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.
Mapped: Personal Finance Education Requirements, by State
Only 22.7% of U.S. students are required to take a personal finance course. Which states have the highest levels of personal finance education?
The Percentage of Students Receiving Personal Finance Education
When you graduated from high school, did you know how to create a budget? Did you have an understanding of what stocks and bonds were? Did you know how to do your own taxes?
For many Americans, the answer to these questions is probably a “no”. Only 22.7% of U.S. high school students are guaranteed to receive a personal finance education. While this is up from 16.4% in 2018, this still represents a small fraction of students.
This graphic uses data from Next Gen Personal Finance (NGPF) to show the percentage of high school students required to take a personal finance course by state.
A Closer Look at State-level Personal Finance Education
A standalone personal finance course was defined as a course that was at least one semester, which is equivalent to 60 consecutive instructional hours. Here’s the percentage of students in each state who have a required (not optional) personal finance course.
|State/Territory||% of Students Required to Take Personal Finance Course|
Eight states currently have state-wide requirements for a personal finance course: Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Iowa, North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Virginia. Naturally, the level of personal finance education is highest in these states.
Five states have begun the process of implementing a requirement, with Florida being the most populous state yet to guarantee personal finance education for high schoolers. The state previously required schools to offer a personal finance course as an elective, but only 5% of students took the course.
Outside of the guarantee states, only 9.3% of students are required to take a personal finance course. That number drops to 5% for schools that have a high percentage of Black or Brown students, while students eligible for a free or reduced lunch program (i.e. lower income students) also hover at the 5% number.
Why is Personal Financial Education Important?
The majority of Americans believe parents are responsible for teaching their children about personal finance. However, nearly a third of parents say they never talk to their children about finances. Personal finance education at school is one way to help fill that gap.
People who have received a financial education tend to have a higher level of financial literacy. In turn, this can lead to people being less likely to face financial difficulties.
People with low levels of financial literacy were five times more likely to be unable to cover one month of living expenses, when compared to people with high financial literacy. Separate research has found that implementing a state mandate for personal finance education led to improved credit scores and reduced delinquency rates.
Not only that, financial education can play a key role in building wealth. One survey found that only one-third of millionaires averaged a six-figure income over the course of their career. Instead of relying on high salaries, the success of most millionaires came from employing basic personal finance principles: investing early and consistently, avoiding credit card debt, and spending carefully using tools like budgets and coupons.
Expanding Access to Financial Education
Once the in-progress state requirements have been fully implemented, more than a third of U.S. high school students will have guaranteed access to a personal finance course. Momentum is expanding beyond guarantee states, too. There are 48 personal finance bills pending in 18 states according to NGPF’s financial education bill tracker.
Importantly, 88% of surveyed adults support personal finance education mandates—and most wish they had also been required to take a personal finance course themselves.
When we ask the next generation of graduates if they understand how to build a budget, it’s more likely that they will confidently say “yes”.
Charted: U.S. Consumer Debt Approaches $16 Trillion
Robust growth in mortgages has pushed U.S. consumer debt to nearly $16 trillion. Click to gain further insight into the situation.
Charted: U.S. Consumer Debt Approaches $16 Trillion
According to the Federal Reserve (Fed), U.S. consumer debt is approaching a record-breaking $16 trillion. Critically, the rate of increase in consumer debt for the fourth quarter of 2021 was also the highest seen since 2007.
This graphic provides context into the consumer debt situation using data from the end of 2021.
Housing Vs. Non-Housing Debt
The following table includes the data used in the above graphic. Housing debt covers mortgages, while non-housing debt covers auto loans, student loans, and credit card balances.
|Total Consumer Debt
Source: Federal Reserve
Trends in Housing Debt
Home prices have experienced upward pressure since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is evidenced by the Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which has increased by 34% since the start of the pandemic.
Driving this growth are various pandemic-related impacts. For example, the cost of materials such as lumber have seen enormous spikes. We’ve covered this story in a previous graphic, which showed how many homes could be built with $50,000 worth of lumber. In most cases, these higher costs are passed on to the consumer.
Another key factor here is mortgage rates, which fell to all-time lows in 2020. When rates are low, consumers are able to borrow in larger quantities. This increases the demand for homes, which in turn inflates prices.
Ultimately, higher home prices translate to more mortgage debt being incurred by families.
No Need to Worry, Though
Economists believe that today’s housing debt isn’t a cause for concern. This is because the quality of borrowers is much stronger than it was between 2003 and 2007, in the years leading up to the financial crisis and subsequent housing crash.
In the chart below, subprime borrowers (those with a credit score of 620 and below) are represented by the red-shaded bars:
We can see that subprime borrowers represent very little (2%) of today’s total originations compared to the period between 2003 to 2007 (12%). This suggests that American homeowners are, on average, less likely to default on their mortgage.
Economists have also noted a decline in the household debt service ratio, which measures the percentage of disposable income that goes towards a mortgage. This is shown in the table below, along with the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate.
|Year||Mortgage Payments as a % of Disposable Income||Average 30-Year Fixed Mortgage Rate|
Source: Federal Reserve
While it’s true that Americans are less burdened by their mortgages, we must acknowledge the decrease in mortgage rates that took place over the same period.
With the Fed now increasing rates to calm inflation, Americans could see their mortgages begin to eat up a larger chunk of their paycheck. In fact, mortgage rates have already risen for seven consecutive weeks.
Trends in Non-Housing Consumer Debt
The key stories in non-housing consumer debt are student loans and auto loans.
The former category of debt has grown substantially over the past two decades, with growth tapering off during the pandemic. This can be attributed to COVID relief measures which have temporarily lowered the interest rate on direct federal student loans to 0%.
Additionally, these loans were placed into forbearance, meaning 37 million borrowers have not been required to make payments. As of April 2022, the value of these waived payments has reached $195 billion.
Over the course of the pandemic, very few direct federal borrowers have made voluntary payments to reduce their loan principal. When payments eventually resume, and the 0% interest rate is reverted, economists believe that delinquencies could rise significantly.
Auto loans, on the other hand, are following a similar trajectory as mortgages. Both new and used car prices have risen due to the global chip shortage, which is hampering production across the entire industry.
To put this in numbers, the average price of a new car has climbed from $35,600 in 2019, to over $47,000 today. Over a similar timeframe, the average price of a used car has grown from $19,800, to over $28,000.
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