By any chance are there 599 Rick Wagoners collecting paychecks as General Motors' (NYSE:GM) chief executive? Maybe that would help explain the company's precarious financial condition.

But, no. There's just one, and he offered in early December to cut his 2009 salary to $1 as part of an automaker rescue.

Sounds good. Since Wagoner's company is seeking a huge amount of financial help from the people of America, whacking his paycheck from $2.2 million to a single greenback seems like the least this man can do.

But is it more than a gesture? Numbers aren't always what they seem on Wall Street, and investors need to dig deeper to match words with reality.

For instance, even after a big drop last month, Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) A shares were still going for $75,000 at their lows. But as Fool Rich Duprey pointed out, that big number doesn't mean the shares are overpriced. The same goes for penny stocks, which might be cheap for a reason.

Now, it appears GM has gotten $9.4 billion from the federal government. And let's consider Wagoner's total 2007 compensation of $15.7 million, according to Reuters. It's less than Ford's (NYSE:F) Alan Mulally's compensation, but is it chicken feed in the big picture?

Wagoner's total compensation works out to roughly 0.17% of the $9.4 billion -- just a sixth of a percent. Admittedly, cutting $2 million or more from that total might make legislators and the general public feel better about bailing them out. But in the grand scheme of things, whether or not GM pays millions to its executives won't make or break the company's much larger restructuring plans. (Now, if all 599 of those Wagoners we were wondering about gave up their 2007 compensation, the company could've skipped the government money altogether.)

This is admittedly just one small piece of the numbers jumble involved in the automakers' financial predicament, but it shows how we can't stop at the surface when judging where to put our money.

Knowledge is power. Aspiring investors of the future need to know, for instance, about the wealth of information that companies put in readily available proxy statements and SEC filings. "Wow"-ing at the bosses' salaries can be the first step to becoming an active and informed shareholder, and a savvy steward of your own money.

To that end, please visit our Foolanthropy page and join The Motley Fool in lending a hand to teachers getting their students up to speed in financial literacy.

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Kris Eddy owns no shares of companies mentioned in this article. Berkshire Hathaway is a recommendation of both Motley Fool Inside Value and Motley Fool Stock Advisor. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Fool's disclosure policy dances backward, in high heels.