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We need to talk about money

This article is the latest part of the FT’s Financial Literacy and Inclusion Campaign

What do jumping a queue, asking someone’s age and discussing numbers and money have in common? These are all taboo in British society. The first two are rude at best and deserve to be shunned in polite conversation.

But it’s quite wrong that we feel we can’t chat about numbers and money. And it can have damaging ramifications for individuals and society.

A YouGov poll commissioned last month by independent charity National Numeracy revealed this week that people in the UK rarely talk to their family or friends about numbers and maths. Over four in five of those polled (81 per cent) said they don’t often talk about numbers and maths, which shows that as a nation we need to get much more comfortable having those conversations.

Meanwhile, more than two-fifths (41 per cent) often talk about reading and would be much more embarrassed to say they were no good at reading and writing.

The social taboo on discussing maths spills over on to our ability to discuss money and personal finances. With soaring energy bills and rocketing food prices, the cost of living crisis is hitting millions. In this climate, we must have more, rather than fewer, open conversations about numbers and money.

So what can be done to tackle this reticence on number and money talk?

In the 1990s, the late actor Bob Hoskins starred in a memorable TV campaign with BT’s strapline of “It’s good to talk”. Just add “about numbers and money” at the end and you might just be describing a new campaign by National Numeracy.

To celebrate the fifth National Numeracy Day on May 18, the charity is launching the Big Number Natter. It aims to encourage people to join a nationwide conversation about numbers, hopefully helping to break the taboo about talking about numbers and so making maths a little less scary.

As a school maths teacher, I see first-hand how negative experiences of maths in the classroom can lead to an awful spectre that haunts people in their adult lives. My own doctoral research at Cambridge about maths anxiety indicates that our negative cultural attitudes to numbers can be just as damaging as our actual competency (shockingly, half of the UK’s working age adults have the maths skills expected of 11-year-old primary students).

Many of my school leavers often wish they had learned more about how to apply numeracy in real-life situations. While there is a post-16 “Core Maths” qualification that can help students develop practical numeracy skills, the compulsory GCSE curriculum should include much more maths in personal finance contexts. 

The government can encourage greater understanding of numbers. I am delighted to see that it has launched a personal inflation calculator so people can work out their own inflation rate. This is important — everybody spends their money in a slightly different way, so the effects of rising prices differ from household to household. Right now, poorer people are seeing higher inflation because energy bills, which are increasing superfast, are a bigger share of their monthly expenditure than for the better off.

So it is good to see that the Office for National Statistics has, after some prodding, relaunched its personal inflation calculator. It’s free and easy to use.

The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee expects inflation to reach an eye-watering 10.25 per cent by the end of the year. As this is much faster than wage growth, the value of money in our pockets will shrink. This will blow holes in family budgets and compel workers to increasingly pluck up the courage to ask bosses for a pay rise.

Employers can also do their bit to tackle the aversion to discussing numbers. Chatting about salaries in the workplace need not be taboo. While individual salary amounts can be kept confidential, employers could create a culture of transparency by publishing certain information such as median salary. Especially in larger firms of say more than 100 staff, revealing the median amount would not embarrass individuals but still encourage greater openness about money issues. Showing an average of, say, the top five individual salaries in a company or department can give staff a sense of scale.

What can you do on National Numeracy Day yourself? Individually, you can take an MOT on your number skills with the numeracy challenge. Parents could also help their children become world record holders!

You can join me and fellow numeracy ambassador and Strictly Come Dancing star Katya Jones for an official Guinness World Record attempt. We are inviting schools and families to take part in the UK’s biggest ever live number roll. We will recite times tables, specifically the “fives” to celebrate National Numeracy Day’s fifth birthday, May 18 — via a livestream link on the National Numeracy website.

An inability to do maths should not be a badge of honour. We should foster a culture where adults feel comfortable in trying to improve their numeracy. Just as much as we think of driving, dancing or baking as skills we can enhance, numeracy should be exactly that. It is not something we are innately able to do or not do, but a skill that can be developed.

 Now more than ever, we need to make the UK a more numerate nation that is open and confident discussing the numbers of money and personal finance. And that starts now, by making it good to talk — about numbers.

Bobby Seagull is a maths teacher, a television presenter and the author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Numbers”. Twitter: @Bobby_Seagull; Instagram: @Bobby_Seagull

Numeracy Quiz

Try three multiple choice everyday maths questions. Feel free to work it out on paper or use a calculator — this is not a test of mental arithmetic.

Milly’s breakfast contains 460 calories of energy. What percentage is this of her target daily intake of 2000 calories?

  1. 23%

  2. 46%

  3. 77%

  4. 92%

A flatscreen TV costs £799, including VAT at 20 per cent. How much of the purchase price is VAT?

  1. £79.90

  2. £159.50

  3. £160.00

  4. None of these

If a T-shirt cost £13.50 after a 10% reduction, what was the original price?

  1. £14.50

  2. £14.85

  3. £14.99

  4. £15

Answers: 23%; None of these; £15

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