Paper Towel Math

math equations on blackboard“Hey there,” I called to a supermarket employee who had just appeared in the paper goods aisle. “Can you help me with something?”

“Sure,” he said.

I pointed to the miles of paper towel above my head.

“If I want a better deal, should I buy 6 = 18 or 8 = 20 rolls of paper towel?” I asked. “And does it change the equation if I get 8 rolls of select-a-size? And also, what if I only use the paper towel on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, during high tide, and for messes that only begin with the letter “m,” like milk?”

He stared at me with his mouth agape. I couldn’t tell if he thought I was merely a lunatic or if he was as befuddled as I was by the confusing marketing campaign known as “paper towel math.”

“2 = 5,” said one label.

“6 = 18,” said another

“8 = 20,” said one more.

I shook my head. It made no sense. If 2 equaled 6 and 6 equaled 18, I could see a trend. But there was no trend. It was almost like someone was just throwing out random numbers: 10 = 100! 12 = 15,000! Of course, I wasn’t going to unroll the sheets and count them to check. I had better things to do… like figure out if I need “ultra-soft” or “ultra-strong” toilet paper. 

Now, I’m no math dummy, but… wait, check that. I am a math dummy. I passed high school math, barely. But apparently even knowing algebra and trigonometry wasn’t enough to help me figure out paper towel math. Sadly, not much math has stuck with me through the years, and whatever I did retain was in the brain cells I lost in childbirth, which is why I had to stop helping my kids with their math after they finished 3rd grade because I had no idea what they were doing. But even so, I don’t recall 2 = 5 as any formula I was ever taught in any class, in any grade, in my school, or probably any other school on this planet, or any other planet in the universe. Of course, it could have been taught in my kids’ 4th grade math class, but I’ll never know because I didn’t get that far.

As if all this weren’t confusing enough, the paper towels also came in half sizes and thirds so that instead of using a whole sheet, you could select a smaller sheet for a smaller mess. That being the case, if you routinely only used half a sheet, did 2 actually equal 7? And when I say 7, I randomly chose a number because as I mentioned before, I’m a math dummy and it seemed that now we were getting into fractions, which I definitely forgot while in labor with my second child.

Meanwhile, back in the paper towel aisle of hell, I still had no idea how many rolls of paper towel to buy to get the best deal. I was pretty sure the paper towel math might make my head explode — which wouldn’t have been a total tragedy because we had all this paper towel around to clean it up — and I wasn’t confident the store employee could figure it out either.

He stared up at the skyscraper of paper towels and scratched his head, then finally spoke. 

“How many rolls do you want?” he asked.


“Then buy six.”

“If I buy six, it says it’s more like 18, which is definitely too many,” I said. “But if I buy 2 = 5, that’s almost six rolls, even if it’s actually only two, right?” 

“Sounds right; I think you should get two,” he said.

“Why?” I replied,

He smiled. “Because clearly you’re on a roll.”

Tracy Beckerman is the author of the Amazon Bestseller, “Barking at the Moon: A Story of Life, Love, and Kibble,” available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble online! You can visit her at


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