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Do You Understand the Logic of ‘Girl Math’ and ‘Boy Math’?

Kids these days. Oh, am I sounding old already. But this story in the Wall Street Journal kind of surprised me (for another article on this topic, click here, this second article also has some short TikTok videos you can show in class). Upon reflection, it should not have. I teach about psychological pricing and I have three kids and I hav heard similar stories before. With some help from ChatGPT, let me summarize the article and then suggest a few ways you might use it in your marketing class.

The video below can provide you with some background, you could also assign it or show it in class. The video has free access, in case your students don’t have ready access to the Wall Street Journal.

The latest trend in personal finance isn’t just about saving, but rather the artful justifications consumers use when making discretionary purchases. Many Americans now share their clever math justifications for spending, both online and offline. For instance, many assert that using cash isn’t truly spending, or that anything priced below $5 is essentially free. Nniffer Guldner, a social worker, expresses the joy of getting refunds as it feels like earning money to spend again.

This spending logic has grown so popular that businesses, like Sparrows Tattoo Company, are leveraging it in their marketing, emphasizing the lifetime value of their services. Similarly, consumers like Josh Benevides use such calculations to mitigate buyer’s remorse, such as breaking down the cost of an exercise bike per use.

Stacy Francis, a financial advisor, suggests that this trend of mental spending gymnastics is relatable because most consumers often do this to some degree. Despite the playfulness, it’s crucial to understand the long-term implications of small expenditures. For instance, $5 daily becomes $1,825 annually or roughly $150,000 if invested over three decades at a 6% return.

Companies have always exploited consumer psychology, pricing items slightly below dollar thresholds to signal value. The recent spotlight on “girl math” and “boy math,” terms popularized by a New Zealand radio show and now trending on TikTok, showcases the humorous justifications individuals use to make purchases feel more rational.

These mental acrobatics resonate with many, like Kayla Garza, who admits to rounding down prices or Courtney Simmons, who sees discounts as earnings. Young consumers, like Marley Brown, often use these justifications, and share them online. In one example, Brown argues with her finance-savvy father, Austin, about the logic of spending more to qualify for free shipping. Austin believes such rationalizations can be harmless as long as one remains financially responsible.

This trend underscores a universal truth: consumers often need to justify their purchases, especially when faced with rising prices or personal spending guilt. As such, this quirky, often flawed, math has become a cultural talking point, blurring the lines between genuine financial sense and shopping entertainment.

How to use this article in your marketing class

How to use this article in your marketing class

  1. Consumer Behavior and Psychology: (Chapter 5) The article most clearly fits in a discussion of consumer behavior. It certainly calls into question any idea that consumers are rational when they buy. Use the article to introduce students to the intricacies of consumer behavior and the psychological factors influencing purchasing decisions. Discuss how consumers often justify their spending patterns and how this can be leveraged in marketing strategies.
  2. Pricing Strategies: (Chapter 17) Highlight the section on pricing items just below dollar thresholds. Engage in a discussion about psychological pricing, such as the “.99” pricing strategy, and its influence on perceived value and purchase intentions.
  3. Interactive Class Activity: (Chapter 5) Share the anecdotes from the article, such as Marley Brown’s calculation for concert tickets or Nniffer Guldner’s refund joy. Ask students to come up with their own “shopping math” examples or critique the ones given.
  4. Discussion on Ethical Marketing: (Chapters 5 and 17) Use the article to spark a conversation on whether it’s ethical for businesses to exploit these consumer rationalizations. For example, should businesses encourage the “spend more to save more” mentality?
  5. Consumer Value Perception: (Chapter 1 and 5) Dive into how consumers perceive the value of a product or service over its lifetime. For instance, the tattoo parlor’s argument about the lifetime value of a tattoo can be a foundation for discussing how marketers can position their offerings as long-term investments.
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