In the minute-long clip, Kunaseharan begins by rounding down the cost of a COE to S$140,000 before dividing it by 10, which is the number of years the permit is valid before it has to be renewed.
He then divides it by the number of days in a year and repeats the process before finally splitting it down to the number of minutes in a day, bringing the value down to S$0.02 – which makes car ownership essentially “free”, he claims in the video.
Kunaseharan told This Week in Asia that while Girl Math is rooted in humour and “delusion”, it also serves as a “coping mechanism” for young people grappling with cost-of-living pressures in the city state.
“Life in Singapore is so stressful, so why not just make some fun out of it? It’s important to treat yourself and reward yourself once in a while, because we may forget that life is really short, and it’s up to us how we want to live our lives,” he said.
“So if Girl Math is what you need to tell yourself that it’s OK to spend that little money on an iced oat latte, then go ahead.”
Personal finance experts say Singapore’s stronger dollar and the loss of precious years to the Covid-19 pandemic are among the factors that propel younger people to splurge, with some even using it as a means of escapism from harsh economic realities.
Studies about the spending habits of Singaporean youth suggest that though rising living costs and emergencies rank top of mind, many continue to struggle with debt and savings.
A survey conducted by insurer Etiqa and published in August, which polled more than 1,000 Singaporean Gen Zs and millennials – aged between 18 and 42 – revealed that 41 per cent spent more than they earned, and 52 per cent were in debt.
He Ruiming, a co-founder of personal finance website The Woke Salaryman, said these spending habits could be fuelled by a belief among young people that long-term goals such as home- or car- ownership are increasingly out of their reach.
“In many countries, young people have given up traditional markers of adulthood, such as owning a home. There is a trend among some segments of the population to make short-term purchases, because they think they’ll never be able to afford long-term ones.”
The trend was also taking place at a time when being in debt has been normalised, He said. “Gen Zs and millennials also live in a time when over-consumerism is glorified – with people constantly talking about their purchases on TikTok and Instagram, we have normalised buying more, and buying beyond our means.”
Some critics have said the trend not only promotes poor saving habits but perpetuates the notion that women are bad at managing their finances. However, many have also come out to defend the trend as satire, saying it should not be taken too seriously.
Recent graduate Amarpreet Kaur, 25, said that while she used Girl Math to justify day-to-day spending, such as on public transport fares and meals, “a degree of financial prudence should be exercised”.
Rae Chua, 23, who graduated from university last year, noted: “Basically, if you’ve been doing Girl Math already, I think it is OK, but if you change your lifestyle after learning about the trend, then it might be a problem.”
Meanwhile, personal finance experts point out that psychological influences in mental accounting have existed long before Girl Math became a trend.
Lorna Tan, head of financial planning literacy at DBS Bank, said despite the name, methods of mental accounting similar to Girl Math are “gender agnostic”. She cited the example of a man justifying a five-figure purchase of a Patek Philippe watch as “free” since he would “look after it for the next generation”.
“Such examples of mental accounting has been around for a long time, but we are seeing a trend emerge due to the viral nature of TikTok videos,” she said.
Much like emotional bias in mental accounting, Tan said studies had shown that removing emotions from financial decision-making and investing was no easy feat.
She urged young people to consider their finances “holistically”. That meant taking into account how a particular decision could affect another, and having a good grasp of one’s personal balance sheet.
Tan suggested shifting the focus from Girl Math to digital financial advisory tools that users “can have fun with” while watching their money grow.
Amid the chatter about the harms of the trend, Kunaseharan cautioned against reading too much into it all, saying it is “really about finding joy and being kind to yourself”.
“Don’t Girl Math everything and recklessly spend money, but it’s also about the little things we can find to reward ourselves once in a while.”