubious, as is Glamour’s point — two of the radio show’s hosts are men, and the segment that preceded TikTok’s girl math, intentionally or not, implies that female interests and purchases require justification. But while this radio show may have originated the girl math terminology, the popularized version we see on TikTok today is an evolved version of the original — adapted by women, for women.
The trend on everyone’s For You page is — sorry Forbes — a positive one, made to assuage the fears of women — and everyone — during times of financial stress through the accessible framing of simple economic principles.
We could easily replace the term “girl math,” which so many media outlets find demoralizing, with a name that is universally accepted and applicable: behavioral economics. This combination of psychology and traditional economics seeks to understand the reasoning behind human economic behavior, which economics alone cannot do. Behavioral economics accepts that people will not always make the most rational financial choices, and while that sounds negative, it’s completely okay.
Both behavioral economics and girl math show us that people aren’t perfect, that having fun won’t ruin your life, that most financial “errors” or risks cancel out in the long run. Girl math shows women separating sunk costs from relevant costs, a managerial accounting method used frequently in business. Girl math shows women understanding what makes them happy; it shows them taking into account what will and won’t bring short- and long-term satisfaction and weighing that against economic costs and benefits. Girl math is a strategy to avoid buyer’s remorse and to maximize the enjoyment derived from a purchase. It shows an understanding of cost-per-wear and how to best measure a garment’s value. Cost-per-wear is hailed as a formula for more sustainable fashion and shopping — so why don’t critics realize that same logic applies to girl math?
The women participating in this trend understand that the purchases they share with the world are wants, not needs, and they have the capacity to use rational thinking and budgeting techniques to make their purchases possible. Critics claim they want to warn girl math participants against perpetuating misogyny and sexist stereotypes, but their inability to see the trend’s carefree, unserious nature and the perfectly stable economic legs on which it stands makes them hypocritical, to say the least.
Girl math is a social media trend adapted, if not originally created, by women, for women. It’s an expression of solidarity, an allowance of the feminine and the frivolous without heavy implications. Just like a celebratory TGIF frappuccino or a cute new dress to wear for a girls’ night out, girl math is pure fun — a way to connect with other women online through shared interests and experiences. It’s a trend that flips the script on the convoluted and often confusing world of financial literacy and economics, taking a language and field that is traditionally dominated by men and giving women — and any other social media user without a bachelor’s in finance or an MBA — the tools to use, understand and enjoy it in a way that encourages positive online interaction.
Any well-meaning overanalysis of this trend by social media news outlets is uncalled for; others’ perception of women simply having a good time is not women’s responsibility. Any perceived stereotypes perpetuated by the vocalization and publicizing of a typical action are not our fault. We are not responsible for how our words are manipulated or how our intentions are twisted in the greater misogynistic, patriarchal vacuum of popular culture. The “dark side” of girl math is, respectfully, not our problem.
In difficult economic times, when costs of living are exorbitant and a simple trip to Kroger can run up a hell of a grocery bill, it’s no wonder the general public craves a sense of ease and comfort in their non-essential spending. By watching people like yourself face economic harshness with lightheartedness, positivity and harmless TikTok trends, finding joy in small purchases and financial transactions, you can’t help but feel a tiny spark of hope.
Girl math and the fun, carefree enjoyment that comes with it is a beacon of hope for every overworked and underpaid individual in our current capitalist system, a reminder that it is OK to put yourself first and invest not only in houses and retirement savings but in personal happiness — however temporary.
So go to hell, Forbes. I’m a girl, I can do math and I want to have fun; I’m going to spend my five dollars however I please, come hell or high water.
Senior Arts Editor Annabel Curran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.