Swiss and American Math Whizzes

Math really isn’t my thing, I would much rather draw or create something artsy. But I’ll agree with anyone who says you have to have basic math skills to get around in everyday life. Say you’ve only got 20 Swiss Francs and need to buy some groceries. You’ll need some addition abilities to help keep you from buying more than you have money for. I’ve got those skills but I must admit, living in Switzerland helps a lot.

Switzerland is easy on the math because 1, all the prices are rounded off to the nearest 5 rappens. And 2, sales taxes are included in the price on the tags. That is really nice, if something has a price tag of 4.95 and all you have is 5 Swiss Francs you can go ahead and splurge. You have enough and you’ll even get change back. The price you see is the price you pay.

Figuring Taxes in the States

It gets complicated when you go to the States. Firstly, sales taxes differ from state to state. They range between 3% and 8%. Certain items are exempt or are more expensive, depending on the state, too. Maryland, for example, where I lived for a couple of years, has a sales tax of 6% since 2007. Like I said, they differ by state and are never put on the price tag in the store. They are, however added to the total  bill when you pay.

So, again, say you want to buy an item that costs $5.97, how much do you really pay? This is how I would do it, I know, I know, too complicated, but still, it works for me. First I would see 10% (easy), .60, then half it to 5% = .30. Now all I have to do is figure out what 1% is. 1% of .60 is .06 so 6% of $5.97 is .36. Now all I have to do is add $5.97 + .36 together and I come up with $6.33. Honestly, I find it much easier if I just have more money than I need.

You would think that with all this complicated math the Americans have to do daily, they would all be math whizzes. Not quite. Um, as you just saw, I’m certainly not. What is interesting, the Swiss who have a relatively simple pricing system, are good in math. This was proven in the PISA (1) Study. The Swiss math skills were the best in Europe. Ben, my husband, is no exception; he’s my portable calculator when I need one. Quick, efficient and correct.

Easy Addition

Twice when Ben was in the States he ran across some not-so math geniuses that, unfortunately prove my point. The first time was at an Avis counter. The person behind the counter had to consolidate how many days Ben and a friend had used two cars.

One car had been used two days. So the woman held up two fingers on her left hand. The other car had been used one day, the woman held up one finger on her right hand. She then counted the fingers on her left hand, while nodding her head when she said each number: “one, two”. She deftly moved to her right hand and nodded “three”. Satisfied with her math, she typed her total “three” in the computer. Ben was left baffled at the exhibition, but at least the woman got it right. The next time took somewhat longer before the cashier got it right.

When Things get complicated

It happened during the same trip and in Denver. Ben and his friend had gotten (from Avis!) a little booklet full of coupons and savings. One of which was for 20% off for bought items at a specific sporting store. At the store Ben found a ski hat that he wanted to buy that cost $3.60. He gave the cashier the coupon who was totally overwhelmed with the situation. The cash register automatically figured the state tax but that was all, it didn’t do percents.

He immediately called the store manager over to let him do the math. Either the manager didn’t have the time or couldn’t do the math quickly (I’ll let you decided). He sent the cashier up to bookkeeping (after all, they deal with numbers day in and day out). After about 5 to 10 minutes the cashier came back beaming.

He said 20% was .72 which makes $2.98. Ben, the walking calculator, shook his head and said, yes .72 was correct but the total was incorrect. The cashier was adamant and said the bookkeeper used his machine to figure it out, it was correct. Ben tried different ways to convince the cashier. Finally he said take a piece of paper and do the math manually. The man found something to write on and wrote 3.60, below that he wrote – .72. He did the math the long and came up with the result being $2.88. At which time Ben said, correct! The cashier happily typed the total into the register which spit out the grand total including taxes.




1) PISA is the Program for International Student Assessment. More than a half a million 15 year olds in 72 countries took the test in 2016.

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