The World’s Strangest Currencies
For centuries, humans from all around the world have tried to use different things as money. Some forms, which most people are familiar with today, have been effective catalysts for trade over thousands of years. Other currencies, from squirrel pelts to parmesan cheese, have had their time or place in human history, but were ultimately unsuccessful or made obsolete.
The path to finding the best money has been long and riddled with trial and error. Here are just some of the world’s strangest currencies that we discovered in our research.
The importance of salt to ancient civilizations cannot be understated. The first written record on salt appears in 2700 BCE in China.
Salt was highly valued for food preservation, but its production was very limited. As a result, in many places of the world, salt was used as currency.
- As early as the 6th century, Moorish merchants in sub-Saharan Africa routinely traded salt and gold at the same value per ounce.
- In what is now modern-day Ethiopia, slabs of rock salt were used as coins. Each coin was 10 inches long and two inches thick.
- Salt was also used as pay soldiers in Ancient Rome. This became known as “solarium argentum”, from which we now derive the word “salary”
- A soldier’s salary was cut if he was “not worth his salt”, a phrase that still exists today.
Bricks of tea leaves were used for currency in many places in Asia. However, it was the nomads in Mongolia and Siberia that actually preferred tea bricks to metallic coins.
Tea leaves, either whole or ground, would be dried and compressed into bricks using flour, manure, or blood. The bricks could be used as a means of exchange, or they could be eaten, used to make tea, or brewed for medicine.
In Italy, the hard, dry cheese made from skim milk is not just for pasta. It was also used as a currency.
As early as the year 1200, wheels of parmesan were used as a medium of exchange for other goods.
Even as recent as 2009, the New York Times reported some banks in the region using parmesan wheels as collateral for farmers’ loans. Each compact wheel holds the equivalent of 550 liters of milk.
In the Solomon Islands, one of the world’s strangest currencies was born: the rai stone. These limestone discs with the hole in the center were up to 12 feet in diameter and weighed up to eight tons.
It was not unusual for buyers and sellers of this currency to have their boats capsize due to their sheer weight.
Animal skins have a surprisingly important history as currency in different parts of the world.
In Russia and Finland, squirrel pelts were a key medium of exchange during medieval times. Even today, the Finnish word “raha”, which now refers to money, originally meant the “fur of squirrel”.
In North America, the European settlers and First Nations tribes found skins to be one commodity they both agreed had value.
In 1748, Beaver pelts became the “standard of trade” in the north. One pelt could buy two pounds of sugar.
Lastly, the use of buck skins in trade gave rise to “buck” as a slang word for currency, which we still use to describe dollars today.
Merging the ideas of weapons and currency is not new. Many cultures have used arrowheads as currency throughout the world.
However, Chinese “knife money” is certainly an original idea: around 600 BCE, at the time of the Zhou dynasty, these knives were inscribed with numbers or single words such as “sheep” or “fish” to determine their value.
These were used for hundreds of years, and eventually it was declared by the emperor that only circular coins with square holes could be used for Chinese currency.
What Gives a Currency Staying Power?
Currencies come and go.
Some of the world’s strangest currencies, like rai stones, did not have the staying power or value to be used universally. They would eventually fade away into the history books.
Other currencies around the world would experience hyperinflation and ultimately became worthless.
What gives a currency staying power? What makes a currency “money”?
The Money Project acknowledges that the very concept of money itself is in flux – and it seeks to answer these questions.
About the Money Project
The Money Project aims to use intuitive visualizations to explore ideas around the very concept of money itself. Founded in 2015 by Visual Capitalist and Texas Precious Metals, the Money Project will look at the evolving nature of money, and will try to answer the difficult questions that prevent us from truly understanding the role that money plays in finance, investments, and accumulating wealth.
The Richest People in Human History, to the Industrial Revolution
What do Augustus Caesar, Cosimo de Medici, Mansa Musa, and Genghis Khan have in common? They were some of the richest people in all of history.
The Richest People in Human History, to the Industrial Revolution
Click here for a larger, more legible version of the infographic that you can explore in-depth.
When we think of wealth today, we often think of the massive personal fortunes of business magnates like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Warren Buffett. However, it is only since the Industrial Revolution that measuring wealth by one’s bank account has been a norm for the world’s richest.
For most of recorded human history, in fact, the lines around wealth were quite blurred. Leaders like Augustus Caesar or Emperor Shenzong had absolute control of their empires—while bankers like Jakob Fogger and Cosimo de Medici were often found pulling the strings from behind.
This infographic we created with Texas Precious Metals focuses on the richest people in history up until the Industrial Revolution, and it highlights key facts and anecdotes on how they created their wealth.
Is This List of People Definitive?
While it is certainly fun to speculate on the wealth of people from centuries past, putting together this list is exceptionally difficult and certainly not definitive.
Firstly, much wealth in early periods is tied to land (Genghis Khan) or entire empires (Augustus, Akbar), which makes calculations extremely subjective. What is most of Asia’s land worth in the year 1219? What separates personal fortune from the riches of an empire that one has full control of? There are a wide variety of answers to these questions, and they all influence the figures chosen to be represented.
Secondly, records kept from Ancient eras are scarce, exaggerated, or based on legends and oral histories. Think of King Solomon or Mansa Musa—these are characters described as immeasurably rich, so trying to put their wealth in modern context is fun, but certainly not guaranteed to be historically accurate.
Lastly, wealth and conversion rates can be approached in different ways as well. Take Crassus in the Roman Republic, who had a peak fortune of “200 million sesterces”. Well, that’s a problem for us in modernity, because that stash could be worth anywhere from $200 million to $169.8 billion, depending on how calculations are done.
So, enjoy this list of the wealthiest historical figures, but keep in mind that it is mostly for fun—and that the list of the richest people in history may change depending on who you ask!
Is $1 Million Enough for Retirement in America?
The average American needs their retirement savings to last them over a decade. In which cities is $1 million enough to retire comfortably?
Is $1 Million Enough for Retirement in America?
The average American needs their retirement savings to last them 14 to 17 years. With this in mind, is $1 million in savings enough for the average retiree?
Ultimately, it depends on where you live, since the average cost of living varies across the country. This graphic, using data compiled by GOBankingRates.com shows how many years $1 million in retirement savings lasts in the top 50 most populated U.S. cities.
Editor’s note: As one user rightly pointed out, this analysis doesn’t take into account interest earned on the $1 million. With that in consideration, the above calculations could be seen as very conservative figures.
How Long $1 Million Would Last in 50 Cities
To compile this data, GOBankingRates calculated the average expenditures of people aged 65 or older in each city, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and cost-of-living indices from Sperling’s Best Places.
That figure was then reduced to account for average Social Security income. Then, GOBankingRates divided the one million by each city’s final figure to calculate how many years $1 million would last in each place.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, San Francisco, California came in as the most expensive city on the list. $1 million in retirement savings lasts approximately eight years in San Francisco, which is about half the time that the typical American needs their retirement funds to last.
|City||How long $1 would last (years)||Cost-of-living Index||Annual expenditures
(after using annual Social Security)
|El Paso, TX||40.3||81.4||$24,789|
|Oklahoma City, OK||37.3||85.4||$26,824|
|Kansas City, MO||36.7||86.2||$27,231|
|San Antonio, TX||34.4||89.7||$29,011|
|New Orleans, LA||30.8||96.3||$32,367|
|Forth Worth, TX||29.3||99.8||$34,148|
|Colorado Springs, CO||27.3||104.5||$36,538|
|Virginia Beach, VA||26.9||105.6||$37,097|
|Las Vegas, NV||24.8||111.6||$40,149|
|San Diego, CA||15.4||160.1||$64,816|
|Long Beach, CA||15.3||160.4||$64,969|
|Los Angeles, CA||13.9||173.3||$71,530|
|New York, NY||12.7||187.2||$78,599|
|San Jose, CA||10.8||214.5||$92,484|
|San Francisco, CA||8.3||269.3||$120,355|
A big factor in San Francisco’s high cost of living is its housing costs. According to Sperlings Best Places, housing in San Francisco is almost 6x more expensive than the national average and 3.6x more expensive than in the overall state of California.
Four of the top five most expensive cities on the list are in California, with New York City being the only outlier. NYC is the third most expensive city on the ranking, with $1 million expected to last a retiree about 12.7 years.
On the other end of the spectrum, $1 million in retirement would last 45.3 years in Memphis, Tennessee. That’s about 37 years longer than it would last in San Francisco. In Memphis, housing costs are about 2.7x lower than the national average, with other expenses like groceries, health, and utilities well below the national average as well.
Regardless of where you live, it’s helpful to start planning for retirement sooner rather than later. But according to a recent survey, only 41% of women and 58% of men are actively saving for retirement.
However, for some, COVID-19 has been the financial wake-up call they needed to start planning for the future. In fact, in the same survey, 70% of respondents claimed the pandemic has “caused them to pay more attention to their long-term finances.”
This is good news, considering that people are living longer than they used to, meaning their funds need to last longer in general (or people need to retire later in life). Although, as the data in this graphic suggests, where you live will greatly influence how much you actually need.
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