Crash Course Chapter 11: How Much Is A Trillion?

During the Crash Course you will often encounter numbers that are expressed in trillions. How much is a trillion?

You know what? I’m not really sure myself.

A trillion is a very, very big number, and I think it would be worth spending a couple of minutes trying to get our arms around the concept.

First, a numerical review.

A thousand is a one with three zeros after it.

A million is a thousand times bigger than that and it’s a one with six zeros after it. At this level I can really get my mind around the difference between these two numbers. A million dollars in the bank is a very different concept from a thousand dollars in the bank. I get that.

A billion then is a thousand times bigger than a million, and it’s a one followed by 9 zeros.

And a trillion is a thousand times bigger than that, and it’s a one followed by 12 zeros.

So a trillion is a thousand billions, which means it is a million millions. You know what? I don’t know what that means! I can’t visualize that, so let’s take a different tack on this.

Suppose I gave you a thousand dollar bill and said you and a friend had to spend it all in a single evening out on the town. You’d have a pretty good time.

Now suppose you had a stack of thousand dollar bills that was four inches in height. If you did, you know what? Congratulations, you’d be a millionaire.

Now suppose you wanted to enter the super-elite of the wealthy and have a billion dollars. How tall of a stack of thousand dollar bills would that be?

The answer is a stack only 358 feet high, seen here barely reaching 1/3rd of the way up the Petronas towers.

Now how about a stack of thousand dollar bills to equal a trillion dollars? How tall would that stack be? Think of an answer.

Well, that stack would be 67.9 miles high.

And I meant stack, not laid end to end or anything cheesy like that. A solid stack of thousand dollar bills, 67.9 miles high. Now that’s a trillion dollars.

That still doesn’t do it for you?

Okay, I want you to imagine that you’re in a car on a roadway that is lined at the side with a sideways stack of thousand dollar bills. A nice, compact, rectangular column of thousand dollar bills is snaking along the roadside next to you as you drive.

You drive along brrrrrrrrrrrrr without stopping for a little more than an hour, and the entire way there’s that stack of thousand dollar bills right next you, on the side of the road, the whole way.

Said another way, the amount of money created in the past 4.5 months in our economic system, if it had been printed up as thousand dollar bills and stacked along the side of the road, would stretch from Springfield, Massachusetts to Albany, New York.

So there it is. Either you can visualize the stack better by driving along next to it, or by standing on top if it, or any other way you wish to express this statement.

But make no mistake, a trillion is a very, very big number and we should not be lulled into complacency simply because it is too big to really get our minds around. That should drive us to action instead.

Keep this lesson in mind as we discuss the total accumulated debts and liabilities of the US, which are many tens of trillions of dollars.


  • Wed, Jul 10, 2013 - 11:55pm



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    I find the timw dimension helpful here we've live a billion seconds just before our 32 birthday.
    To life a trillion seconds (if my cals are correct) would mean living almost 32,000 years!

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  • Thu, Jan 08, 2015 - 3:53am



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    that is a lot of money.

    here is another visual for you. Pallets of 1000.00 bills.
    i am floored when I think of the national debt.
    I am new here so I am learning so much.
    Thank you much

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  • Tue, Mar 01, 2016 - 2:40pm



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    I like to use one dollar bills

    I like to use one dollar bills since I've never even seen, let alone had a thousand dollar note.My trusty micrometer says a dollar bill is just a tad over 3-1/2 thousandths of an inch thick, and we'll lay the stacks on the ground as you did. Your money must have been a bit thicker, but mine is pretty tired at this point. Using my micrometer reading, it would also relate to a very highly compressed stack.
    A million dollars  is 0.055 miles, or at 292 ft that's still 8 ft short of a touchdown.
    A billion dollars is 55 miles, a comfortable 1 hour drive.
    A trillion dollars is 55,000 miles or 2 trips around the Earth (2.2 trips at the equator).
    At 1 gram per note, 1 trillion one dollar bills would weigh about 1,000,000 tons (1.125 million tons).
    1 billion weighs 1000 tons.
    1 million weighs in at a paltry 1 ton.
    As our debt grows to 20 trillion, the stack will wrap the equator 44 times and weigh 22.5 million tons.
    Most numbers you look at when comparing trillions are still incomprehensible. I can't really visualize how far it is around the equator, but if I drive at 55 mph for 1000 hours I could get there. I'll be driving 125 days at 8 hours per day, or 42 days non-stop. That's just for the first trillion of course.
    If I could shovel 16 tons per day as Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about in his old sad song, it would take me 192 years to shovel up the first trillion. Now that is sad, barring some fabulous health increase from Obama-care, I don't think I can get there.
    In any case, you are absolutely 100% correct. It's amazing how we can talk of Million, Billion, Trillion and have so little understanding of the M's, B's, and T's.

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