Being good at maths and money aren't the same thing: Adam Spencer


Maths nerd and radio presenter Adam Spencer has just released a new book, Adam Spencer's Maths 101, aimed at supporting primary school children and their parents.

The idea for this book came from a friend who'd locked himself in the bathroom and called Adam after his seven-year-old son asked him why 1 wasn't a prime number. Adam's previous books have been aimed at smart teenagers who were bored with school maths, but the idea of this book was reinforced during lockdown when parents had to homeschool.

While Adam has always loved maths, sees the world mathematically, and is a genius in a room of randomly selected people, in a room of mathematicians he's the bottom of the class. His skill, however, lies in translating it to the rest of us.

adam spencer maths

What was your first job?

My dad did the same job for 40 years; the only thing that changed was make and model of vehicle he drove around in. He distributed the morning and afternoon papers to newsagencies. He organised for me, with a local newsagent, to do a paper run on a Sunday morning when I was aged 11-13. The first week I earned $2.15, and three years later I had turned it into a $7.50 media empire! I loved that.

When I finished high school I did maths tutoring and turned that into Friday after school and Saturday. If you're doing something you're good at and you love, and you're getting paid for brain rather than labour, you can stitch something together that's quite rewarding on a number of levels.

What's the best money advice you've received?

Here's a generalisation - people think if you're good at maths, you'll be awesome at money. I don't think those two things necessarily go together at all. I can calculate percentages and what you'll need as a deposit and things like that but in terms of natural sense with money, I don't have much at all.

My parents never sat down and talked money with me.

I was at an event with Chris Caton when he was still chief economist at BT in the early 2000s; he said don't mistake a cycle for a trend. If something is going in one direction the heat will eventually come out of that and it will go down. In a perfect world I would have listened a bit closer to that. At that time I took a large amount of money and made a large foray into the stock market about 18 seconds before the GFC hit.

What's the best investment decision you've made?

I'm lucky with the work that I do as a professional conference MC that I've been exposed to people who understand that area. Through my work at Sydney Swans and Andrew Pridham that I've been in a position that when I do have money I can go to people who know far more about it than me.

I understand the concept of diversity, and not exposing yourself to just one asset class. I'm into about five boutique projects - one of which is commercial real estate, one of which is aged care, and one of which is hospitality - and exposed them sufficiently broadly to be as insulated as I can be.

The best investment decision I've made is to access good quality knowledge that I have an unfair advantage being exposed to and not being arrogant enough to think I know as much as a lifetime professional.

What's the worst investment decision you've made?

I locked in interest rates on my home fearing they would get bigger and bigger and I really didn't understand the concept and didn't sit down and talk to people about what is involved and how it worked.

I locked in the whole thing for the longest term possible for years at 7.5% weeks before the GFC and before I realised what had happened. Interest rates went to nothing and it cost me almost $100,000 to break that lock-in and reposition it.

What is your favourite thing to splurge on?

My fiancée. I'm really happy with the person who has changed my life for the better.

Until a few years ago my real guilty pleasure was chess books - I would have a library of chess books but the percentage I've got anything out of is tiny. I've never gleaned as much a percentage of anywhere near the number of books I have.

If you had $10,000 where would you invest it?

In my wedding. It's coming up in two months and, in particular, on a caterer. More generally, I'd ask a couple of people I know, and I'd spread it around a bit.

What would you do if you only had $50 left in the bank?

I would bet it all on the Sydney Swans winning the 2022 grand final.

Do you intend to leave an inheritance?

Yes, I intend to make sure my kids are alright and there are a few charitable organisations I've worked with and institutions that have helped make me the person I am, and I'm keen to give back to some of them.

What's been your best money-making career move?

The sort of things I make my money from these days are the skills I never had any idea I had at the time but have now worked towards what I do now.

When I loved studying mathematics at uni, I never knew I'd be able to be a professional MC and host. At uni, I went to a few world debating championships and improv theatre. When you're belting around doing that at uni with kids who have just had a beer you don't think about the speed, confidence and just going with it thinking 'gee this will help me out in the future'.

But I've now been in enough conversations and panels to move it around so everyone gets involved, I can throw in a joke, give space and gently bring back people who are going on too long. The skills I have today I didn't realise when I was getting them - confidence and backing myself are the greatest skills and have given me the most back.

Finish this sentence: money makes...

... between 5-8 per cent per annum if invested wisely. Be scared if someone offers you more than that.

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Julia Newbould was editor-at-large and later managing editor of Money from November 2019 to February 2022. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.