© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
When I was eight or nine, based on an ad in a kids magazine I sent off for a starter set of coins for a collection. Some of them were rather exotic and they all came from faraway places. Although I have only a few of those original coins now, I do have a large set of coins and banknotes that I have collected during the past 30+ years on my visits to 50-odd regions of the world. In more than a few cases, the country I was visiting was in the process of changing its currency, in which case, I often got a set of the old and the new. In the case of banknotes—sometimes called bills or notes—I limit them to amounts worth less than US$10. I also have a habit of looking at my change and I often spot an uncommon special-issue coin or banknote. After many years of having my collection stored in plastic bags and boxes, I finally got around to mounting it into sheets of plastic holders and 3-ring binders.
As we shall see below, not all monetary systems are created equal. Remember, normal is relative—things can and do vary dramatically from one country to the next.
How Well do You Know Your Money?
Most people take money for granted; they work, they earn money, and they save and/or spend it. [I've heard two theories regarding spending vs. saving: "Money is made round to go 'round", and "Money is made flat to put in a stack."] Many people don't notice or know the names of the people and scenes depicted on the currency that they use every day. [Attention Americans: Which US banknotes feature people who were not presidents? On the penny, does Lincoln face left or right? No peeking now!]
Here are some questions for you regarding your own currency system, and money, in general:
- Who are the faces on each of your coins?
- Who are the faces, or what are the scenes, on each of your banknotes?
- Some coins contain Latin inscriptions. If you have any such coins, what do the inscriptions mean? (For example, US coins have e pluribus unum.)
- Why does my name (Rex) appear in some (typically older British Commonwealth) coins? And when might it start appearing again on new coins?
- Are living people ever shown on coins or banknotes?
- In some cultures, coins have heads and tails sides. What are the formal names for those?
- Do different denominations of banknotes have different colors and/or sizes?
- What anti-counterfeiting measures, if any, do your banknotes contain?
- Why is the same person on contemporary coins from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Fiji?
- Where in North America is the Euro legal tender?
See later below for some answers and comments.
Currencies and Their Symbols
Most of us deal with one currency, our own local one, be it $, £, ¥, or €, for example. However, if we read articles that involve multiple currencies we might need more than local currency symbols. Let's take the case of Australia, Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, Hong Kong, and the US, all of which use their own local dollar currency. How can we distinguish between them? Each currency has a 3-letter code of which the first two letters ordinarily correspond to the host country's code. The third letter denotes the currency. Together, they make up the 3-letter international currency code standard, ISO 4217. For example, the dollar currencies mentioned above have the following respective 3-letter names: AUD, BSD, BMD, CAD, HKD, and USD. Non-dollar currencies use the same naming scheme; for example, Chinese Yuan (CNY), Danish kroner (DKK), Japanese yen (JPY), South African rand (ZAR), Swiss franc (CHF), and UK pound (GBP). [Yes, the GB designation ignores Northern Ireland.] One exception to this naming scheme is the Euro, which has the 3-letter name EUR; it is not associated with any one country. Of course, if we read historic information about countries that have since adopted the Euro we'll see their previous currency codes; for example, Austrian shilling (ATS), French franc (FRF), German deutschmark (DEM), and Spanish peseta (ESP).
The most commonly traded currencies all have symbols, most of which are readily recognizable. However, if you have to write an amount in an electronic document and you have no way to enter the corresponding symbol, you can use the generic currency sign ¤, assuming your software supports it. It's a small circle with four short lines radiating out at 90-degree angles, as shown. Computer keyboards for some European languages actually have a key for this symbol.
Currency symbols can be misleading. For example, "When is a $ not a dollar?" Not only is that symbol used for dollar currencies, it is also used by peso currencies in numerous Latin American countries. [When Mexico issued its New Peso 20-odd years ago, it used the local notation N$.] The Japanese yen and Chinese Yuan share the ¥ symbol. The UK pound and some other pound currencies share the symbol £ with some lira currencies.
Currency Divisions and Denominations
To many people, currency is made up of two different units of which one larger unit is made up of 100 smaller units. The UK decimal pound, dollar currencies, and the Euro are examples. However, some currencies have three units.
Before decimal currency was introduced in numerous British Commonwealth countries (including my own, Australia), they used a pound, which was made up of 20 shillings, each of which was made up of 12 pence. This pounds, shillings, and pence system was often written as £sd, or lsd, from the Latin words librae, solidi, and denarii. Although many countries used a dollar for their decimal currency, the UK kept the pound, but instead of its having 20 shillings, or 240 old pence, it had 100 new pence.
In 2009, I visited Jordan, whose currency is the dinar (JOD), which is divided into 100 qirsh (or piastres) or 1,000 fils. It's a decimal system, but it has three units. However, it appears that fils are fading from use, as one cannot buy anything with such small-valued coins.
The currency of China is the Yuan, which, domestically, is referred to as Renminbi. 1 Yuan is 10 Jiao, and 1 Jiao is 10 Fen. Again, it appears that the smallest unit is fading from use.
So are there any currencies that have only one unit. Yes, and probably the best known is the Japanese Yen (JPY). Prior to the Euro, Italy had a single-unit currency, the Italian lira (ITL). Italy was my first port of call in Europe, and I remember well buying a pair of shoes there for 30,000 lira, which sounded like a lot of money.
For the most part, coin denominations are unsurprising, such as 1, 5, 10, and 50; however, a few things warrant a mention:
- Dollar currencies in North America and the Caribbean use a 25-cent coin while those in Asia and Australasia use a 20-cent coin.
- Some dollar (and other decimal) currencies have a 2-cent coin.
- Various old-time pound currencies, in which the third unit was the penny, had a halfpenny (pronounced ha'penny), and a quarter penny (called a farthing).
- Some coins have their own names separate from their value; for example, in the US, a 1-cent coin is called a penny, a 5-cent coin is a nickel, a 10-cent coin is a dime, and a 25-cent coin is a quarter. To some old-timers, a quarter is also 2 bits. Some old British Commonwealth currencies had quid, crown, half-crown, sovereign, guinea, and florin.
Millionaire for a Day
According to Wikipedia, inflation "is a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time Inflation". As we have seen—and some of you might have experienced first-hand—there is inflation and there is INFLATION! While in western countries we talk about annual inflation in the order of 2–5% per year, the inflation rate in Zimbabwe in 2008 was 98% per day, which meant that prices doubled every 24.7 hours! [I'm reminded of a cartoon I once saw in which a shopper recalled how she used to take a purse full of cash to buy a cart full of groceries, but, these days, she spends a cart full of cash on a purse full of groceries!]
As inflation ramped up in Argentina in the 1980's, the government introduced the austral, which was equal to 10,000 pesos. But then came hyperinflation, during which prices climbed more than 100% some months, and 10,000; 50,000; and 500,000 australes banknotes were issued. I happened to be there in 1991, just before they introduced the new peso at a rate of 10,000 australes. When I changed money at the land border with Chile after having crossed the Patagonia, I got a bunch of those "big bills". For a day, I was a millionaire, although the buying power of my stake was pretty low. One interesting byproduct of that was there were no coins. To use a pay phone, I had to go to a kiosk to buy a metal slug that I then inserted into the phone.
I was also in Mexico when they divided their peso currency ($) by 100 to get the new peso (N$).
Another well-known inflationary event took place in the Germany's Weimar Republic between 1921 and 1923. I have a 10 million Mark banknote from 1923.
If you have traveled to Europe in recent years, you'll almost certainly have encountered the Euro. At a glance, the banknotes from each country look the same, and they are, except that the series number prefix does indicate the country in which each one was printed. The coins are another matter altogether. The design on the front of each coin is the same across all countries, although there are now two different sets. (A quick look at the older set shows that Norway is missing from Scandinavia leaving a suggestive image of manhood formed by Sweden and Finland.) Those countries that adopted the Euro after the second design was introduced only use that new one while the early adopters have both. The backside of each country's coins was chosen by various means within each country. For example, Ireland chose the harp for all eight denominations, Greece chose eight different images, and some other countries chose one image for the 1-, 2-, and 5-cent, another for the 10-, 20-, and 50-cent, and a third for the 1- and 2-Euro. (See the European Central Bank's web site for the details of each coin and banknote set.)
In 2009, I was at the Vatican City [preparing for sainthood, as you might expect!], which has its own set of Euro coins; however, they are not in circulation. Like stamps, they make for a big money spinner from the tourists. When I went to a souvenir store to ask about getting a set, I was politely informed that sets started at €130, which for eight coins having a face value of €3.88 seemed like a sin! Needless to say, I do not have any of those.
As inflation has eroded the value of many small coins, some countries round all financial amounts to the nearest multiple of 5. [In the case of Australia, this resulted in its removing its 1- and 2-cent coins from circulation.] In the case of Finland, although 1- and 2-cent coins were minted [you can buy them from coin shops] they are not in circulation. Now, the 1- and 2-cent coins are legal tender in all countries that support the Euro. So, must a Finnish merchant accept five 1-cent coins from Germany or France, for example, as payment for a 5-cent bill? I don't know.
France has several overseas departments all of which are formally part of that country. As such, they use the Euro. These include Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, French Guiana in South America, and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Although numerous former French colonies used a franc currency that was tied to the French Franc (FRF), they do not now use the Euro. Instead, they use the Central African CFA franc (XAF), the West African CFA franc (XOF), or the French Pacific Franc (XPF), among others, which are tied to the Euro.
Uncommon but Valid Denominations
When I arrived in the US in 1979, a dollar coin had been introduced and there was a big promotion to get people to use it. However, as the new coin was almost the same size and thickness as the quarter (25 cents), this Susan B. Anthony coin never took off. A few years ago, a larger and different colored dollar coin featuring Sacajawea was introduced, but it too languishes. [In my humble opinion, so long as the $1 bill is kept in circulation no dollar coin will become mainstream in the US. Note that a US$1 bill wears out—and gets shredded—in less than a year while an equivalent coin will last many years.]
The US also has a 50-cent coin and a $2 bill; however, they are almost "as rare as hen's teeth". In fact, many Americans don't even know they exist. The main problem is that cash drawers do not have extra places to put these two denominations, so when they are received in payment, the cashier puts them in the space under the cash drawer.
More than 25 years ago, when I made my first trip to Disneyland I got Disney dollars, $1 bills with Mickey's face on them. Interestingly, in recent years here in the US, there has been a surge in the creation and use of private currency that is only accepted within some small geographical area only. Apparently, this was to encourage inhabitants to spend locally.
Privately Issued Currency
The first time I came across an instance of a non-governmental name on currency was in 1979 in Hong Kong. Back then, equivalent sets of banknotes were issued containing the names The Chartered Bank and The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. [The latter's abbreviated name is HSBC, which is now a well-known worldwide bank.] When I went back to Hong Kong in 2005, it had become a Special Administrative Region of China, and an extra set of banknotes labeled Bank of China (Hong Kong) was in circulation.
The next instance was in Scotland where I found banknotes issued by The Royal Bank of Scotland Limited, Bank of Scotland, and Clydesdale Bank PLC. According to Wikipedia, there have been eight issuers of banknotes in Northern Ireland.
Just Where Can I Use a Given Currency?
Except for the Eurozone, for the most part, each country has its own currency, which is accepted throughout its territories. However, some currencies are used legally (and sometimes not so legally) outside their home country. The US$ is probably the most common. It is legal tender in Bermuda, the Dutch Antilles, East Timor, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Panama, among others.
Numerous towns in countries bordering the Eurozone also take Euros.
In 1992, I went to Russia. During my two weeks there, I never did change money legally. Given the steady increase in inflation back then, everyone was eager to change Rubles into hard currency (GBP, USD, or DEM) as a hedge. So whenever I needed Rubles, I didn't have to look far.
Special, Unusual, and Interesting Coins and Banknotes
Just when you thought you'd seen everything, along comes some new style of coin or banknote. Here are a few I've encountered:
- 50-cent banknote (BSD)
- $3 banknote (BSD)
- 3 Ruble coin (RUR)
- Square coins with rounded corners (ANG, BSD)
- Coins with holes (DKK, JPY, NOK)
- A 12-edged coin (the current 50-cent piece from Australia; believe it or not there is a World Record for the number of these that can be stood on edge one on top of another)
- Coins having two pieces each made from a different metal (EUR, GBP, MXP)
- Aluminum money so light coins can blow away out of one's hand (INR)
- Bi-lingual banknotes (CAD, CHF, FIM)
- Plastic banknotes (AUD). Yes, they do shrink when ironed!
And, of course, there are plenty of special-issue coins.
Overseas travel and currency exchange
How much is my currency worth abroad? There are many web sites that can give you up-to-the-minute rates of exchange for all the mainstream currencies. However, there are some things to understand before you lock in on a rate:
- Traveler's checks are bought at a lower rate than that at which they are sold.
- If you buy traveler's checks a long time in advance of your trip, the exchange rate could become more or less favorable before you use them.
- Credit card companies often charge a 3% currency transaction fee when you are traveling abroad and using a currency different to that from home. This fee appears on your statement separate from the item bought, and might even be posted days later. Watch out!
- Some hotels give you the option of paying your bill with your credit card in the local currency or in your home currency (at least for EUR, GBP, and USD). Understand what charges you credit card company tacks on before you do the comparison. (It's probably a moneymaking racket for the hotel.)
- Too many people tell themselves that foreign money is confusing, thereby making it a self-fulfilling prophesy. Come up with a reasonable approximation of the local currency unit and don't hold out wads of cash to vendors and tell them to take what they need. Their needs might be quite a bit more than the transaction price.
Why do rates change? From time to time, national banks revalue their currency based on a number of factors that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say that a big swing can make your vacation abroad significantly cheaper or more expensive. (In recent years, I've stopping thinking about the cost when I use the EUR, GBP, and JPY.) In the 31 years I've been gone from Australia, the AUD went from USD 1.25 down to USD 0.65, and back up to USD 1.02.
Can I have a bank account in another country? Check with your tax agency. Most require you to declare foreign accounts, the account country might also need you to file a tax return in its country, and it might withhold taxes on any interest earned.
Can I have a bank account in the US recorded using another currency? I don't believe so. However, some countries do allow such accounts.
Based on personal experience, I have one warning to Americans in particular about using cash machines abroad, if they use a PIN containing letters instead of digits. US phones have had letters on them as well as numbers for a long time, and this trend naturally moved to keypads. However, this is not the case in many (most?) other countries. So, there I was in Alsace, France, wanting to get money from a cash machine; my PIN was alphanumeric, but the machine had only digits. As a result, I now have a list of the translation from letters to digits stored in my pocket computer. I can attest that it is very frustrating to have all the things that you need to get your cash, yet not be able to get at your cash!
Formatting Currency Amounts
Give 10 different cultures the task of developing a system of formatting numbers and currency amounts, and you may well get 10 different results. As part of my work in developing international standards for computer programming languages, here are some of the formatting differences I've had to deal with:
- The radix point for some is the period (.) while that for others is the comma (,), as in USD 1.56 vs. EUR 1,56.
- The "thousands" separator for some is the period (.) while that for others is the comma (,), as in USD 1,234 vs. EUR 1.234. The Swiss actually use a single quote, and, I believe, the French sometimes use non-breaking spaces. Now, I ask you, is that normal?
- Note the quotes in "thousands" above. Some currencies group digits in other than blocks of three.
- For some, the local currency symbol or international currency name is written as a prefix, while for others, it's written as a suffix.
- As to how positive and negative signs/amounts or Debit/Credit indicators are printed varies widely.
The Envelope Please
Answers to the quiz:
- Who are the faces on each of your coins? That depends on your currency, but they probably are past presidents, royalty, or national heroes.
- Who are the faces, or what are the scenes, on each of your banknotes? Again, that depends on your currency, but they probably are past presidents, royalty, or national heroes. In many cases, they look like they suffered from constipation or very much needed to pass gas to release some pressure. In the case of the "politically correct" Euro, they were deliberately chosen to be abstract and not actual places.
- Some coins contain Latin inscriptions. If you have any such coins, what do the inscriptions mean? (For example, US coins have e pluribus unum), which means, "Give us your poor, your tired, and your hungry", or in Chicago, "Give us your money, all of it!" (Actually, it means, "Out of many, one".)
- Why does my name (Rex) appear in some (typically older British Commonwealth) coins? And when might it start appearing again on new coins? Rex is the Latin word for king (hence the name of this blog). In Latin and romance languages, adjectives follow the nouns to which they apply, so King George is written George Rex. As the Latin word for queen is Regina, contemporary British Commonwealth coins carry Elizabeth Regina. Standby for Charles Rex (maybe) and William Rex (fur shur dude).
- Are living people ever shown on coins or banknotes? Yes. Usually they are reigning monarchs or not-so-benevolent dictators.
- In some cultures, coins have heads and tails sides. What are the formal names for those? For coins, the front/heads side is the obverse, and the back/tails side is the reverse. These terms can also be used with banknotes, flags, and medals, among other things.
- Do different denominations of banknotes have different colors and/or sizes? That depends on your currency. US banknotes used to all be the same size and color; however, now other colors are being added with each new re-design. Australian dollar (and numerous other currency) banknotes increase in width and/or length with each increasing denomination. Most currencies use different colors on different denominations
- What anti-counterfeiting measures, if any, do your banknotes contain? They probably have one of more of the following: special paper, ink, serial numbers, watermarks, metallic threads, and holograms.
- Why is the same person on contemporary coins from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Fiji? Because she's the Queen of England (and the British Commonwealth) and you're not!
- Where in North America is the Euro legal tender? Formerly an overseas department of France, the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon—that are just off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada—are now an overseas collectivity.
On average, I make 4–6 international trips a year. As a result, I often have leftover currency from a previous trip. In fact, for emergency purposes, in my computer bag I keep about USD 20-worth of banknotes in each of the following currencies: US dollars, UK pounds, Japanese yen, Swiss francs, and Euros.
From 1999–2008, the US stopped making "standard" quarters. Instead, it issued 50 state quarters, 10 per year, in the order of each state's joining the union. Now if you have all 50 (I'm still missing a couple), you may think you have a full set, but quarters were also issued for each of the federal territories. And to make it more challenging, US coins are branded P or D depending on whether they were made at the Philadelphia or Denver mints, respectively. So a full set is 50 Ps and 50 Ds! And now we've got special-issue nickels and dollars.
If you are looking for a unique gift for that hard-to-shop-for friend, see if your national mint (or private coin shop) sells packets of shredded banknotes that have been taken out of circulation. You might also be able to buy uncut sheets of banknotes. (For example, the US Mint sells sheets of sixteen $1 bills. Hmm, I wonder what my creditors would say if I tried to pay them with such sheets?)
People around the world know that the US Secret Service is charged with protecting current and former US leaders and their families. You know, those men and women always talking into their lapel in movies! Nowadays, this service is part of the Department of Homeland Security; however, when the service was created in 1865, it was part of the Treasury Department, where its initial responsibility was to deal with crimes relating to that department, such as counterfeiting. It still plays that role today. It wasn't until 1901 that the service started protecting presidents (by which time three presidents had been assassinated).