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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Money

How Girl Math Fails Women of Color

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Last summer may have given us girl math, but the meme’s discourse around gender and financial literacy is ongoing. Girl math gained traction on TikTok after Fletch, Vaughan & Hayley, a New Zealand-based radio show, launched a recurring segment dedicated to the concept. The on-air conversations aren’t framed as professional financial advice, but they highlight why the meme resonated with a wide audience: girl math is relatable because we’ve all done mental gymnastics to justify impulsive retail therapy. In an episode on August 14, 2023, the hosts help a caller rationalize luxury purchases like roundtrip airfare and four nights of hotel accommodation for the Taylor Swift Eras tour. Two days later, an episode featuring economist Brad Olsen explains why a listener should buy a $330 dress, with Olsen confirming the cost-per-wear calculations. By early September, the #girlmath hashtag had been viewed 232 million times on TikTok.

For many people, girl math is satire—a send-up of misogynistic tropes about women and their inability to resist materialistic objects over cash in the bank. But as the trend reached a cultural fever pitch last fall, many experts said there wasn’t a cause for moral panic. Victoria Sado, a certified financial planner at Ellevest, said the meme pushes back against the idea that women are clueless about managing their finances. “Girl math is a defense against that,” she told Money. Others, like Melissa Fradenburg, a certified divorce financial analyst and host of the Women’s Money Wisdom podcast, considered how girl math could be used as a catalyst for positive change. She noted that in many households, women are typically the financial decision-makers. “More women should be talking about personal finance and about how they make financial decisions,” she told Reader’s Digest.

However, other experts like Vivian Tu said the meme only validates harmful stereotypes. Tu, a former Wall Street trader and creator of the personal finance advice platform Your Rich BFF, said it evoked the “jokey joke energy” of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in the early aughts. Tu’s comparison highlights a key part of girl math’s comedic structure. In the first season of The Simple Life, Hilton and Richie cosplayed as farmers, temporarily disrupting the lives of their host family. This brief exercise in “slumming it” made for reality television gold, and the socialites embraced their dumb blonde personas only to disavow that narrative when it no longer served their brand. Hilton and Richie’s surface-level humor—a mockery of women’s intelligence dictated by the male gaze—shares girl math’s underlying problem: Women become the punchline, when we should be fighting to dismantle the patriarchal systems that perpetuate inequality.

While much of the media criticism spoke to the meme’s validation of gender stereotypes, the debates didn’t unpack two interdependent factors: race and ethnic identity. This lack of nuance is a reflection of the demographic that popularized the trend: white women. One frequently referenced girl math video, which has 13.9 million views and 2.3 million likes on TikTok, features a young white woman who says that she shares a bank account and credit cards with her husband. Women like her can freely laugh about girl math because their relationship with money isn’t defined by precarity or scarcity. They typically have a financial safety net that fosters an affluent lifestyle, shielding them from the consequences of personal finance mistakes. White women are more likely to have a spouse or partner who earns more, which grants them the opportunity for upward mobility, according to research by the U.S. Census Bureau

On the contrary, the racial wealth gap has a devastating impact on people of color, particularly Black Americans. Data from the Federal Reserve’s recent Survey on Consumer Finances shows this stark divide. Black Americans have made noticeable strides in accumulating wealth in recent years, but their median net worth is still behind white Americans. In 2022, Black Americans had a median of $44,900 while white households had $285,000—that’s about six times as much wealth as Black households. This disparity is connected to other barriers that prevent Black people from accumulating and maintaining wealth, including home ownership and a lack of access to banking solutions and mainstream financial services.

An overwhelming number of women may see themselves in the basic tenets of girl math, but the joke only stays funny if you have the privilege to ignore the systemic inequities that shape your lifelong relationship with money. For women of color, money is a tool of what bell hooks calls “white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Black women, in particular, face an extreme wealth gap compared to white women. According to a 2021 Goldman Sachs report, Black American women have 90% less wealth than white American men, and they make 15% less than white women. Other factors like education levels, student loan debt, and opportunities for financial advancement also impact a woman’s earning potential and wealth retention throughout her career. Girl math assumes that race and gender are separate factors, but they equally impact a person’s earning potential throughout their lifetime. It’s easy to find lightness in girl math when money isn’t a tangible reminder of your oppression.

Luckily, financial educators like Berna Anat are decentering whiteness in the finance advice space. “My side of girl math that I’ve been looking at and I’ve been leaning into with my community is first-gen financial alpha daughter girl math,” she says. As a first-generation Filipina American, Anat views girl math as the jumping-off point for a nuanced conversation about marginalized communities, their survival methods, and the impact of a scarcity mindset. In this context, girl math is what happens when people of color attempt to mitigate economic oppression. “The things that we’re talking about are hardcore frugal tactics that we developed to survive or our ancestors developed to survive, and we carry on to this day,” she explains. “In the conversations I’ve been having about growing up with my community, it feels more like we’re trading secrets, as opposed to making fun of each other.”

Unlike the whitewashed TikTok version, Anat’s girl math speaks to our emotional relationship with money, which is formed during early childhood. According to a 2013 study conducted by the University of Cambridge and the UK’s Money Advice Service, children not only understand the value of money but their habits are set by the age of seven. “Our relationship with money didn’t start with us,” says Sara Samuels, a wealth management advisor at Northwestern Mutual. “It starts generations before us, and how we feel about money—good or bad—comes from how our parents and grandparents dealt with money.” For many women of color, money can represent anxiety passed down from our parents; we have to consciously rewire our thinking to see our finances as something we can change.

Like other first-gen immigrant children, Anat experienced the “frugal flex spectrum,” where her parents seemed to bounce between the extremes of appearing cash-flush or locked in a state of penny-pinching. Her parents’ interactions with money were confusing; feelings of financial insecurity were captured in moments when her parents couldn’t afford designer clothes and expensive Jordans, but then wouldn’t hesitate to pay the bill for their entire table when dining out with relatives. 

“I found that’s common for a lot of families, especially BIPOC families, first-gen immigrant families,” she says. “There’s a ton of shame, a ton of anxiety, but more than anything a lot of silence, which affects us in a backward way.” These ingrained cultural and familial attitudes encourage a dysfunctional relationship with money, compounded by an unjust system designed to oppress marginalized communities.

Anat’s experience is familiar to me. As the daughter of a Black American father and a Filipina immigrant mother, money was an enigma: It was simultaneously a reminder of our middle-class status and a source of power entwined with the American Dream. My mother oversaw our household budget and was adept at stacking coupons and finding the best deals. Impulse spending was a rare indulgence executed without—to me—any rhyme or reason. I knew my family was nowhere near as well-off as some of the other white families in my suburban town. Still, it felt like we also experienced stretches of financial security followed by sudden bursts of financial uncertainty. 

I remember as a high school student, my mom said I couldn’t go on a school-sponsored orchestra trip to Chicago because we didn’t have enough money that month in our household budget. The decision came as a shock; not too long before the trip, my parents had paid the membership dues for my competitive cheerleading team, including the fee for a customized uniform and weekly, hours-long practices with the team’s regionally acclaimed coaches. I knew the cost was a stretch for the collective family wallet—my mom repeatedly stressed how expensive it was to participate in the sport. And in middle school, we’d taken a family vacation to Disney World. These were all luxuries that I was grateful to have, but I also failed to properly understand the dread attached to spending, a mostly painful action that caused regular disagreements between my parents. 

My adolescent mind knew that money wasn’t an infinite resource, but also recognized that our family possessed the markings of modern success: a house with a backyard, a dog, a pool, and piles of presents under the Christmas tree. We weren’t poor, but the consequences of buying without planned purpose, means, or necessity would dismantle the financial and psychological stability of our household. And in the worst-case scenario, no one was coming to bail us out.

“Capitalism is set up such that when difficult money situations happen in your life, you’re meant to feel like it’s your fault,” Anat says. “If you are in debt, you’re meant to feel like it’s your fault—when a lot of these systems aren’t set up for us to succeed and are predatory to keep us down, especially marginalized communities.” In Anat’s household, money was a topic loaded with contradictions, but muted by shame. Similarly, my parents didn’t openly discuss finances with me or my brother, but it defined my parents’ relationship to themselves as individuals and to each other as spouses. Like many other families representing marginalized communities, my parents viewed the accumulation of wealth as the result of personal drive and responsibility, operating beyond the godlike reach of systemic inequality.

Girl math isn’t the pathway to real financial empowerment, but it’s a reminder that women of color can—and must—create their own tools of liberation. For many of us who didn’t grow up cradled in generational wealth or learn smart money habits at home or in school, we have to start with the building blocks of financial basics. Samuels says that achieving financial freedom isn’t an overnight process. “It’s okay to also make some mistakes along the way,” she says. “But financial health is as important as physical health, and like getting in shape, it takes time, a plan, and consistency.” 

Other financial experts like Ashley Louise, the cofounder of Ladies Get Paid, say women shouldn’t be afraid to talk to their friends about money. Still, Louise also recommends the classic principles of personal finance: cultivating an emergency fund in a high-yield savings account, maxing out retirement contributions each year, paying off high-interest debts first, and sticking to a budget. Seemingly simple acts such as reviewing credit card statements or receipts can contribute to a more mindful relationship with personal finances. It’s all advice we’ve probably heard before, but it hits differently in the context of intergenerational financial trauma. “You have a money story now, and you do have the power to change it,” Anat says. “But you can’t change it unless you identify what that money story has been so far.”

Girl math wants women to discover the joy of spending, but for many women of color, the trend reinforces a narrative meant to keep us poor, ashamed, and disadvantaged. Girl math may seem harmless, but it’s not a form of financial liberation—it’s memefied white feminism that disempowers women of color.