When Will I Ever Need Math?

PaycheckAs a high school math teacher, I often hear this comment from my students: “When will I ever need to use math?” That’s a fair question. Here are a few compelling reasons I can offer students (and adults). See what you think. Notice that the level of math required increases as you move down the list.

Employment

I worked ten years in the private sector prior to teaching. I was an accountant at a bank, a manager for a regional sporting goods company, and the owner and operator of a successful ad specialties business. In all those years, I was probably interviewed 4 or 5 for various positions. Some resulted in offers, some did not. But one instrument that was consistent across the board was a math test. Students say, “What!?” That’s right. The number one employment screening tool is a math test. Being able to demonstrate basic math competencies is more valuable to prospective employers than being able to identify all the states capitals. Note: These math tests are usually used to screen for career-type positions. If an individual is applying for menial low paying work, the employer will probably be happy if he or she has a track record of showing up on time and can pass a drug test.

Banking

Once you have a job, you will need to visit a bank to open a deposit account and establish a relationship. To evaluate the various choices, you will need basic math skills. Once a checking account is established, math skills are also needed in order to maintain it. Balancing a checkbook may only require grade school arithmetic skills, but it does take practice to become proficient. (Sound familiar? Sort of like homework…) In any event, this simple skill can save hundreds of dollars in bank overdraft charges.

Shopping

Who doesn’t love shopping? In our culture, we usually just pay the price listed on the tag. However, what about high ticket items like appliances, furniture, or even a car? The prices of these items are often negotiable, so having basic math skills can help you keep more money in your pocket. How? In my experience, a strong math sense helps you negotiate better. I recently purchased some furniture. When the salesperson asked my profession, I said that I was a mathematician. She said, “I may as well go straight to the last pricing column.” More than anything, understanding some basic math will at least increase your confidence during negotiations, and you will get a better deal.

Related to shopping is the procurement of your household utilities. As a result of deregulation, you get to choose choose your cable company, who carries your wireless phone calls, and even who supplies your gas and electricity. Should you choose ABC’s cable service which costs $50 a month plus $10 per premium channel, or is XYZ a better deal at just $40 a month but $12 per premium channel? Can you say systems of linear equations? Students must at least be able to ask the right questions to compute the various totals. How many premium channels do you want? What is included in basic cable? What are the taxes?

Investing

This is probably the most important reason to understand math, exponential growth models in particular. In a country with a stock market that as averaged almost 12% return on investment since there has been a stock market, all students should be taught they they can easily retire one day with dignity. In fact, every Americans should retire a millionaire. Just $100 a month (about one Starbucks a day) invested into a stock market mutual fund (like VFINX) will increase to in excess of a million dollar nest egg. The catch is that it takes 30-40 years for compound interest to really work it’s magic. The sooner you start, the better off you’ll be. Patience is a virtue, but learning about exponential growth can be instrumental in motivating you to invest. In fact, I don’t think any student should be allowed to graduate high school unless they can explain compound interest.

Insurance

What do money in the bank, a car, a home, an income, and investments all have in common? They need to be insured. Students must have the capacity to understand insurance products, and numeracy plays a large roll here as well. You will need to insure the biggest wealth-producing asset they have — your income. That means life insurance, health insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, and long-term disability insurance. You will need to protect your “stuff” with car insurance, renters insurance, homeowners insurance, and flood insurance. It’s enough to make your head spin… now imagine you are a recent graduate who didn’t like math.

Moral of the Story

According to Dave Ramsey, colleges and universities lose more students to credit card debt than to bad grades. Students can become overwhelmed by the real world, throw their hands in the air and just try to wing it. No one embarks on a path to bankruptcy. I think it’s my job as mathematician to let you, my students, know the “real” reason to learn math… and it’s not just to do well on the Keystone Exams.