Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Fistful of Cents: British Money vs US Money

One thing that any foreigner has to contend with when moving to another country is the currency.

Back in England, we use pounds and pence (not the Euro, as some Americans seem to believe), but in the USA it is dollars and cents, of course.

After living here for three years, I am at home with the notes, or "bills" as they say here, but (probably to my shame) I can still find the coins a little confusing at times.

US Dollars: Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Bills and Notes

I think the biggest difference in paper money is the preponderance of the dollar bill.  Back in the UK, the lowest paper note has a value of 5 pounds, the equivalent to around $8.50 at the time of writing.  A dollar bill is worth about 60 pence in Brit money.

The British pound note, which was around for most of the twentieth century, disappeared in the late 1980s, mainly because its value had decreased and it was far less durable than a coin equivalent.  The bottom line was that it was deemed too uneconomic to produce by the Bank of England. 

The demise of the pound note caused an uproar at the time in England, in large part because the new pound coins were heavier on the pocket than the old notes and you couldn't carry around large amounts of them easily.

Coming to America felt like going back to the old pound note days.  I have to say that the dollar notes are good in that respect.  They are light on the pocket and slot into the wallet easily, making them user friendly.

Designs and Construction

Both countries' notes are pretty conservative in their design, but the American notes are probably more traditional than British ones, in fact, my research tells me that the images on US notes haven't changed since 1929.

That means that the images reflect older values, there are no women on US notes - neither are there any great American figures from the middle or late twentieth century.

The best thing about US "paper" money, however, is its resilience.  That's because although it looks like paper, it is actually made from cotton.  This effectively means that if you accidentally leave your money in your pocket on a wash day, it can go through the laundry and come out the other side with virtually no sign of damage or wear and tear!

American Quarters, Nickels and Dimes and Pennies
A random handful of US coins


The downside of US money is that there are lots of small and low value coins.  The one cent coin, for instance, is worth barely more than half a pence.  Dropped coins can be found all over the place, because the effort of picking them up is not seen as worth it.

As a Brit, I can find the design of US coins counter-intuitive.  The quarter (25c) is the biggest, next comes the nickel (5c), followed by the dime (10c) - why a nickel is bigger than a dime, I have no idea!  They are all circular with no variation in shape, which doesn't help, although the one cents (pennies) are a different colour.

The long and the short of it is that in practical terms, I tend to avoid counting out the coins whenever possible and stick to using the notes/bills.  That isn't actually all that strange, as many Americans don't use coins much either. 

On more than one occasion, I have received comments about  my (English) wallet, which has a separate little pouch for storing coins.  That is pretty normal where I am from, but apparently a quaint eccentricity for some Americans, who are more likely to store their coins in pockets, or loose in hand bags (or "purses" as they are typically called here!).

Dollar Coins

Despite the bill being the norm, every now and then, you will come across a dollar coin.  These have an emotional, nostalgic value, as "silver dollars" were the norm before paper money in the US and are far less common.

I actually got given an old dollar coin as a gift one time, which was a nice thought.

There is also apparently a two dollar note, which was issued for the bicentennial in 1976, but I have yet to encounter one.

The Future?

In some ways, a comparison of money seems like a moot point in that paper and coins are inevitably giving way to credit and debit cards and other forms of electronic transaction.

Electronic payments, as well as credit and bank cards work a little differently to the UK, the security is a lot slacker, for instance, but I guess that's another story! 


  1. I realised after a few months in the US that my oldest son hadn't a clue about money. The younger one had done it at school, and my youngest was still at home with me, so saw it used in shops. But I had to sit down with my oldest and teach him.

    I found it confusing that the dime was like a 5p piece, and the nickel like a 10p piece - but the values are the other way round. I really couldn't cope with that, until I made up a little rhyme that I would run silently in my head, until it became second nature - which took ages. "The dime is small and it's 10. The nickel is large and it's 5."

    I grew fond of the Dollar Bills.

    1. I've also been known to mix up the quarters and the nickels. Do you have a rhyme for than one? :)

  2. Haha! I know others who feel your confusion on the size of coins! Thx, I learned some things, too!