Adding up the numbers: When a deal is no deal at all

When Barbie complained in 1992 that "math class is tough," we all disapproved of the message she was sending to young girls. Secretly however, many of us — men and women — nodded our heads in commiseration. (Finally, a doll that understands that working with numbers doesn't come easy for everyone!)

It isn't even that math is so hard, per se, it's just that figuring out calculations on the spot forces us to stop multi-tasking and really focus. We are confronted with math problems every day. For example, in the grocery store, you find yourself staring at paper towels for way too long. The regular dual pack is on sale, you could buy two…but the jumbo pack looks like a better bargain…or is it?

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We think back to high school algebra…wait a minute…do we divide this number or multiply by it? Even with the help of the calculators on our PDAs, the trouble is that doing sums forces us to stop everything else we're doing so we can figure it all out. And when you're in a grocery store with just 20 minutes before you need to pick up your oldest from dance class - while your youngest is trying to tear open a bag of pasta, your husband is texting you about the soccer schedule and you're trying to field RSVPs for your sister's baby shower — well, math just ain't gonna happen. You grab the jumbo pack of paper towels and keep on moving.

Maybe you are one of those blessed people for whom math comes naturally. You just look at the numbers and they gracefully float into position in your head — every calculation clear and simple, like a lovely aria. Right, good on you then. For the rest of us, here is a guide to the tricks retailers play on us and how we can pay more attention to the math

1) Getting more is not the same as paying less

If you had the choice between buying a 6-pack of paper towels at a 33% discount, versus buying a 'bonus' 8-pack providing 33% more paper towels, which would be the better deal? Seems about equal, right? Wrong.

6-pack regular price: $7.50

33% off sale price: $5.02

cost per roll: about 84¢

8-pack "33% more" deal price: $7.50

cost per roll: about 94¢

[More: Become a grocery guru: Tips for saving on your biggest weekly expense]

As the above example demonstrates, a 33% price discount would actually be more equivalent to a 50% product increase:

6-pack regular price: $7.50

33% off sale price: $5.02

cost per roll: about 84¢

9-pack "50% more" deal price: $7.50

cost per roll: about 83¢

Retailers know buyers like to feel that they are getting more 'bang for their buck' and most people won't bother to do the math.

Lesson: If you can skip the biggie sizing and just pay less, you will save more money.

2) Price shocking you into submission

Retailers know that if they can get the sticker shock out of the way as soon as you enter the store, anything less will seem like a great deal.

Walk into cosmetics giant, Sephora, and you will find the most expensive brands right at the front. You will melt over the gorgeous colours of Laura Mercier's new fall lipstick shades. The red amour is a must-have. Then you look at the price — what?! No way you're paying $32 for a lipstick, am I right?

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As you move through the store, that $32 cost has embedded itself deep into your brain like a worm. Just to the side of the check-out desk, you discover Sephora's own house brand of low-priced cosmetics and tools. Now, here is a deal! Okay, you won't find the exact shade you loved in the Laura Mercier section, but you've found two colours that are similar (plus a cute pink shade) and heck, at $12 each, you'll buy all three! Cha-ching: $36 on lipstick, sold.

One luxury brand lipstick: $32

One house brand lipstick: $12

(x 3) = $36

Lesson: Know your limits in terms of how much you want to spend and what you need.  Don't get distracted by high-end temptations or apparent bargains on stuff you don't need. If you know you'll prefer quality over quantity in the long term, then buy the one you love and get the heck out of there!

3) Signing you up for more than you would otherwise spend

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. When it comes to recurring payments, companies are happy to do the math for you. Save 60% off the cover price of magazines by subscribing now! Join the fitness club and your membership will cost you 50% less than if you were to drop-in (3 times a week). Right. You hand over your credit card, promising yourself that of course you will read every issue of the magazine and of course you will show up at the gym several times a week.

Monthly gym dues: $120

No. of visits per month: 5

Cost of each visit: $24

Drop-in fee at gym: $20

No. of visits per month: 5

Monthly cost: $100

If you do get full utility out of your subscriptions and memberships, then all is well and good for you for paying less. However, paying for stuff you don't use is never a good idea.

[More: Special price for you, my friend! Customized prices among retailers]

Lesson: Bite the bullet, stop the payment plan and when you do want something, just pay the one-time price and remind yourself that you are saving money by only paying for what you use.

Outfoxing the shop

The toughest part of doing price calculations when you're shopping isn't the math, it's being aware. Retailers rely on the fact that most people will accept a bargain at face value and can't be bothered to check the math.  But you are wise to their ways. If you stop, pay attention, and think about what you're spending your money on (and what you're really getting in return), you will be much richer for it!

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