How big is a billion bucks? Let's count it out

So how big is a billion, actually?

We throw the number around pretty loosely these days.

A billion is a very big number: 1,000,000,000. Lots of zeros. The eyes glaze over. We canít wrap our brain around it.

But money we understand. Count it out in dollar bills and it feels more real.

So hold a U.S. one-dollar bill in your hand.

Itís 6.14 inches long, 2.61 inches wide. Itís 0.0043 inches thick, which means 232 bills make a one-inch stack.

Prefer some heft? A bill weighs one gram. So there are 454 dollar bills to the pound (or a thousand bills per kilogram).

End-to-end, a billion singles is 2,570 miles long: a green ribbon from New York to Las Vegas, with leftover cut-and-bet strips for the tables.

But I prefer something solid. A billion in dollar bills is a stack 10 feet by 10 feet by 389 and a half feet high. You can try this at home, if you have, ahem, some time. Lay out 20 bills end to end in 46 parallel rows. Thatís $920 for the base layer. Lay another $920 on top. Repeat to 389.5 feet. (Yo, guys with micrometers, weíre visualizing. Yeah, 20 bills measure 10.23 feet. If ď10 feetĒ doesnít work for you, do your own math.)

Help us, Shaq!

Too boring? Letís fill a basketball court (regulation 94 by 50 feet). A billion smackers stack 8.6 feet high. Or taller than Shaquille O'Neal in a top hat (Stick your hand up, Shaq. There you are!), but below the nets.

Letís build an imaginary balance-beam scale. A really big one Ė a billion ones are heavy. Put 2.2 million pounds on the left pan. Weíll need 393 Chevrolet Suburbans on the right pan.

So the $15.4 billion the U.S. government lent General Motors must be a big pile, huh? Our basketball court stack is now 132 feet high. So to avoid neck cramps, letís switch sports. An American football field (Super Bowl, not World Cup) is 160 by 360 feet, including the end zones. Cover it 10 feet, eight inches deep.

But GMís a piker. Remember that $700 billion last fall for phase one of the U.S. financial system bailout? Think 50 football fields 10 feet deep Ė one for each state.

Or, allowing 150 pounds per person, $700 billion balances the combined populations of Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Hampshire and Maine (the 11 least populous states) Ė plus Guam and a village or two.

There we are: a personal guide to big numbers. Measure it in dollar ribbon (roughly 2,500 miles per billion), basketball courts, football fields, Chevy Suburbans or state populations.

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