Iona Bain has made a name for herself as the millennial finance guru. She writes books and appears regularly on TV and radio to talk about managing money – and as the cost-of-living crisis deepens, her advice is needed more than ever.
So it’s surprising to find that the Oxford-educated minds behind the award-winning Young Money blog don’t even know the basics of mental arithmetic. Iona, 34, admits: “When I add up I have to use my fingers.”
She demonstrates by holding up five fingers on one hand and one on the other. “I know there are six, but I still doubt I have the right answer,” she says.
Iona Bain, 34, the Oxford-educated brain behind the hugely popular and award-winning blog Young Money, is unable to do the most basic mental arithmetic because she has dyscalculia – a condition similar to dyslexia but involving numbers
She said: “The multiplication table ten is what I do best. I have problems with the fives. As for equations, they fill me with panic and horror.
“The multiplication table is the multiplication table I know best. I have problems with the fives. As for the equations, they fill me with panic and horror.”
Anyone whose head spins when confronted with a tax return may at some level be associated with it. But Iona is not only bad at math. She suffers from dyscalculia – a learning disability that affects the ability to understand numbers.
Most people can, with some effort, work out even fairly complex sums on paper.
Nevertheless, arithmetic weaknesses have a hard time with simple number concepts.
At worst, the condition can lead to sufferers struggling with things like counting bananas in a bunch – although Iona says it’s not that bad. Other sufferers find it impossible to count backwards. “Numbers are just a mystery – they don’t make sense to me like they do to other people,” she explains.
Anyone whose head spins when confronted with a tax return may at some level be associated with it. But Iona is not only bad at math. She suffers from dyscalculia – a learning disability that affects the ability to understand numbers
But the condition isn’t as rare as it sounds: it’s estimated that six per cent of the population suffer from some form of dyscalculia, a staggering four million people in the UK, although according to a. at least a third of these are undiagnosed in a 2018 study that randomly tested elementary school children.
Iona, who studied music before getting into financial journalism, admits her career choice may seem unusual, but she firmly believes the challenges she faces are her strength, not a weakness.
“A lot of people think they’re bad with money because they’re intimidated by numbers, and I can understand that,” she says. “I just thought, if I can do it, anyone can.
“A lot of what I do is to help people understand what drives them to use money the way they do — like why they overspend or avoid saving.
“But when it comes to actual numbers, I’m not embarrassed to admit that I use a calculator for amounts that others would probably find easy. It really doesn’t matter if you do mental math or use a calculator as long as you do it right.’
Often the cause of dyscalculia is genetic, and the condition can run in families, although Iona is the first in her family to be diagnosed.
University College London neuroscientist Professor Brian Butterworth believes there is a “significant characteristic” of the condition that distinguishes it from being simply bad at math.
It is estimated that six per cent of the population suffer from some form of dyscalculia, a staggering four million people in the UK
He says, “Can you quickly and accurately estimate the number of objects in a display, such as a fruit bowl? Dyscalculians have problems over one element, and up to four they are slower than typical people their age.
“Moreover, they are increasingly inaccurate.
“People with dyscalculia may lack an intuitive understanding of simple number concepts such as the relationship between multiplication and repeated addition — for example, that six times three is the same as six plus six plus six. And they may not understand what place value means – how in a four-digit number each digit represents thousands, hundreds, tens, and ones.’
Peter Jarrett, Chair of the British Dyslexia Association’s Dyscalculia Committee, adds: “A person with dyscalculia may not understand that a train that departs at 09:00 and arrives at 09:52 is a 52 minute journey has, and even how long 52 minutes is. They often have problems with speedometers and don’t understand how fast or slow they are going.”
Iona has developed a number of coping strategies to ensure her condition doesn’t interfere with her ability to manage her finances.
“Besides using a calculator to add things up, there are dedicated online calculators that make it easy to calculate mortgage interest or tax rates and other complicated equations. To be honest, few people can do such calculations as they are complex. The good thing is you don’t have to.
“Mobile banking apps are also helpful as they often display your expenses in a simple visual form and not on bank statements, which were these huge lists of numbers that were making my head spin.
“If you’re not sure you’ve done something right, ask someone else for help. There’s no shame – I ask my dad to check things out and luckily he’s good with numbers.
Dyscalculia is often picked up at school because children – like Iona – sail through the rest of the curriculum but find that math is a blind spot. Her first memory of having a problem with math was at the age of nine when she was at school in Edinburgh. The class was asked to fill in the solutions to the multiplication problems. “I felt overwhelmed and panicked,” she says. “The other kids went to recess and I told the teacher I couldn’t.”
Dyscalculia is often picked up in school because children sail through the rest of the curriculum but find that math is a blind spot
In high school, she was bottom in math. “I broke down in tears doing my math homework,” she says, “and my parents knew it wasn’t because I wasn’t trying.”
Iona confided in them that she felt a “profound disconnection of numbers” and was diagnosed with dyscalculia at age 14 after a school evaluation. She was looked after after school to help her pass her math exams.
“There is a need for more training on dyscalculia for teachers,” says Mr. Jarrett. “When teaching dyscalculic students, use more tangible situations and visual tools, like slicing pizza or showing that a £20 note is the same as four fives. In the workplace, employers need to understand that bad math doesn’t mean you’re bad at your job.’
There is no cure for dyscalculia, but Mr Jarrett is working with scientists in Singapore on an app with a game to help children with the condition develop a sense of numbers.
He is desperate that there is no more action. “Principal Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance sent a letter to Boris Johnson in 2020 about better supporting young people with dyscalculia, but not much seems to have been done.”
Meanwhile, Iona simply asks for more understanding. She says: “The truth is that we celebrate people who are naturally brilliant at math, but not being good with numbers shouldn’t be a problem or an obstacle for anyone. I hope I am proof of that.”