How much is a billion dollars?

Not to mention a trillion. While I can put a mere million into terms that my mind can conceive of, I have trouble grasping just what a billion is worth. Or how much a billion of anything is. (And I know a US billion is “10 to the 9th power”–a thousand million–as opposed to a Brit billion). A desultory search of straight dope indicates that when it’s not being used for quantifying things on a scale beyond my tiny ken, it’s often used to mean lots (even by Cecil).

Last year I compiled a list based on the US budget. It’s not exhaustive, and being one in a (teeming) million, I naturally have no cite. Isn’t there a better way for me to become less innumerate? And “10 to the nth” does zilch for me.

Social Security $403,000,000,000
defense $294,000,000,000
debt interest $220,000,000,000
Medicare $199,000,000,000
Medicaid $117,000,000,000
pensions $79,000,000,000
National Park Service $1,400,000,000
Tax breaks $150,000,000,000
SS, Medi hikes $45,000,000,000
poor kids subsidies $15,000,000,000
Ed Loans $12,000,000,000
pork $10,000,000,000
poor schoolchildren $9,000,000,000
F.B.I. $3,000,000,000
U.S. Border Patrol $1,000,000,000

waiting for a billion answers…

Look at it this way:

If you spent a thousand dollars a day, day in and day out, it would take you just shy of two years and nine months to spend a million dollars.

On the other hand, it would take you 2,739 years to run through a billion dollars at the rate of $1,000/day!

Here’s one way to think of it: One million seconds is about eleven and a half days; one billion seconds is over 31 years; one trillion seconds is over 31,000 years.

With a billion dollars, you could give one out of every six people on earth a dollar, or you could give everyone in the U. S. three and a half bucks. Or you could just give 'em three bucks and keep $142 million for yourself.

You could pay for the U.S.’ oil consumption for two days, or you could pay the wellhead price for our natural gas consumption for ~15 days. That’s wellhead; going by my last gas bill, you could maybe pay everyone’s home gas bill for about one day.

Somehow I don’t think I’m helping…, I’ll go away now.

I’ll try to articulate this without using the word “rouge” or “cannon”. (see the Star Wars Academy thread for more details of my spelling blunders)

As a slight, but still relevant, tangent to this thread, I have a question that has been nagging me for a while. When did we move into the Age of the Billion (US)? I remember a time when almost no numbers ever made it into the billions. Even in the 80’s the value of company buyouts (and there were lots of Gordon Geckos and Micheal Milkins running around buying companies in the 80’s) was only in the hundred millions. But now a company buyout that doesn’t cost a couple of billion dollars won’t even make the news. And some computer network company today announced that they were going to post a $44 billion loss! Now maybe this is a stupid question, but it seems like one night I went to sleep and a million dollars was a lot of money and the next morning I woke up and a million dollars was pocket change and anybody who was anybody had a cool billion in the bank. Did J.P. Morgan have a billion dollars? Did Howard Hughes have a billion dollars? Freakin’ Bill Gates had $100 billion at one point! A billion yen, sure, but these were greenbacks!
But it wasn’t just money, either. Now, anytime you want to impress someone with a number, it has to be in the billions. Was this Carl Sagan’s doing?
When did this trasition from millions to billions happen, and why didn’t I get the memo? And when will it end? Will some Gatesean figure in the far future have a google dollars? Or is the Age of the Billion going to be with us for a while?

Carnegie was the first billionare. He became one when he was bought out by a group of investors headed by JP Morgan.

Think of it this way:

You could buy half of a B-2 bomber for a billion bucks. :smiley:

This is only a minor highjacking. If you really want to be confused, try listening to the BBC news broadcasts. As near as I can figure out in BBC speak what we call a billion the Brits call one thousand million. That would seem to mean that when the BBC talks about one million pounds they are talking real money, that is, one trillion pounds. Am I confused about this? How does Canada, caught as it is with a British soul and a US financial culture, deal with this?


Yep. One million is 1,000,000 no matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on. One thousand million is the British equivalent of one billion in America. After that, I believe the Brits stick with trillion the same as we do, but I’m not 100% certain of that.

Well, here’s my attempt to answer the OP…

Assume that the average American family has a net worth of $100,000 and that you have a net worth of $1 billion. Their net worth is one ten-thousandth of yours. So you can take the quoted price of an item that they would buy, and divide it by 10,000 to see what kind of financial strain it puts on you. Let’s measure that strain in phar-dollars, abbreviated # for convenience.

A $60,000 car would cost you #6. A $400,000 home would cost you #40. You get the idea?

If instead you had $1 trillion, the goods above would cost you #.006 and #.04 (i.e., for you to buy a $400,000 house would cost you less than a (relative) nickel).

In other words, a billion dollars is a lot of money, and a trillion is even more.

You could buy 14705882 Santa Pez dispensers from the early sixties. Candy comes extra.

Just to put things in perspective. The national debt is 4 trillion dollars. If there was only one person in the United States, he would owe 4 trillion dollars.

If you laid a $1B in singles end to end it would span the planet almost 4 times; side to side, around twice. They would stack 67.8 miles high and weigh over 927 tons. You’d need a room around 66’ square by 9 feet high to hold them.

I’ve got a lot of time on my hands :slight_smile:


It’s worse than you think.

Back in November 1888, the US sent the 51st Congress off to Washington. They became known as the ‘Billion-dollar Congress’ since they were the first to spend a billion dollars in peacetime.

123 years ago!

I’m still having trouble putting it in context. I’m tempted to say I phrased the question poorly, & that I should’ve asked what a billion was relatively speaking. But then I get these physical equivalents, which don’t really do it for me. Ok, 1/2 a B-2 bomber. But what’s a B-2 in the larger scheme of things?

I guess I started thinking about the frumious billion again because I heard Boston’s Big Dig is enjoying another price increase: now it’s up to nearly $14.4 billion. So what? It sounds like a lot of money to me, but does it really count for much? (Well, I guess, supposing it originally only cost a few measly hundred million.) But still, what does Boston spend on other construction projects? What do other cities spend? What do they spend on other stuff? Does everyone but me have a handle on this? Whenever I hear “billion” it still just means “lots & lots” to me.

And before I’ve figured out the answer, people start complaining about their favorite underfunded noble causes, and I’m lost again.

ElDestructo said

I won’t disagree with LNO about the “billion dollar congress” back in the 1800’s. But I think the term in modern times got it’s usage from the 1960’s.

[Sen. Everett Dirkson voice] "A billion here and and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money. [/Dirkson voice]

Supposedly, the very droll Senator from Illinois actually said this. If anyone did, he would have been the one. You had to be there.

OK, imagine the Rose Bowl full of people. That’s about 100,000 people. Now imagine them all leaving, one at a time, and as they do, you buy them a $10,000 car (maybe a Kia). Each person gets a car. That’s a billion dollars.

As for the Big Dig, it’s not as impressive a feat as the new airport Hong Kong built a couple years ago. That required massive land reclamation, 15 miles of highway and rail lines, and one of the world’s largest suspension bridges. There’s also China’s Three Gorges Dam project, which optimistic estimates place around $24 billion, although I think China officially says it will be done for $11 billion or something.

However, at about a billion dollars per mile, the Big Dig takes the record for the most expensive road per mile.

I find it useful to visualize Billions in terms of the per capita cost for citizens of the U.S. With a population of 260E6 a Billion dollars represents a $3.84 contribution from every many woman and child in the country.
If you were to simply lay a Billion dollars end to end they would stretch 3.882 times around the earth’s equator. [Each bill is 6.125” long (96670 miles/Billion) and the earth’s diameter is 24901.3 miles].
This years military budget of $294,000,000,000 would reach out 28.4 million miles if laid out end to end. That’s more than halfway to the red planet Mars, which is named for the Roman god of War.

If were to let the contractors for the Big Dig build us a tunnel to Mars (~43E6 miles this summer), it’d cost taxpayers ~6.88E16 dollars, which is a suitably astronomical figure. :smiley:

This reminds me of a Richie Rich one-page story. Richie brings one of his computers to a scientist to be repaired. The scientist asks what’s wrong. Richie inputs one huge amount of money (in the billions) and tells the computer to subtract a much smaller sum. My answer to the OP is the same as Richie’s computer:


The largest regularly circulated American bill is the $100 dollar bill. One hundred of them are as thick as an average book. Five stacks the short way, and four the long way, stacked five bundles high will fill a small suitcase. So, one suitcase is about a million, packed tight. A pallet of such packages ten high, ten wide, by ten deep, (a bit too much for a forklift) is a billion. Stacked in a fair sized warehouse, (a short city block, one story) you have your Trillion dollars.

If you give 100 to everyone who comes by the front door, and you have them march by at 10 every second, you will still have a nearly third of your trillion dollars after the last person gets his 100. It would take about sixteen years, not counting the ones who would come by twice, but allowing for births during distribution to pay off the entire world.


“If God had intended for man to go to Mars, He would have given us more money.” ~ an unnamed NASA official ~