Math Got You All Mixed Up? Here’s How (and Why) to Improve Your Skills

Two women pay their bill in a restaurant.
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People tend to fall into three general categories where math skills are concerned. Which one best describes you?

1. I love math and my skills are great! I’m only reading this article for ideas on new ways to practice what I know.

2. I get by with the math skills I have. I can average a set of numbers or figure out a 20% tip, but after that, I’m lost.

3. I really wish I’d paid more attention in math class.

If you identify best with number three, you’re not alone.

The American Institutes for Research says that at least 30% of the adult American population lacks basic math skills. That’s 1 in 3 high school graduates and 1 in 4 working adults.

See? There’s no reason to feel weird that you wouldn’t know a Pythagorean theorem if it bit you on the ankle. You’ve got a lot of company.

For decades — maybe even centuries — school math classes have been filled with students lamenting they don’t need to learn concepts like algebra, geometry and calculus. Kids (including me, back in the day) claim mid-level and advanced math skills have little to do with adult life unless you have a job that requires mastery of arithmetic.

And now that we all carry mini-computers in our pockets, a good grasp of even basic math seems less important.

But that’s not true.

5 Reasons Why Knowing Math Is So Important

It’s important to have a general grasp of math concepts for a number of reasons. Math skills help you:

1. Hoard Your Pennies

Basic math skills help you increase the amount of hard-earned cash that stays in your wallet.

“Basic math skills can directly impact the amount of money you are saving or wasting,” says Jennifer McDermott, communications manager and consumer advocate for the personal finance comparison website finder.com. “From quickly checking you’ve received the correct change at the grocery store to ongoing evaluation of budget limitations, those with a good grasp of math fundamentals tend to better manage their finances.”

2. Make the Most of Your Purchases

Whether you’re buying goods or services, math skills help make sure you get the most out of every dollar you spend.

If you’re buying, say, craft materials to make handmade greeting cards, it’s pretty difficult to overspend because you’ve miscalculated how much card stock you need.

It’s another matter entirely, though, when your new $900 couch won’t fit in your apartment because you’ve forgotten how to calculate the square footage of a room.

Tipping is a fundamental expectation in many service transactions. We’ve put together a tipping guide to help you figure out how much to spend on gratuities, but you’ll still need to know how to work out percentages and other calculations.

3. See the Bigger Picture

Math skills help people understand the context of important topics and how they apply to your life.

“For example, let’s investigate credit card usage. Not everyone can mentally calculate percentages and interest charges,” Joseph Ritchie from academic prep company Varsity Tutors, says. “However, understanding the logic behind APRs [annual percentage rates] can help you realize the consequences of late payments and help you avoid getting into substantial debt.

All of the smartphone calculators in the world will not allow you to conceptually understand how APRs work, and the real impact they can have on your financial outcomes.”

4. Live Better

A fundamental grasp of basic math skills may increase your earning power. Plus, you’ll look cool.

“Having confidence with numbers means that things don’t scare you and you don’t have the embarrassment of having to get out a phone to work something out,” notes Lisa McCartney, Chief Plyter at family gaming company PLYT Games.

“There have also been studies which have shown that better math skills lead to higher wages, better health and well-being,” she adds.

5. Have More Fun

Believe it or not, math can be fun. See for yourself.

What Math Skills Should Adults Know?

Really, the sky’s the limit when it comes to what math skills you can learn, but some concepts top the list.

Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division form the basis of almost all other math concepts that follow so “once you have the basics mastered, understanding things like percentages is so much easier,” notes McCartney.

“An important concept for savings and debt is compound interest,” says Devon Hyde, Director of Business Development at Guidewell Financial Solutions. “A strong understanding of compound interest can help consumers build wealth over time and also help manage and repay debt. The math formula used to calculate compound interest includes the principal, interest rate, and the time involved.”

Once you’ve mastered those skills, let your curiosity guide what you’ll learn next.

How to Brush Up on (or Learn) Math Skills

You could always enroll in a math class at your local community college to brush up on or learn math skills, but there are also a number of free or low-cost options.

1. Online Courses

Online courses through websites like Udemy or Coursera aren’t usually free, but keep your eyes open for offers and specials that make the course fees more affordable.

2. Free College Prep Classes

Check out Khan Academy for free online college prep math classes that can help you master advanced concepts like calculus or differential equations.

3. Immerse Yourself

“Just as people looking to learn a new language completely immerse themselves in it, so too should those looking to strengthen math skills,” McDermott recommends. “Do practice exercises, pay attention to number-based stories in the news and use your smartphone only to check your calculations after doing them unassisted.”

4. YouTube Videos

YouTube has millions of videos that cover virtually every math concept you can think of — and some you didn’t.  

5. Use Your Skills Regularly

The best way to strengthen your skills is to use them, according to Ritchie.

“Challenging yourself to calculate a tip or sale price by hand or mentally will increase familiarity with basic mathematical operations,”he said. “Also, make math a game. Use algebra to solve real world problems or curiosities. The more familiar you are with an operation, the easier this recall will be in the future.”

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her husband is the real math whiz of the family but she can tip 20% of a restaurant bill in the blink of an eye.