Course – LS – All

Get started with Spring and Spring Boot, through the Learn Spring course:


1. Overview

Correctly handling numbers is crucial to any programming language. However, some applications rely more on the exact values and require a better representation of decimal numbers.

For example, we should avoid number representations that allow rounding errors and overflows while working with money or precise calculations. For such cases, it’s highly recommended to use the BigDecimal class.

Although BigDecimal provides many benefits, it displays a non-intuitive behavior regarding equals() and compareTo() methods. In this tutorial, we’ll dive into their differences, underlying implementations, and implications for these methods.

2. compareTo()

Let’s start with the easiest of these methods: compareTo(). The beauty of it is that its behavior is expected and would be considered consistent and logical for most developers.

This method compares two numbers and returns an integer value that shows if a number is greater, lesser, or equal to another one. In this context, we refer to the equality of two numbers regarding the compareTo() result being zero. Let’s check the following example of the compareTo() logic:

static Stream<Arguments> decimalCompareToProvider() {
    return Stream.of(
      Arguments.of(new BigDecimal("0.1"), new BigDecimal("0.1"), true),
      Arguments.of(new BigDecimal("1.1"), new BigDecimal("1.1"), true),
      Arguments.of(new BigDecimal("1.10"), new BigDecimal("1.1"), true),
      Arguments.of(new BigDecimal("0.100"), new BigDecimal("0.10000"), true),
      Arguments.of(new BigDecimal("0.10"), new BigDecimal("0.1000"), true),
      Arguments.of(new BigDecimal("0.10"), new BigDecimal("0.1001"), false),
      Arguments.of(new BigDecimal("0.10"), new BigDecimal("0.1010"), false),
      Arguments.of(new BigDecimal("0.2"), new BigDecimal("0.19999999"), false),
      Arguments.of(new BigDecimal("1.0"), new BigDecimal("1.1"), false),
      Arguments.of(new BigDecimal("0.01"), new BigDecimal("0.0099999"), false)

void givenBigDecimals_WhenCompare_ThenGetReasonableResult(BigDecimal fistDecimal,
  BigDecimal secondDecimal, boolean areComparablySame) {
    assertEquals(fistDecimal.compareTo(secondDecimal) == 0, areComparablySame);

The compareTo() method treats the numbers 0.1, 0.10, 0.100, and 0.1000 as the same. It ignores trailing zeros, which is quite reasonable and expected in most cases.

3. compareTo() vs. equals()

While it’s highly recommended to respect the consistency between compareTo() and equals(), it isn’t a strict rule. Here’s the snipped from the documentation of the Comparable interface:

It is strongly recommended (though it isn’t required) that natural orderings be consistent with equals.

The BigDecimal class doesn’t follow this recommendation. The discrepancy between the results of these methods might result in unexpected behavior and hard-to-debug issues.

It’s usual for developers to have issues with this method. The documentation refers to BigDecimal and its unusual behavior in the Comparable interface:

One exception is java.math.BigDecimal, whose natural ordering equates BigDecimal objects with equal numerical values and different representations (such as 4.0 and 4.00). For BigDecimal.equals() to return true, the representation and numerical value of the two BigDecimal objects must be the same.

The BigDecimal documentation also points to the same behavior:

Unlike compareTo, this method considers two BigDecimal objects equal only if they are equal in value and scale. Therefore, 2.0 is not equal to 2.00 when compared by this method since the former has [BigInteger, scale] components equal to [20, 1] while the latter has components equal to [200, 2].

However, because this information is in the documentation, we can confidently state that no one reads it. Therefore, let’s discuss the behavior of the equals() method more.

3. equals()

The main quirk of the equals() method is that it considers the scale while comparing two numbers. This means that from its perspective, 1.0 and 1.00 aren’t equal.

In some specific cases, we want to distinguish numbers by their precision; for example, in physics, we tend to treat numbers with different precisions as different.

However, we have additional reasons for such behavior in the BigDecimal class.

3.1. Scale

First of all, the representations of the numbers aren’t the same. The scale is stored in a separate field and defines the floating point’s position:

public class BigDecimal extends Number implements Comparable<java.math.BigDecimal> {
    private final int scale;

Thus, technically, the numbers with different scales aren’t equal as they have different values in their fields.

3.2. hashCode()

Another exciting aspect is the relationships between the equals() and hashCode(). Considering the numbers that differ only in trailing zeros equal, we should also reflect this in the hashCode() calculation, which would complicate it.

In the current implementation, the scale affects the hash code and is consistent with equals():

public int hashCode() {
    if (intCompact != INFLATED) {
        long val2 = (intCompact < 0)? -intCompact : intCompact;
        int temp = (int)( ((int)(val2 >>> 32)) * 31  + (val2 & LONG_MASK));
        return 31*((intCompact < 0) ?-temp:temp) + scale;
    } else
        return 31*intVal.hashCode() + scale;

The comment for hashCode() explains its behavior:

Two BigDecimal objects that are numerically equal but differ in scale (like 2.0 and 2.00) will generally not have the same hash code.

3.3. Operations

Additionally, the same operations on equal numbers should produce the same results. This might not be true if we work on the number with different scales. Java 17 provides the following example in the documentation:

One example that shows how 2.0 and 2.00 are not substitutable for each other under some arithmetic operations are the two expressions:
new BigDecimal(“2.0” ).divide(BigDecimal.valueOf(3), HALF_UP which evaluates to 0.7 and
new BigDecimal(“2.00”).divide(BigDecimal.valueOf(3), HALF_UP which evaluates to 0.67.

This behavior can be shown better in the example with 4.0 and 4.00:

  "2.0, 2.00",
  "4.0, 4.00"
void givenNumbersWithDifferentPrecision_WhenPerformingTheSameOperation_TheResultsAreDifferent(
  String firstNumber, String secondNumber) {
    BigDecimal firstResult = new BigDecimal(firstNumber).divide(BigDecimal.valueOf(3), HALF_UP);
    BigDecimal secondResult = new BigDecimal(secondNumber).divide(BigDecimal.valueOf(3), HALF_UP);

Dividing 4.0 by three would give 1.3, and dividing 4.00 by three would result in 1.33.

3.4. toString()

As a side note, the toString() representation of the numbers with different precision would produce different results. However, the toString() method isn’t connected to the equals() method, and we should never assume we can use it for comparison.

For example, Sets or other data structures that don’t maintain the order might have different toString() representations despite having the same elements.

While we can understand the reasoning behind such implementation of the equals() method, it’s pretty specific and non-intuitive. This might lead to a problem with assertions, and some Java standard methods and data structures may suffer from it.

4. Additional Things (Bugs) to Consider

Let’s review the implications of this behavior while working with BigDecimal. We should consider the implementation of the equals() method wherever it’s used, explicitly or implicitly.

4.1. distinct()

While working with Stream API, the distinct() method might produce unexpected results as it would compare the numbers based on their equality (meaning the result of the equal method). Let’s check the expected behavior first:

Stream.of("0.0", "0.00", "0.0").map(BigDecimal::new).distinct().toArray()

This code results in the following array:

[ 0.0, 0.00 ]

Let’s sort the stream first before taking the distinct values:

Stream.of("0.0", "0.00", "0.0").map(BigDecimal::new).sorted().distinct().toArray()

Due to the different results from the equals() and compareTo(), we can have different positioning of the elements and distinct assumes that the equal elements are grouped. Thus, we might have an incorrect result:

[ 0.0, 0.00, 0.0 ]

This is a known but non-resolved bug. While it might not be the most common use of the distinct(), without being aware of the implementation, it might result in very subtle bugs in our applications.

4.2. Maps and Sets

The differences in the results for the equals() and compareTo() also affect the HashMaps and HashSets. Let’s take the following BigDecimals values:

static Stream<Arguments> decimalProvider() {
    return Stream.of(Arguments.of(Arrays.asList(
      new BigDecimal("1.1"),
      new BigDecimal("1.10"),
      new BigDecimal("1.100"),
      new BigDecimal("0.10"),
      new BigDecimal("0.100"),
      new BigDecimal("0.1000"),
      new BigDecimal("0.2"),
      new BigDecimal("0.20"),
      new BigDecimal("0.200")),

        new BigDecimal("1.1"),
        new BigDecimal("0.10"),
        new BigDecimal("0.2"))));

The behavior correctly adheres to the outlined logic of the equals method. The result would contain all the numbers from the list because they’re considered to be non-equal:

void givenListOfDecimals_WhenAddingToHashSet_ThenUsingEquals(List<BigDecimal> decimalList) {
    Set<BigDecimal> decimalSet = new HashSet<>(decimalList);

The additional confusion arises from the fact that sorted Maps and Sets behave differently:

void givenListOfDecimals_WhenAddingToSortedSet_ThenUsingCompareTo(List<BigDecimal> decimalList,
  List<BigDecimal> expectedDecimalList) {
    Set<BigDecimal> decimalSet = new TreeSet<>(decimalList);

This happens because they rely on the compareTo() instead of the equals() while checking for the existing elements.

5. Trailing Zeros

The best way to resolve the problem is to create a common representation of a number. Because the main issue arises from the difference in trailing zeros, we can use the stripTrailingZeros() method to resolve it:

void givenBigDecimals_WhenCheckEqualityWithoutTrailingZeros_ThenTheSameAsCompareTo(BigDecimal fistDecimal,
  BigDecimal secondDecimal) {
    BigDecimal strippedFirstDecimal = fistDecimal.stripTrailingZeros();
    BigDecimal strippedSecondDecimal = secondDecimal.stripTrailingZeros();
      strippedFirstDecimal.compareTo(strippedSecondDecimal) == 0);

While this method requires additional CPU cycles and might affect the performance, it’s a better way to ensure the consistency between the equals() and compareTo().

6. Conclusion

BigDecimal is an important Java class that helps avoid rounding errors and overflow. However, as this article discussed, it might introduce other issues.

We should pay close attention to using BigDecimal instances in data structures that rely on order or equality of elements. The same is true for direct comparison of the numbers.

As usual, all the code presented in this article is available over on GitHub.

Course – LS – All

Get started with Spring and Spring Boot, through the Learn Spring course:

res – REST with Spring (eBook) (everywhere)
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments