Number’s up for our fear of figures

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Iona Bain

Picture the scene. I am in a restaurant, having enjoyed a lovely meal with friends, when the waiter arrives with the bill. Panic ensues. What do I owe? How much of the tip should I pay? And will everyone patiently bear with me while I try to work it out.

I am what you might call “numerically challenged”.

I forget my own four-digit Pin and struggle to figure out discounts. I have to double-check every sum I do on a calculator, no matter how small.

Yet somehow I have ended up as a financial journalist, setting up the Young Money Blog and even publishing a book on financial wellbeing.

How have I done it?

Surely I can’t manage my own money properly, let alone help others manage theirs, if dividing a restaurant bill brings me out in a cold sweat.

A big breakthrough was a diagnosis of dyscalculia in my teens, a condition like dyslexia but with numbers. It helped me to realise that I wasn’t stupid.

I now discuss complex financial issues for a living in newspapers, on television and on the radio without getting too daunted. Being able to take an overview, rather than getting bogged down in the sums, can be very helpful when dealing with money. It’s just that it takes a little while for me to follow through with the numbers.

With lots of support and hard work, I passed my exams, went to a good university and have learnt to manage my Achilles’ heel. Sadly, not everyone receives the help they need. Nearly 17m adults in Britain have the numeracy skills of a primary school child, according to one government survey.

This month 16 leading savings and investment firms, including Old Mutual Wealth and Columbia Threadneedle, launched the KickStart Money campaign, investing £1m to take financial education to nearly 18,000 primary school children.

The former work and pensions secretary Lord Hutton, who supports the campaign, said: “Learning about the basics of money is essential if we want to build a more financially literate nation.”

Beat the rip-offs
Shirley Conran, the author and founder of the charity Maths Action, said women were particularly vulnerable to being overcharged due to a lack of confidence with figures. “The government is losing half of the brains of this country because girls believe they are no good at maths.”

She believes the fault lies with the maths curriculum, having apparently changed little since Henry VIII asked his advisers to draw up lessons for his son, and is not surprised that I have developed a degree of “maths anxiety”.

“People say they hate maths, so I ask them: ‘Do you hate money?’ And they say no,” said Conran. “Money is mainly about how to handle maths properly.”

However, more than half of us admit our maths skills aren’t good enough to deal with everyday financial decisions, according to Citizen Maths, an online course provider. And companies ruthlessly exploit this to rip us off.

Noel-Ann Bradshaw, a maths lecturer at Greenwich University, describes a particularly sneaky technique known as “multi- criteria optimisation”.

This refers to the way that we can decide whether an offer represents good value or not only after several factors have been considered, some of which are not obvious. A 3-for-2 promotion is only worthwhile if we can use all the items; otherwise we end up buying more than we intended and wasting our money.

“It’s a tactic used to make things as complicated as possible while taking advantage of consumers being maths-poor and time-poorer,” said Bradshaw.

That’s why most of us end up on the wrong energy tariff, since to obtain the best deal we have to estimate accurately how much energy we will use. It’s also why we become ensnared by budget airlines that charge ridiculous baggage fees.

No wonder a quarter of us miscalculate deals and end up paying more — including me.

But I’m improving all the time. I just need a few strategies and props up my sleeve (not least a calculator) to avoid getting caught out.

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