Hard Currency: What a Ton of Cash Will Buy

With electronic money transfers, balance requests and withdrawals whizzing through the ether from smart phones and laptops, iPads and ATMs, managing a bank account has become a simple, instantaneous process. In fact, given the growing distance between consumers and their physical cash, it is easy to forget that the ones and zeros flitting from account to account actually represent real money.

Compared to the alternative, electronic banking is incredibly convenient. After all, as anyone who's ever seen The Lord of the Rings or hung out at a video arcade can attest, the world is a tougher -- and heavier -- place when one has to carry hard currency. While the idea of paying for groceries with a sack full of coins is vaguely daunting, a cash-based economy becomes ridiculous when one imagines trying to mail a pile of quarters, nickels and dimes to the landlord every month.

Weighing a Million Dollars

But the distance between online banking and hard currency can create a sense of unreality. After all, it's easy to imagine a $20 bill or $10 worth of carrots, but it's almost impossible to wrap one's brain around the physical reality of a million dollars or a thousand shares of IBM. And when it comes to a $100 million house or a $700 billion bailout, the sums involved can boggle the mind. Somewhere between the proverbial ton of cash and the weightless parade of electrons that follow an electronic transfer, it seems like there must be a way of vividly, realistically imagining the impact -- the weight -- of real money.

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When it comes to small sums, money is fairly easy to imagine. A single bill, be it a dollar, a fiver, a sawbuck or a twenty, weighs slightly less than a gram, which means that a thousand dollars weighs about a kilogram (2.2. pounds) and a million dollars is, literally, a metric ton of money.

But a ton of money still taxes the limits of imagination, so it's reassuring to realize that a million dollars in hundred dollar bills -- the largest banknote in current usage -- weighs a comparatively convenient twenty pounds. And smaller sums are even easier to measure; for example, the average annual household income in the United States, $49,777 weighs just under a pound when translated into hundreds. Put another way, most families live for year on a sum of money that weighs roughly the same as a full-grown guinea pig or a decent-sized onion. By comparison, the average new car costs $27,600, or just over a half pound's worth of hundreds. And the median cost of a new home in the U.S. -- $158,800 -- -- weighs a little over three pounds, which makes it slightly lighter than a small cantaloupe.

Paying a Ton for a House

When one starts looking at homes in America's wealthier enclaves, the weights quickly go up. In Alpine N.J., the most expensive neighborhood on the East Coast, the average home costs $3,814,885, or roughly 76 pounds of hundred dollar bills. While daunting, it's worth noting that this princely sum weighs slightly less than four cases of beer (cans, not bottles). On the other side of the country, the average house in Duarte, Calif., America's most expensive neighborhood, costs $4,276,462. About 85.5 pounds worth of C-notes, this weighs about the same as a slightly pudgy golden retriever or Kate Moss.

But when one starts imagining the most expensive homes in the country, the weights of the money start to grow increasingly abstract. For example, the asking price for Florida's Siegel mansion -- the most expensive new home in the U.S. -- would weigh about 2,000 pounds if translated into hundred dollar bills. Literally a ton of money. In concrete terms, the asking price for this house weighs a bit more than 12 kegs of beer.

The Manor, Aaron Spelling's old home, costs a bit more. With an asking price of $150 million, the piece of prime Beverly Hills real estate would cost 3,000 pounds of hundred dollar bills, roughly the same as eighteen kegs of beer, with a pony keg thrown in for fun. Or, to put it another way, it weighs just a little bit less than a brand new Corvette.

Rich People's Toys

The trappings of wealth can get pretty heavy, too. A Corvette, for example, costs $48,950, or about one pound's worth of Benjamins. Add another half pound of hundreds, and you can pick up a decently-appointed Cadillac Escalade. Or, if you really want to go crazy, put together a six-pound pile of C-notes -- basically the weight of a two-liter of Pepsi and a couple of oranges -- and you'll have enough to pick up a 2011 Bentley Mulsanne.

But if you really want to lay down piles of money, you might think about taking to the sea. A few years back, Oracle (ORCL) founder Larry Ellison got into a boat-building battle with Microsoft's (MSFT) Paul Allen. While Ellison's gargantuan 453-foot Rising Sun effectively dwarfed Allen's Octopus, both mega-yachts cost around $200 million. Put another way, each of the computer titans laid down a pile of hundreds that weighed as much as a hippopotamus. A few years later, Ellison sold his monstrous boat to David Geffen, deciding instead to fund an America's Cup team. This time, he spent an estimated $400 million, an 8,000-pound pile of hundreds that would weigh as much as an African savanna elephant.

Of course, even these weighty sums pale beside the actual wealth of these titans. Ellison's $27 billion fortune would weigh 270 tons if converted into hundred dollar bills -- as much as two DC-10 airplanes. Ironically, two DC-10s would also be needed to transport the massive pile of bills, and both would struggle to get off the ground.

And, to put everything into perspective, Ellison is worth half as much as Bill Gates, who is himself only the second-richest man in the world.