The Weirdest Things You Never Knew About Your Money
Pennies are a lie. Bracelets are cash. You think you know what money is? You have no idea.
Go ahead. Take that dollar bill out of your wallet and stare at it. How much do you really know about those weird symbols on the back? Why is that eyeball staring at you from the top of a pyramid? What is it thinking?
Hey, and while we’re at it: What makes it worth a dollar, anyway? Does everybody on the planet use paper money? Or even coins? (Hint: Nope. Money gets real weird, real fast.)
For all the money there is in the world, people know little about how amazing it is: The way it’s made, the way it works and it’s often bizarre (and sometimes kinda scary) history. Did you know that one country uses huge rocks for money? And that other countries use money made of plastic? And while we’re at it: What really happens to people who write or put stamps on dollar bills? Have any ever gone to jail?
Here’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about money. But be warned: This list is addictive… about as addictive as the cocaine that’s probably lingering on your dollar bills right this very second.
Copper pennies are a lie.
Well, OK. They’re coated in copper. But the bulk of a penny is made out of a metal that isn’t even close to orange or yellow: Zinc.
The reason we think our pennies are all copper is because, well, they used to be. Back in the early 1790s, when America first adopted a one-cent coin, that coin was 100 percent copper.
That lasted until 1857, when the penny was 88% copper and 12% nickel. In 1943 (and only in 1943), the U.S. made pennies out of zinc-coated steel, because copper was needed for World War II.
The composition of pennies changed one last time in 1982-3, when the government started making them out of copper-coated zinc. Today, pennies are only 2.5% copper.
Snails hate your money.
Anyone ever told you to put a few coins in your garden? They’re not for the tomato fairies, people. Coins, particularly pennies, deliver an unpleasant shock to snails and their slug cousins.
It’s the same principle behind that copper flashing people sometimes use around the barrier of a raised garden bed. Given how far a penny goes these days, these humble coins may offer a better value in your herb garden than in your pocket.
There’s a reason why your dimes and quarters have ridges.
First of all, there’s a real name for those ridges around your dimes and quarters; in the coin biz, it’s called reeding.
Now that you’re ready to fit in at your next numismatics party, here’s another fact about those ridges: They go back a long way in history -- for a nefarious reason.
Back in the day, when people needed a little extra cash, they took it -- from existing cash. “Coin clipping” involved taking a strong tool and chipping away at the edges of a coin, leaving tiny shavings that could be melted down to make -- you guessed it -- new coins, or just scrap metal that could fetch a good price.
Ridges are an easy way to tell if a coin is intact, or if it’s been clipped. An added benefit: It’s easier to identify these coins by touch alone.
Above is an example of a coin before it's been clipped. And below, you'll see a similar coin...
... that has most surely been clipped. It comes from the the Roman-era Hoxne Hoard, the largest pile of late Roman coinage ever found in Britain.
Some towns and even neighborhoods have their own money.
Ever hear of an “Ithaca Hour”? How about a “Berkshare”? These are very real types of money, printed by cities, towns and even neighborhoods looking to boost their hyperlocal economies. In 1990s Ithaca, New York, the Hour emerged as an alternative to dollars.
According to a statement on the currency’s official website, “We printed our own money because we watched federal dollars come to town, shake a few hands, then leave to buy rainforest lumber and fight wars. Ithaca's Hours, by contrast, stay in our region to help us hire each other.”
It’s unclear whether Hours are still popular in Ithaca, but its concept isn’t unique. Above, you'll see a picture of a Berkshare, another hyperlocal currency. This one is situated in Berkshire County, in Western Massachusetts.
The idea has also been tried overseas. Above is a type of money issued by the proud South London neighborhood of Brixton. The money is still around; one of the latest options includes a 10-pound note featuring late Brixton native David Bowie.
There are little people hiding in your bills.
If you’ve seen “Hamilton” -- it’s on Disney Plus -- then you’ve probably heard the soundtrack, at least, including that catchy phrase about the 10-dollar father. You now know, forever and ever, that Alexander Hamilton is on a $10 bill, as sure as Washington is on the $1 bill and Ben Franklin is on the $100.
But did you know that there are hidden portraits also lurking on each of those bills?
Go ahead and hold up one of these bills up to the light. Take a look at the right side of your bill… and you’ll see a second portrait, a watermark designed to fight counterfeiting.
U.S. dollars aren’t made of wood paper.
Wood pulp makes up the bulk of our everyday paper. But in case you haven’t noticed, dollars aren’t exactly ordinary paper, and neither are their raw materials.
To survive trips through washing machines and other perilous journeys, U.S. paper currency is made of the same material that makes your denim jeans so durable: cotton.
The highest-quality cotton-fiber papers can last for hundreds of years, but the average lifespan of a $1 bill is closer to six years.
And the most modern type of currency paper can do amazing things. Crane Currency, which makes the paper for many of the world’s banknotes, manufactures a cotton-fiber paper that resists soiling and moisture.
Pennies are a real drag.
For years now, government types have argued about whether we should do away with the lowly penny. The main reason: It costs too much money to make. Specifically, one penny costs more than two cents to produce.
Making pennies costs America millions of dollars a year. And in case you’re wondering, it’s not the base materials that are eating into our collective budget.
It’s just the cost of shaping the metal, and the labor and overhead that goes along with it.
To make matters more dire for the lowly penny: People aren't using them, or other U.S. coins enough, according to Uncle Sam. The U.S. Mint in 2020 launched an awareness campaign practically begging citizens to help it keep coins in circulation.
If you see a $100,000 banknote in circulation, here’s what you should know:
It’s probably fake. Yes, $100,000 banknotes do exist. America used to print them. But we don’t anymore, and the ones in existence are so rare that they’re largely in the hands of collectors, and nobody else.
That’s largely true when it comes to other large bills. They’re out there, but they’re rare enough that, unless you’re a collector, that $1,000 or $10,000 bill in your hand is likely a forgery.
However, if you see a $2 bill, don’t throw it away! Those are also real, and very much worth $2.
In fact, $2 notes have been printed since 1862, with the exception of a decade-long hiatus from 1966 to 1976.
The first motto on an American coin was pretty rude.
No, your eyes do not deceive you. That is legal American tender, clearly yelling at you, in all capital letters, to MIND YOUR BUSINESS.
That’s the motto that was stamped on America’s first circulation coin, designed by none other than Benjamin Franklin. If it helps: It wasn’t meant as a diss back then, but rather, more of a good piece of advice, as in, “Be careful with your earnings.”
God is spying on you from your money.
Ever wonder why there’s an unblinking eyeball staring at you from the top of a pyramid on your dollar bill? It’s an odd combination of images. It also has very deep meaning.
The eye actually has a specific name: The Eye of Providence, or the all-seeing eye of God. It’s meant to symbolize the eye of God watching over us. The unblinking image has hung around on American emblems since our country’s birth, first appearing on the Great Seal of the United States. And yes, this eye is the same eye that’s often seen in Masonic imagery.
Some money is made of rocks.
This is a yap stone, also known as a rai stone, and it’s a kind of currency. The Micronesian island of Yap is famous for this donut-shaped rock money, which comes in all sizes, from a few inches wide to… this.
Many of these denominations, including this man-sized one, are too heavy to move, or, at least, to move without the help of many people.
Some islanders don’t own any of the stones; some families boast of owning several.
Why are the holes there? Well if you thread the rock through a pole, it’s easier to transport.
Most dollar bills have traces of this drug on them.
Have you heard the rumor that most U.S. currency contains traces of illegal narcotics? Well, it’s true -- or, at least, it has been. It was definitely true in the 1990s, when a U.S. circuit court said that one in every four U.S. bills had cocaine traces.
Since then, traces of cocaine have continued to show up on our bills, through at least the mid-2000s. That said, though, you won’t get drugs on your hands if you handle this money; experts say that the powder is too well embedded to rub off.
You can, theoretically, catch a disease from money.
It’s also theoretically possible to catch hepatitis C from paper currency. In the same way that a shared needle can spread disease, so can a shared instrument for snorting drugs, doctors and other health experts have been warning since the mid-2000s.
In a 2006 interview in the British newspaper the Observer, Professor Graham Foster, of London’s St. Mary's Hospital, explained: "Sharing banknotes or straws is a significant risk factor that people need to be more aware of. Although the risk of contracting hepatitis C through snorting is lower than through sharing a needle, it is still there."
For example, if someone has a bloody nose, uses a rolled-up bill to snort drugs, and then shares that bill, that bill could transfer hepatitis C.
That said, shared needles pose a higher risk than a shared straw or bill.
Canada has plastic money.
Don’t laugh at Canada’s funny-looking, colorful money. Yes, it’s made of polymer, and yes, polymer is plastic, and plastic money sure sounds funny, but wait ‘til you hear the benefits to having it in your pocket.
They’re cheaper to produce, last longer, resist counterfeiting attempts quite well, and can carry less of a toll on the environment.
No wonder dozens of countries, from Israel to Vanuatu to Namibia, have adopted them, in whole or in part.
Here, a woman is paying for something with a Bank of England five-pound note, the first English note made of polymer plastic.
The US government can replace your damaged dollars… under certain circumstances.
Suppose a whole wad of your precious cash gets damaged in a fire. You’re not necessarily out of luck.
If a damaged banknote is at least 50 percent intact, you can have that bill replaced for free by Uncle Sam.
So, what should you do if you have a torn or burned bill? If it isn’t too badly mutilated, you can simply take the money to a bank and get it replaced.
A bank may use a measuring device, such as the one seen above, to precisely determine just how much of your bill is left.
But what about your mutilated coins? Can they be bent? Chipped? Clipped? Melted? Carved? Halved? Or what?
Here’s how to get free coins.
Here’s the short answer: It depends. If a coin is, say, badly worn, or just bent, no problem. One of the jobs of the Federal Reserve Bank is to take those coins, send out fresh ones to the owners, and then forward the old ones to the U.S. Mint. Some stores and banks will also handle that for you.
As of November 2020, the U.S. Mint had temporarily suspended its coin replacement program, pending a newer, better set of safeguards. (Also, as you may have heard, there's a nationwide coin shortage.) But when it does fire back up, you can send the coins directly to them.
But if your coins look like this…
If your coins, say, suffer through a home fire, you may be out of luck. If coins are melted or fused together, the U.S. Mint says it won’t take them.
You could, however, sell them for scrap, if you can find somebody who’s into that. Take heart: The metal value of a nickel is, actually, about a nickel. But dimes? Only about 2 cents. Sorry.
The earliest colonial American money looked like a fancy letter from great-great grandma.
The first paper money our country ever made looked more like letters. These were, after all, promissory notes. So it’s no wonder they looked like, well, notes. They had a signature, as well as a kind of order: The bearer of this piece of paper is entitled to, say, six dollars, in gold or silver.
These notes were called continental currencies, or Continentals. They lost their value after the Revolutionary War, leading to a new phrase: “Not worth a Continental.” It wasn’t the war itself that killed the Continental; it was the British, who were infamously good at counterfeiting the simply designed notes.
Here’s how to get your face on a dollar bill.
Ever dream of having your face on a dollar bill? Here’s how to achieve that dream: Live a long, accomplished life; get plenty famous; grow old… and die. As long as you’re alive, the U.S. government will likely frown on your bid for currency-borne immortality.
That’s not just an aesthetic choice, by the way. It’s federal law: “Only the portrait of a deceased individual may appear on United States currency and securities. The name of the individual shall be inscribed below the portrait.”
That’s one of the reasons why proponents of the Harriet Tubman $20 bill were able to succeed; the famous engineer of the Underground Railroad died in 1913. As for when you can expect your twenties to feature Tubman’s face, well, be prepared to wait. Originally slated for 2020, the Tubman bill isn’t expected to debut until at least 2028.
Another requirement for American money, straight from U.S. code: “United States currency has the inscription ‘In God We Trust’ in a place the Secretary decides is appropriate.” In other words, that phrase is enshrined in law.
But in the UK, that rule is flipped.
Things are a bit different across the pond. Queen Elizabeth II, who is very much alive, holds a unique place in the Guiness Book of World Records: She’s appeared on more currency than any other human being.
Her face has graced coins or dollar bills in at least 35 countries worldwide. Her earliest portrait appeared on Canadian money; the picture depicts Her Royal Highness at age eight.
It’s not illegal to write on a dollar... unless...
Here’s a U.S. banknote with a very fancy signature -- that of late artist Andy Warhol. The $1 bill was signed circa 1980 and sold for a whopping $813 in a 2019 auction.
You may be thinking, “But wait! I was always told that it’s illegal to deface U.S. legal tender, at least, on purpose!”
Here’s the answer: Sometimes. But not in Andy’s case.
The law says it’s illegal to deface money if the markings somehow confuse the issue of its value. So if you tried to, say, draw a couple of tiny zeroes after the single digits on a $1 bill, in an attempt to make it look like a Ben Franklin, and if you did a pretty good job, that’s illegal.
But just signing or stamping a bill? You’re OK. You’re not going anywhere. Stand down.
The very first U.S. $1 bill featured a guy who sounds like a fish.
Ever heard of Salmon P. Chase? No? Anyone?
He was Abe Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury. Still not ringing a bell? He also served, at different points in his life, as a Senator and a U.S. Supreme Court justice, meaning he served in all three branches of the American government -- the political version of the EGOT.
He’s also the guy who graced our very first $1 bill… and the $10,000 bill, too. Those got discontinued, though, circa 1945. Good luck finding him anywhere except very detailed U.S. history books.
One of our U.S. bills used to celebrate something kinda weird.
If you think it’s weird to have a guy named Salmon on your money -- how about a tribute to the galvanizing science known as electricity?
Because that happened too.
Behold, you’re looking at one-third of the “educational series” of U.S. currency, which shone its glory upon us in 1896. The banknote above, worth $5, is formally called, “Electricity as the Dominant Force in the World.” Its two sister notes: “Science presenting steam and electricity to Commerce and Manufacture,” and “History instructing Youth.”
Our money hasn’t had any intrinsic value since 1971.
The only reason that our money has value is because we say so. That’s it. It’s like that scene in Peter Pan -- without belief, the fairy Tinkerbell ceases to exist, and so does the value of our money.
We didn’t always back our money with nothing more than the full faith and credit of the U.S. of A. Money used to have a value guaranteed by the gold standard -- the banknote’s value in gold. Before that, we used silver as a guarantee.
Our money once threatened to kill you.
As if the warning to MIND YOUR BUSINESS wasn’t enough, the early American money designed by Ben Franklin got even more aggro. Several of the banknotes he created came with a different, and even nastier, phrase: TO COUNTERFEIT IS DEATH.
And yes, in colonial America, counterfeiting money -- along with horse-stealing, piracy, robbery, arson and of course murder -- could be punishable by death.
Money on Palau has holy water in it.
Well, OK, we’re talking about limited-edition commemorative coins, here, not high-circulation currency, but still, look it up: Photos of the 2007 silver dollar coins are pretty rare, but they’re out there, and yep, those coins had tiny vials of holy water inside… and an image of the Virgin Mary.
That’s not the only cool coin out there, though. Canada has issued some awe-inspiring quarters featuring 3D effects… and even a quarter that has a dinosaur that glows in the dark.
We literally make money on our money.
Pennies may not be worth the labor and overhead it takes to make them, but with other denominations of currency, America is literally making money.
For example: Take the humble dollar. Any paper money -- even with its fancy cotton fiber paper, glowing colored ribbons and hidden watermarks -- costs less than 5 cents to make.
But where the U.S. Mint really makes bank? Its collectibles business. Every year, it earns money selling proof coins and bullion aimed at investors and hobbyists.
We used to have paper bills for like, anything.
Can you imagine 50 cents ever coming in paper form? Well, it once did, right here in the U.S. There’s a fancy, specific term for this kind of money -- fractional currency -- and it used to come in very, very weird denominations.
The smallest denomination was worth only three cents. It may sound ridiculous, but there was a reason these bills made sense in their Civil War heyday: Coins were scarce. And people still needed to spend money. Hence, until their decline in the mid-1870s, these bills made the rounds.
Your dollar may be worth more than a dollar… if...
Most of your dollars are worth just that: $1. A $2 bill? Yep: $2. But one small detail could up the value of those measly denominations: The serial number.
Take the above display of $2 bills. Issued in 2015 by the U.S. Treasury, this Chinese-inspired "Lucky Money" starts with a serial number 8888 and celebrates the Chinese New Year of the Monkey signifying good fortune, prosperity, and success. One of those bills recently fetched nearly $14 on eBay.
Even rarer serial numbers can command even bigger bucks.
Germany used to have wooden bills.
Things get weird after wars. Money gets scarce, supplies, scarcer. But people still like to use currency to buy and sell whatever may be left in the aftermath.
Enter non-money money. Germans call it notgeld -- money made out outside of a formal government system. Sometimes it’s paper, sometimes it’s metal, and sometimes it’s whatever you might have on hand. Here’s a piece of notgeld made of cloth, circa 1921.
This country’s currency is worth less than one penny in U.S. dollars.
We all know that some countries’ money is worth more than our dollar, and some are worth less. As of November 2020, the country of Oman had the strongest currency on Earth, with one rial worth $2.60 in American currency.
The weakest? It might be the Iranian rial, which, at last glance, fetched far less than a penny. Or, wait, no: It could be the Venezuelan bolivar, whose street value is so low that the government won't let its people speak it aloud. But put it this way: The country's annual inflation rate was 1813% as of September 2020.
Be nice to your money, or else.
Money may be the root of all evil, but don’t even think of sending it to hell.
Burning it is 100 percent illegal in the United States. In fact anything that renders money unfit for recognition or circulation is frowned upon by Uncle Sam.
You could, you know, use a few common household items to make your pennies as hollow as a ping pong ball.
Theoretically, using these household items -- muriatic acid, water, a plastic container, baking soda, a metal file -- will make a penny so light and hollow they’re like aluminum foil and practically float to the ground when dropped. Theoretically. It’s a popular science experiment among, well, people who have pennies dated after 1982.
But seriously, be nice to your money… even after you die
U.S. law surrounding the treatment of money is so strict that, even after you die, you can’t destroy your money. It’s not allowed. In fact, if you write, in your will, that you want your executor to destroy your money, it’s likely that your local county will step in and find someone to give the money to -- a distant relative, say.
Don’t believe us? This very scenario happened in 1901, when a man named Harvey Scott died in Rice County, in Minnesota. In a will, he first left his money, more than $43,000 of it, to the county, but then changed his mind and ordered his executor to destroy the money. A court judge voided that order and instead awarded the money to surviving relatives.
Criminals have used video games to launder money.
If you’ve ever played Fortnite, World of Warcraft or other online games, you know that in-game cash is a major part of the experience. In Fortnite, the funny money is called V-bucks.
And in 2019, a joint report alleged that some of those V-bucks were being used to launder money taken from stolen credit cards.
“Stolen credit card details are being used to purchase V-bucks – the virtual currency used to buy items in the game – from the official Fortnite store,” the London Independent concluded in January 2019. “By selling V-bucks at a discounted rate to players, the criminals are effectively able to ‘clean’ the money.”
Maker Epic Games responded with a warning: “"As always, we encourage players to protect their accounts by turning on two-factor authentication, not re-using passwords and using strong passwords, and not sharing account information with others."
Watch out: That jewelry may be money.
You’ve seen paper money. You’ve seen flat, round money. You’ve seen plastic money, cloth money and rock money.
But your education is incomplete until you meet… bracelet money.
These are manillas, a form of West African currency traditionally made from bronze or copper. They’re largely retired as a form of real money, but in some towns in Burkina Faso, they still may be in circulation.
The world’s first coin looked kinda weird.
This is a 7th-century-BC coin. Not a lump of metal with animals on it. A coin. You will give it the proper respect.
You may call it the Lydian electrum trite. It was made of a mix of gold and silver (no zinc here!) and was minted by King Alyattes in Sardis, Lydia, in what is now Turkey.
The world’s first circulation paper currency had a picture of nobody you know.
The very first circulation paper money did not feature the illustrious bust of a white man. It did not feature an eagle, or, in fact, any particular wild animal. It did, however, lovingly depict… ordinary village life during China’s Song Dynasty, circa 1200 A.D.
Here they are: Two villagers hauling sacks just like everybody else, years and years before anyone would ever hear of an Alexander Hamilton or George Washington.