Monday, April 18, 2011

Pay Attention to the Math

I know, I know, math is a lot of people's least favorite subject, but as we know in personal finance, it can be pretty helpful. Unlike what we did in school, the skills required are pretty basic, and it'll give you the satisfaction of knowing that you're not getting ripped off. It's important to be able to make quick calculations on the spot for price comparison. Moreover, it can be helpful to know whether something is as discounted as a retailer claims it to be.

A few years back, I noticed a math error in Saks Fifth Avenue's advertisements (Off 5th to be exact). The company added the original discounted percentage to the additional discount percentage for the total percentage of discount. For example, an ad claimed that you'll receive 20% off of something and get an additional 10% off for a total discount of 30% off. That's simply not true! It's a total discount of 28%. I know it's not a significant difference (although if you're purchasing something from Saks it might be...). Those advertisements disappeared for a while, but they came back recently. So keep your eyes open for these false claims.

It's not just that. Keeping a close eye on what's being rung up at the cash register is probably one of the most crucial parts of the making purchases. I used to zone out when the cashier scans in the value of my items. And I couldn't stand it when my parents stand in front of the checkout line to check the receipt. That's until I ended up getting burned. I was at Logan Airport waiting for my flight when I decided to get something to fill my stomach from the Au Bon Pain cart. I bought an espresso based drink and a piece of pastry for a total of about $6. When I checked my statement a few weeks later, I saw a charge of more than 60 bucks from ABP. WHAT?! I remembered right away that both the cashier and I were on the phone during that transaction. Neither of us was paying attention. At the time I didn't know you can dispute or negotiate with the card company, so I was "robbed" $60.

Lesson learned. From then on, I always try to approximate the total price in my head to check against what the cashier is ringing up. If you don't feel comfortable doing that, use the calculator or other apps on your phone. Some simple addition and subtraction can go a long way!


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