Over the last three years, there has been no bigger news story than personal finance. And for good reason. Most economists agree that our home-buying habits (fueled by dangerous lending practices) contributed to the Great Recession. Plus, most Americans were completely caught off guard by our plummeting economy — left without adequate savings when we needed it the most.

Sadly, some things haven’t changed much. Take a look at these scary statistics:

— Forty percent of Americans say they are saving less this year than they did last year, and 39 percent say they have no retirement savings (Harris Interactive).

— But according to the same survey, 28 percent say they are spending more this year than they did last.

— The U.S. student loan debt is now $870 billion (with a b), according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and it is expected to reach $1 trillion (with a t) very soon. This is way, way more than the country’s credit card debt and auto loan debt.

— Harris Interactive reports that 56 percent of all American households have no personal finance budget.

Last month was Math Appreciation Month — and it was also Financial Literacy Month. We couldn’t celebrate both at the same time, so May will be devoted to the math behind personal finance here are Math for Grownups.

Financial literacy has a lot in common with math. For many folks, the concepts are scary and somewhat mysterious. And in my experience there are many, many personal finance experts who prescribe a right and wrong way to approach money management. This month, I’ll take a look at both of these things.

We’ll consider the math behind budgets, credit card payments and savings. I’ll show you a few quick ways to estimate your financial health, and we’ll explore how you can apply your own methods to reaching financial stability (or teaching your kids the benefits of financial responsibility). Experts, including a mortgage broker, financial planner and more, will share how they use math in their jobs and even how you can harness your math know-how and become a better steward of your money. We’ll also look at lots of statistics. (What does the reduction in home values actually mean?)

Meanwhile, if you have questions about this subject you’d like to ask, share them in the comments section. I’ll be drawing up a plan for the month, and I’d love to hear what you think!

Buckle up — this is math everyone can use.

You’ve booked that trip to ParisVive les vacances! Now that your credit card has borne the brunt of your plane tickets and hotel reservations, with just enough space for a couple of fantastic meals, it’s time to turn to the cash. How much should you bring — and even more importantly, how far will it go?

When traveling out of country, you need to consider the currency exchange rate. Only very rarely is this exchange equal. (In other words, one Euro almost never equals one U.S. dollar.) That means, you’ll need to use a conversion to find out how far your cash will actually go.

There are actually three things to talk about here: using an online conversion calculator, doing the conversions by hand and checking your answer to see if it’s reasonable. Remember, math is infinitely flexible, so there’s no reason you have to do this in one particular way. Next Wednesday, we’ll look at doing conversions with paper and pencil. Today, it’s all about online calculators and checking your answer.

First, the conversion calculators. Go ahead and use them! If nothing else, a reliable online calculator will give you the most up-to-date conversion rate with the click of a button. For example, using the XE currency conversion calculator, I found that $1USD is equal to 0.794921€ (as of Monday, July 2, 2:05 p.m.).  This means that one U.S. dollar is worth a little more than 75 percent of a Euro.

If you know the exchange rate, it’s really easy to exchange values of 10, 100 or 1000. In these cases, you can simply move the decimal point.

$10USD = 7.94921€

$100USD = 79.4921€

$1000USD = 794.921€

Notice that when there is one zero (as in 10), you move the decimal point one place to the right. When there are two zeros (as in 100), you move the decimal point two places to the right. And when there are three zeros (as in 1000), you move the decimal point three places to the right.

Of course, if you want to convert $237.50USD to Euros, that trick won’t work. In that case, you can plug $237.50 into the online calculator. If you have $237.50USD in your pocket, that’s 188.717€.

XE also has iPhone and Droid apps, so you can take the online calculator on the road with you. (Note: I don’t have any relationship with XE. It just looks like a good, reliable online currency calculator. Want to recommend something different? Feel free to respond in the comments section.)

The thing about online calculators is that they’re only as good as the information that you put in. If you think you’re converting $USD to €, but you’re actually doing it the other way around, well, your fancy pants calculator is not going to spit out the answer you were looking for. You have to know how to assess whether your answer is correct.

I’m the first to admit that I get this very confused. I have to stop and think really hard to be sure that I’ve done the conversions correctly. (And to be honest, this is one of the reasons I prefer to do it by hand.) But there are some simple rules you can consider that will help:

  • If the conversion rate is less than 1, the conversion will be less than the original amount.
  • If the conversion rate is greater than 1, the conversion will be greater than the original amount.

Let’s say that $1USD equals $1.26SGD (Singapore dollar). If you convert $USD to $SGD, will your answer be greater or less than the original amount? If you said greater — you’re right! But if you convert $SGD to $USD, the answer will be less than the original amount. Make sense?

The good news is that you can figure this out before you leave. Write it down or keep a note on your phone. Then you will always be able to check to see if your answer makes sense. Because the worst thing is to come home from a relaxing vacation to find that you’ve spent way too much.

Be sure to come back next Wednesday to get the deets on how to do these conversions by hand. It really isn’t that difficult — and the process is applicable in so many other situations, so it’s worth learning.

Where are you traveling this summer? Share your plans in the comments section below!