Think you’ve got problems? Solve them.

This contest has ended. Check below for the results!

Note from Tsh: I smiled when I first read today’s guest writer Laura Laing’s book title: Math for Grownups. If anyone needs Basic Math 101, it’s me (just ask my parents). So when Laura asked if I’d like to check out her book, I jumped at the chance. And I’m so glad I did! Now, Simple Mom readers have a chance to win a copy as well. Read on…

You’ve probably figured out by now that math in your everyday life isn’t much like the worksheets and timed drills you suffered through in elementary and middle school. And in the real world, you can leave those way, way behind.

That’s because grownup math has more to do with problem solving than remembering that 7 times 8 is 56. Most of us don’t use trigonometry or calculus. But basic math skills figure into some of the most critical decisions of each day—how to save money, save time and save your sanity. These days, you need to know how much top soil to order for your flower bed or what time your parents will arrive in Boston, if they’re driving in from St. Louis.

Four summers ago, I decided to build a deck—something I’d never done before. This process taught me a lot about the math I already knew and how to fill in the gaps with some pretty simple problem solving skills.

Tackle your fear

Don’t let these problems throw you completely. If the math freaks you out, deal with those feelings first.

Building a deck was an overwhelming proposition for me, and not only because I’d be using power tools. The materials were expensive. (What if I ordered too much or too little?) The project required skills I didn’t have. (What if I had to mix concrete?)  And I was going to have to deal with tiny details that can make me crazy. (What if the deck turned out six inches too tall on one side?)

Photo by Laura Laing

And then I asked myself a basic question: How hard could it be?  I’m as smart as the average construction worker. Besides, how great would I feel drinking my coffee out there in the morning? (Answer: pretty darned great.)

Figure out what you know

It’s easy to focus on your shortcomings, but good problem solvers almost always start with what they already know. Take my deck. I knew how big I wanted it to be and that I didn’t want any railings. I also knew that it would be situated over an existing concrete pad. I knew that I needed a set of steps and that it would be attached to the side of my house. I knew how to use a circular saw and swing a hammer.

Brainstorming these little details not only boosts your confidence, but also highlights what you need to find out.

Research what you don’t know

With my deck, I felt pretty confident that I could manage the posts and decking. But the stairs were pretty darned scary. So, I watched online videos and read articles. I trolled through DIY forums for been-there-done-that advice. Basically, I gathered information.

These days, the Internet makes it relatively easy to learn something new. Don’t remember the formula for the area of a triangle?  Look it up. Want to know how many tablespoons are in a cup? Open up a browser. There’s no need to remember everything you were supposed to learn in school. Not with the world wide web at your fingertips.

Get it down on paper

This is my favorite piece of problem-solving advice. Whether you’re figuring out how much you’ll save with your weekly stash of grocery coupons or you’re hanging pictures in your hallway, writing and drawing can be a huge help. And you don’t have to get fancy.

I drew my deck designs on the back of a school flier that my kid brought home that spring. I didn’t use a ruler, and nothing was drawn to scale. By the end of the project, the paper had been folded and refolded so many times, I could see light through the creases. This drawing was for my benefit, so no one else needed to understand it.

Check before you do

Unfortunately, the most important thing (besides confidence) that was probably drilled out of us in our math classes was the ability to spot an unreasonable answer. When the goals are speed and memorization, there’s no time for that kind of self-evaluation. But as a grownup, you can and should take this step.

Each time I measured a board to cut for my deck, I stepped back and took a look. Did it look too long or too short? Then I measured again. And took another look.

When doubling a recipe, make sure the altered measurements make sense. When balancing your checkbook, look through the amounts to be sure that they’re reasonable. You might be surprised by the little mistakes that you find, mistakes that could lead to bigger problems.

Each day, we’re faced with problems. And if you’re like most folks, the ones involving math are often the most daunting. But as grownups, we have more freedom to break the rules and get help. Having a few go-to problem-solving techniques can get you to a solution quicker and more confidently. And who couldn’t use a little more time and confidence?

Giveaway time!

10 Simple Mom readers will win a copy of Laura’s new book, Math for Grownups! To enter, simply leave a comment on this post, answering this question: “Growing up, what was your favorite subject in school?” (If you’re reading this via email, you must click over to the post to leave a comment.)

This giveaway will end Saturday, September 10 at 11:59 pm PST (that’s tomorrow). I hope you win!

The winners are: Shannon, Theresa, Angela, Emily, Julie, Gretchen, Lawana, Catie, Fiona, and Bree. You’ll be notified shortly! Thanks for entering.

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. English/Literature!

  2. Jill Satterfield says:

    My favorite subject growing up was art. It still is! I also did pretty well in math, until we got to high school geometry. Math for Grownups sounds intriguing!

  3. I loved science. Still do.

  4. Celina Green says:

    Hmmm . . . my favorite subject was Science.

  5. Definitely English Composition!

  6. Oh, how I hope I win! My favorite subject was English. And Art. And Choir. Anything but Math. We dated once; but he was always right, I was always wrong ~ who needs that aggravation, right? Yes, I still have issues and baggage. I really need this book. Thanks so much for a great post and giveaway!

    xoxo michele

  7. English…the literature part of it. Not-so-much the diagramming of the sentences!!

  8. English/Composition.

  9. Music was always my favorite, but English came as a close second!

  10. Mine was the broad subject of ‘Social Studies’, which is just a quicker way to say ‘History & Geography’.

  11. English! That’s why I became a journalist and a writer. And I still hate math to this day. 😉

  12. My favorite subject was geography by FAR! It has always made me sad how little most people know of the world around them. Once at work I surveyed my coworkers as to how many countries that they thought were in Africa. (The answer I was going for was 47, this was pre South Sudan!) The answers I got ranged from 2-30.

  13. My favorite was English and Literature!

    But I’m discovering the joys of math as my son does Saxon Algebra. Who knew numbers were so interesting???

  14. My favorite subject in school was always Literature, but when I went to college I double majored in History and Philosophy.

  15. Carrie Cotton says:

    History, I had an amazing teacher my Junior year, he made it all come to life and instilled a lasting love in me for it.

  16. I loved art and still do 🙂

  17. Hisory…loved it!

  18. History has always been my favorite. We homeschool and I’m finding I enjoy math so much better this time around.

  19. Phronsie Howell says:

    Hm, my favorite subject at a kid was probably literature. I didn’t get math till pre-algebra. It’s a toss up between literature and science. Oh, or music.

  20. I loved reading and writing AND ceramics. Anything that allowed me to to be creative.

  21. I loved history – the classes, the museums, the History Channel. And I shied away from Math – and any math-related sciences starting around 5th grade or so. That fear of math still haunts me in real-life situations and in academic ones as well (even though I am a writing teacher). This book sounds amazing!

  22. Math-wise, I loved algebra and geometry. In general, though, I was (and still am) more of an English/literature kind of girl.

  23. My favorite subject was history. Definitely not math, which is why I would love this book!

  24. History!

  25. I loved PE – does that count? I maxed out my brain In high school science after Chem I and in math somewhere during Trig or Calc I. I enjoy reading now because I get to choose what I read.

  26. English was my favorite subject growing up. Math… not so much. It has never been my strong area so I would benefit from this book!!

  27. My favorites were History and Literature.

  28. Band! I love playing music.

    I just read this book on my Kindle last night. What a fun book about math! I’d like to share it with some of my non-math friends.

    The funny thing is, although I hated math growing up, I became a math teacher! I adore Algebra. In fact, I known for using the Pythagorean theorem to figure out how much material I need for a sewing project or slope to compare cell phone plans. But, that just me. Math rocks!

  29. beth lehman says:

    I think this book looks so interesting! I read about it over on Sew Mama Sew a few weeks ago and loved what the author was saying. As a teacher and mom, I would love to be able to talk about “everyday math”. I loved READING and wanted to love math – by middle school with a cranky math teacher I stopped enjoying math, but kept finding solace in books… oh, and I really like Home Ec!

  30. I’ve just started sewing again, which has provided the intellectual challenge for me that you’re deck-building did for you–math, patterns, geometry and spacial conception, oh my!

    English lit has my heart 🙂

  31. I loved band. 🙂 But my husband is a math teacher… yeah. I married one of THOSE guys. (I’m going to show him that pi picture at the top of your post — he’ll love it!! 🙂

  32. English and Literature was always my favourite 🙂 Though, grade 9 Classics was fabulous!

  33. Drama and Biology….I was weird!

  34. History

  35. This book is great, I think my husband needs to start handing them out! My husband is a Math Professor and when someone asks what he teaches, their response has always been I was never good at math! Even doctors, have responded this way. My husband and I crack up afterwards, because w have yet to meet a person (besides fellow mathematicians) that have said I am/was really good at math.

  36. My favorite subject was English/Literature. I really loved my British Literature class in high school.

  37. English. I loved Science until it got too Math-y.

  38. Erin Shaheen says:

    My favourite subject was gym class. I always wanted to do something as a career that took me close to other athletes – physio, gym teacher, recreation leader etc.

    I’m totally math phobic, I would love to make it real for me. I think if my highschool teachers used math for knitting, I would have been more motivated. That is where I notice my lack and fear of math the most.

  39. Honestly, it was and still is Math!

  40. English and math… I was a weird kid 🙂

  41. English was always my favorite subject–I even became an English teacher. Now I’m a homeschooling mother, and I spend my days reading with my children.

  42. I enjoyed English.

  43. My favorite subject was Latin!

  44. Nicole Dufendach says:


  45. I was laughing reading your post, you really said it well. Before when we are still in school, we always do memorizing multiplication, getting our jelly brains out finding the least common denominator. Now, as a mom get headache computing how to stretched te last money in the wallet for whole week groceries and bills. Computing the time wh doing the laundry and preparing hot meal for the family when they arrive. Hah! we really bombarded with math problems everyday. I thought I am done with it.

  46. Kim Johnson says:

    I love love love the idea of this book! I love math (I have my PhD) and whenever I tell people that, they always say something like, “Oh, I hate math!” My response is that we do math every day all the time, and never notice it. If people knew how much power they could gain just by being aware of the math they already do, their lives would be better.

    My favorite study I read about in grad school was a bunch of middle aged women who hated math. They were given a bunch of problems to do on a test or worksheet or something—they did terribly. Then, they went to the grocery store and did the SAME type of problems in context, and they did much better.

    The other thing I love about this post and the title of the book is that now as adults, we can do things differently. I hated P.E in school, but now that I’m grown up I can make it fit me, instead of doing things because the teacher made me. I’d never applied that to math before, what a great insight!

  47. Anything but math or PE!

  48. I’m a Math/Science girl.

  49. I loved biology – even though we eventually had to dissect a frog.

  50. Fav subject was english…i could surely use this!

  51. Laura Gail says:


  52. Math was my favorite subject. If I win this, it will go to my husband. He needs all the help he can get.

  53. I LOVE art, but I didn’t get to take a “real” art class in school. So as far as subjects are concerned, math was probably my favorite. 🙂

  54. I too loved English/Literature!

  55. I always enjoyed Math!

  56. Music was my favorite!

  57. English. Loved it!

  58. Literature was my favorite subject.

  59. My favorite subject in school and college was Science!

  60. History! Am reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin now. An excellent book I never read in school – probably because it’s over 600 pages and full of Christian apologetics. Who knew Harriet Beecher Stowe was the Martha Stewart of her day? Please, this book is a Must Read.

  61. English/Reading!!!!! But I really enjoyed the brain challenge of chemistry. It wasn’t ‘my thing’ but I loved how hard I had to work for it!

  62. I’m a science girl all the way – enough to major in chemistry!

  63. History! I still enjoy reading,watching and learning things about the past.

  64. I’m thinking this book would really help my husband and his Mom. They are both so phobic about math that they won’t even try!

  65. English and science. Hated chem though.. Thats why i need this book 😉

  66. English was always my favorite subject. I suffer from mathphobia (wink), so I could definitely benefit from this book!

  67. I liked Music and Biology.

  68. Emily Woodall says:

    My favorite subject in school was history=-)

  69. This looks like a great book! My favorite subject was always history.

  70. My favorite subject was Literature. I hope I win, too!

  71. I always enjoyed the social sciences and literature because I am fascinated by stories of other people and cultures. Sadly, though, I am another math phobic and have always struggled. I always say I wanted to like math, but it never liked me back! I have become comfortable with some simple calculations I routinely run into at work (I’m an RN), but one of the reasons I’ve been putting off getting a more advanced degree is because I’m so afraid of taking statistics!

  72. I loved history in high school, and anthropology in college!

  73. My favorite subject was English.

  74. History!

  75. I was and still am a math and physics person.

  76. This book has been on my wishlist!

    I enjoyed most subjects in school, so it’s hard to pick one favorite. Science, history, English…

  77. I’ve been visiting your site pretty regularly lately and I love the information you provide to your readers! This post made me laugh because my husband always makes fun of my bad math skills. My favorite subject in school was definitely art – I love everything about it, drawing, painting, pottery – everything!

  78. I enjoyed a number of subjects, but Biology was always my favourite.

  79. Amy from Texas says:

    Band, most definitely.

  80. Funny enough, it was business management. I learned how to write checks and balance a check book when I was 16. Of course this was during the pre online banking days 🙂

  81. English! Especially with Mrs. Elsen– we had a wedding ceremony in class while studying the Common Book of Prayer, and a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party where she got a little wild pouring tea all over the table. She loved what she taught and let us experience her contagious enthusiasm!

  82. Lori Pavelka says:

    English! Which might explain while my math skills have always been a bit lacking . . .

  83. English literature! I was the one who actually enjoyed all that class reading : )

  84. My favorite subject was always history.

  85. My favorite subject was reading/literature.

  86. My favorite subject was art although I was/am still good at math. I would like this book for my husband though.

  87. History!

  88. Oh goodness, I didn’t really have a favorite, but if I had to choose, I’d say English. I was not a stellar student and math makes me shake in my boots so this book would be fabulous for me!

  89. My favorite subject was English – probably because I loved to write even then. But Math… I {still} break out in hives trying to solve a word problem. Help! 🙂 What a wonderful book idea. I know I need it!

  90. Anything science! I had the chickenpox the first day we were schedule to do a dissection. I cried for a couple of days. LOL! I’m a nerd.

  91. My favorite was English!

  92. So my favorite subject was reading! But my favorite subject to teach is math, its way more fun.

  93. English & Literature! 🙂

  94. I loved math and science as a child – up until I got to college-level calculus but still graduated with a minor in Math. But the crazy thing is that I have a tough time with daily math! My husband teases me to no end about it.

  95. As the daughter of a math professor, it’s no surprise that MATH was my favorite. I really loved studying math!

  96. Ha! Math was my absolute WORST subject in school and then (go figure!) I take business administration as a major in college. What a mess! The subject I enjoyed the most at school was English. Still love it!

  97. Music and art. I was a music teacher, and I’m married to a music teacher, so we could really use this book! 🙂

  98. English- which is exactly why I need Math for Grown ups! 🙂

  99. I did better in English/social studies in high school but ended up graduating from college with honors in computer science – a subject that required two full years of calculus and calculus based physics. Everything changed for me when I discovered my learning style and math started clicking.

    I love this post!

  100. I loved ART!!!