Practical Currency

I read it in a comic. It must be true.

"...Do they not see that only Dust can give them what they want? For it is money and power and magic all intertwined in one miraculous substance! It is the essence that binds our civilizations together."
The Roving Clans, Endless Legend

Normally, your money is not inherently useful. Sure, you can melt down coins and make them into some sort of art project, or you can try to use your paper money to start a fire, but for the most part, money only has value because people agree that it does. The moment people lose faith in it, money will be worth nothing. (The proper term for this is fiat money.)

Not so with Practical Currency. You can actually use it for something. Maybe it's some kind of food, medicine, or weaponry. It's not too different from a barter economy—it's still goods in exchange for goods and services—but unlike barter, it also serves as a universal medium of exchange (people who don't need the item itself will still accept it because they can trade it for something else) and a universal measure of an item's value.

In the real world, there is commodity money. Not all commodity money is practical currency, however: gold, for example, until very recent times has very few not entirely decorative uses — mostly, tableware — but made good commodity money because it is pretty easy to tell what it is (to the uninitiated, silver, aluminum, and steel all look similar at first glance), rare (but not too rare, or else not enough people would have it to make many trades with), divisible (hard to make change with one cow), does not corrode, and had a generally-stable global supply (the last two combine to make it a relatively stable source to put your money in - see the Real Life entry on rice for what happens when it isn't).

Weird Currency is a Super Trope; Energy Economy is a Sub-Trope.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • The metabugs in Dennou Coil. Useful for making programs to muck around in cyberspace, and as such to playful kids they're quite the commodity.
  • In one memorable scene in Silver Spoon, the upperclassmen look like they're about to mug Hachiken for his bacon, but it turns out they just wanted to trade him other farm products for it.

    Comic Books 
  • In Hex, the post-apocalyptic re-skin of Jonah Hex, the standard currency are Soames: pills used to decontaminate radioactive water.
  • Water in Tank Girl
  • In Bone, residents of the valley use things like eggs and livestock as currency. Phoney finds this out when he tries to spend Boneville dollars at Lucius's bar, and ends up having to Work Off the Debt.
  • In Batman No Mans Land, Gotham City is cut off from the rest of the country and thus has no currency, with everyone using a barter system. Bullets are particularly prized; one man is mugged by a guy with a gun, and realizes he is in no danger. If the mugger actually had a bullet in that gun, the bullet would be worth a lot more than the paltry supplies he hopes to steal.

    Film - Live-Action 

  • In Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief, the currency on Mars is time. When one runs out, their mind gets put into a robotic Quiet work body for a few years to earn more. Think community service meets forced labor.
    • In the sequel novel, Fractal Prince, the city of Sirr uses a more disturbing form of currency: human minds. The city only exists because of the Wildcode Desert that protects it from Sobornost assimilation, but the Sobornost lust for all the minds forcefully uploaded into the Wildcode Grey Goo that they can't touch, so they hire the baseline humans of Sirr to "mine" them from the 'Code one at a time in return for scraps of their posthuman technology.
  • Metro 2033 (and video game) - ammo is used as money everywhere, meaning guns shoot money.
  • Much discussion of this in Making Money, including pointing out that gold is worthless on a desert island, that it's also worthless in a gold mine (where the medium of exchange is the pickaxe), and the contrast between what happens when you bury gold vs. when you bury a potato. Oh, and in the end they decide to base the currency on golems. The idea of paper currency started in the previous book, when people began using postage stamps as a means of exchange.
    • Commerce in the villages of Lancre, where hard currency is a rarity, is more likely to be negotiated in chickens than in coins.
  • Water on Dune itself and Spice everywhere else in Dune.
  • In the Uglies trilogy, "The Smoke" community uses instant food packs as currency, which makes newcomer Tally quite wealthy by the community's standards.
  • Iron in Sergey Lukyanenko's Seekers of the Sky, made so because of its rarity (It Makes Sense in Context). A character even mentions using gold for currency, only for another character to say that, while gold is valuable, it doesn't have a lot of use. Of course, you better keep all your iron bars in a dry environment. Since many wealthy people also know the Word, they can keep all their iron valuables safe and dry in the Cold to retrieve as needed.
    • There is a scene where the protagonist sees a flagship of The Empire with its sides gold-plated (to show off, not for armor). He muses that they could've easily afforded to iron-plate the entire ship, but it would, of course, rust at sea.
  • In Mary Gentle's novel Rats And Gargoyles, humans are not allowed cash, with a few exceptions; on one occasion, Mayor Tannakin Spatchet tries to pay the White Crow with a wheelbarrow full of brass pans, cheese, candles, paper, and so on.
  • Mistborn: The Original Trilogy has fairly standard coinage, but it's also the go-to weapon for steelpushers, to the point that steel mistings are called coinshots.
    • And this coinage is backed by Atium, an ultra-rare metal that gives Mistborn the ability to see a short distance into the future. While having your economy be dependent on a substance that gets regularly used up may seem like a bad idea, Atium seems to be renewable, and the people who own the mine are very rich, even after the Lord Ruler takes his cut.
  • Another Sanderson example, from The Stormlight Archive: The currency is spheres, tiny chips of gemstones encased in marble-sized glass balls. But they're not valuable because they're gemstones, but because the gemstones can act as magical foci for various things, particularly Soulcasting (transmutation magic). Diamonds are the least valuable, because they have the least useful Soulcasting property, whereas emeralds, which can be used to turn stones into food, are the most valuable denomination.
  • In Tim Powers' Dinner at Deviant's Palace, the prevailing currency in a post-apocalyptic California is alcohol. It's a fuel, a disinfectant, and a beverage as well as money.
  • In Gene Wolfe's Book of the Short Sun series, the inhabitants of the Whorl (a giant Generation Ship at the end of its journey, now orbiting a pair of potentially-inhabitable planets) have taken to using circuit boards as currency due to their scarcity. This, of course, means that the ship's already-strained technology is failing rapidly, and the theft of boards from the ship's few operational shuttles means that soon there'll be no way out for those who haven't already left.
  • In Gordon R. Dickson's Childe Cycle, the interstellar currency is largely based on skilled professionals. If a planet needs someone or something, they hire out a specialist in exchange. The economy of the Fourteen Worlds is based on the trade of contracts, which not only affects political decisions, but also drives the plot of several stories.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the TV series Love And War waitress Nadine is an aging socialite whose husband is in prison from the Savings & Loan scandal of the early Ninties. At one point she mentions she's going to visit him and bring 2 cartons of cigarettes in order to buy him his way out of his latest Noodle Incident.
  • A side comment by a Free Jaffa merchant in Stargate SG-1 suggests that naquadah is used as currency, or at least a standard of measuring value for barter.
    • It would have to be a specific kind of naquadah. Weapons grade naquadah is extremely dense, as shown in an episode where two Jaffa (who are much stronger than regular humans) are carrying a weapons grade naquadah brick the size of a laptop. Daniel, being physically enhanced by an alien artifact, knocks out the Jaffa and stashes the brick into his backpack, having no trouble carrying it (why the backpack didn't rip is not clear). When the effect of the artifact wears off, he has to dump the naquadah in order to even walk. There is also the liquid kind.
  • In Jeremiah's post-apocalyptic world canned food is used as the main currency.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • 2nd Edition Maztica Campaign boxed set. The Mazticans use cocoa beans and ears of mayz (corn) as money.
    • Giff in Spelljammer use smokepowder as currency and prefer to be paid in it.
    • In Dragonlance the primary currency is steel coins. After the Cataclysm metals with no practical value like gold fell out of favor.
    • In the Red Steel region of the Mystara setting, cinnabryl is a metal which nullifies the "Red Curse" effects of a toxic contaminant in the soil. When depleted by prolonged contact with the afflicted, it becomes the titular red steel, which has no curative powers but is of higher quality than ordinary steel. Cinnabryl is used in high-value coins as well as jewelry, while red steel coins are lower-end currency. Because cinnabryl coins are constantly being depleted by whomever can afford them, only constant cinnabryl-mining keeps the economy from collapsing.
      • Also in Mystara, high-end coinage in the magocracy of Glantri is permeated with magic, which wealthy wizards can utilize to aid in certain arcane laboratory procedures.
    • 4th Edition introduces residuum, a metallic dust infused with magic. It's a common de facto currency in higher-level play since it's ten thousand times more valuable than gold by weight and can power every variety of ritual magic, including permanent magic items, in place of the normal spell components.
  • Deadlands: Hell on Earth: Although the game itself uses dollar values for convenience, it mentions that most places operate on a barter system and any spare 'cash' the characters have is usually in the form of easily transportable luxury items. Also, bullets are hard currency pretty much everywhere, due to consistently high demand and low or non-existent production.
  • BattleTech: ComStar's currency, the C-Bill, is based upon a fixed amount of transmission time on the organisation's Hyper Pulse Generators. The exact amount seems to fluctuate, though its stability versus the currencies of the Great Houses, and that for inter-planetary communications, ComStar is for all intents and purposes the only game in town, make it very desirable.
  • In Exalted, jade is the most common Magical Material, and has significant practical use as a construction material, but is used by the Realm as a currency (jade coinage is actually significantly more valuable in its practical uses than the value attached to the coins). This is partially because it helps control the flow of jade, partially because it enhances the mystique of the Realm (ruled by the Dragon Blooded, the Exalted associated with jade), and partially to create a sense of legitimacy and continuity with the Old Realm.
    • The Old Realm actually tied the practical and monetary values of jade together; ritualised financial transactions were necessary for keeping large portions of the world from dissolving, and jade's natural magical stabilizing properties made it the ideal currency for such transactions.
  • In Mage: The Awakening, it's relatively easy to whip up normal funds by magic, so mages often demand payment in tass, a form of condensed and distilled Mana that has a wide variety of uses: it can make spells stronger or safer to cast, some magic needs an expenditure of mana, and a truly hard-up mage can burn their mana reserves for a quick-and-dirty form of healing.
  • Trade in Star Realms, which is used to purchase other ships from the major Factions in the game setting.

    Video Games 
  • Gothic: In the penal colony, magic ore is used as a currency. It is supported by the fact that the outside world desperately needs this ore and is ready to give food, booze, and hookers in exchange for it. You can also find coins, which unlike most objects have zero value.
  • In some of the Sonic the Hedgehog games, rings are often used as a currency. Rings have had practical uses (such as protection) since the beginning of the series.
  • System Shock 2 has nanite packs as a basic exchange unit.
  • Guild Wars uses gold and platinum for its official currency, but characters can only hold 100 platinum on their person at any given time: enough to buy anything from an NPC, but nowhere near enough for trades in the player market. Thus, the de facto currency is ectoplasm, chosen for its use in crafting rare armour. It's measured in "globs" and is bright pink; it's currency symbol is e as in 100e.
    • Pre-Searing characters cannot acquire ectoplasm so high-end trades are instead based on black dye, an item used to dye items black. It is the rarest dye and thus most valuable, even in the main market.
  • In a similar manner, the Diablo II community used certain well-known "rare" items (well, they drop rarely, but given the size of the playerbase there are still tens of thousands of them) such as the traditional Stone of Jordan ring as currencies. Though each trade was effectively a barter, valuable items would have an agreed-upon market value in, say, Stones of Jordan or Zod Runes.
  • Metro 2033 uses pre-apocalyptic, military-grade 5.45mm rounds as currency. When fired from a normal riflenote , the damage they deal is enormous compared to the ammo the Metro produces. One can also exchange "Metro" rounds (low quality, recycled ammunition) for military rounds.
  • Souls are the standard currency in Demons Souls and its Spiritual Successor Dark Souls since they are a source of great power. Some unlucky people in Demon's Souls actually need souls to exist since they (like yourself) are already dead and need souls to keep their own souls from fading away.
  • Kingdom of Loathing is some kind of an example, since its currency is Meat. You can't eat it, but you can make "meat paste" to combine items, and smith the Meat into weapons and armor.
  • Freedroid RPG trades in Valuable Circuits, which also turns all droids into Money Spider.
  • EVE Online uses ISK as it's currency, but in-game time cards also act as currency, both for in-game and real currency, since it can be purchased with either.
  • Possibly in Ratchet & Clank. The series features all kind of technology, and the currency you collect is bolts. But we're never told for sure whether people use the bolts to create more machines, or whether there's a difference between bolts used in machinery and bolts used for money.
  • Zigzagged in the player economy of Team Fortress 2. The main currencies are various hats, specifically rare and/or limited-edition ones, such as the Earbuds (only released during the week or so when Team Fortress 2 was released for Apple computers) or Bill's Hat (a promotional item for the Left 4 Dead series). These are completely cosmetic, but are used as a form of "currency" when bartering doesn't quite work out. A straight version of this trope is Scrap Metal, which can be used to craft almost any weapon in the game.
    • There's also crate keys — they can be used to open crates (which have items in them, including a 1% chance of getting an especially valuable "unusual" hat with a particle effect), or simply traded for other things.
  • In the Fallout series, bottlecaps are normally Weird Currency instead, but in games where you can craft bottlecap mines... In addition, Fallout: New Vegas gives you the crafting recipe for filling a shotshell with silver coins, courtesy of Caesar's Legion.
    • One mission involves an NCR representative sending you to find an operating cap-making machine and shut it down, as any newly-made caps lower the value of the currency.
    • The setting's equivalent of the gold standard is this as well, after a fashion. Caps are backed by the most precious resource in the wasteland: Clean drinking water.
  • In the Roguelike FTL, the "scrap" you collect throughout the universe can be used to pay merchants for repairs, supplies, or new weapons and systems. Or you could actually use it as spare parts to upgrade your existing systems, which also makes this a mix between Experience Points and currency.
  • Another roguelike, Eldritch, has "artifacts" which can be used as currency in the stores or as fuel for your magic spells.
  • In Path of Exile, the economy is based on using a barter system due to the fact that the continent of Wraeclast is a penal colony where gold is more or less useless. Rather than money, selling items to shopkeepers gets you scrolls to identify equipment as well as jewels that augment the stats of your equipment.
  • Penguin Adventure has penguins using fish as a medium of exchange.
  • Dust in Endless Space, Endless Legend, and Dungeon Of The Endless, is an almost magical substance made of nanomachines created by the Endless. All factions (bar the Harmony) use it as their currency. In Endless Legend, set on the medieval Lost Colony of Auriga, the Roving Clans revere the substance, being a nation of traders, even though they do not fully understand it, and in Dungeon of the Endless there are merchants who trade Dust. Dust is also the lifeblood of the Broken Lords, who had to encase their souls in Animated Armor sustained by Dust in order to survive Auriga's collapsing climate.
  • The bushels of grain produced by your fields in Hamurabi can be used to buy additional land.

    Web Comics 
  • In Escape from Terra, the primary medium of exchange on Ceres is grams of gold, but water certificates, cokens (issued by the local Coca-cola bottling plant), and Grubstake Units are also mentioned. [1]
  • In Weapon Brown, batteries and rations are universally accepted as currency[2].

    Western Animation 
  • At least a couple Transformers continuities have Energon as both a currency and... Cybertronian food, I guess?
    • It is also their blood, and literally the blood of their home planet.

    Real Life 
  • Many ancient "coins" were some other kind of good that was/were spontaneously promoted to this role by the barter economy just because they are compact, common, and valuable. Knife billets or small furs come to mind. Precious metals became universal the same way, but mostly for decorative value.
    • Deer pelts were sometimes used as currency, since they were very useful in making tent walls, blankets, and clothing. This may be the origin of a "buck", the American slang word for a dollar.
    • Squirrel pelts were often used as the smallest form of currency, and the price of larger skins was counted in how terms of how their size compared to them.
  • Some countries use cell phone minutes as currency. This is most notable in Africa, where cell phones are the go-to method of developing communications infrastructure (towers are easier and cheaper to construct than landlines).
  • Medieval Japan used rice as currency (the Koku being defined as the standard ration of rice for a soldier for a year).
    • And ran headlong into the economic crisis, because advances in agriculture and increased wealth (and thus bargaining power) of the city merchants led to the collapse of the rice prices. Which meant that the country-based daimyos and the samurai class, who were traditionally paid in rice, became practically penniless.
  • Colonial Virginia (at least) used tobacco as a form of currency, and the certificates issued for delivering tobacco to warehouses were the first truly American currency.
  • Real life Mayans and Aztecs used cocoa beans as currency. Therefore, the rich could afford drinks like xocolātl (from which we get the word Chocolate) more often.
  • Cigarettes are a common form of currency in prisons.
    • And in the late 1940's occupied Berlin.
    • In some prisons where tobacco is banned or hard to acquire, prisoners use postage stamps instead, since they're not only legal but are small, easy to carry, and have a small round price.
    • Now that most prisons have banned tobacco, cigarettes have become too valuable to be of practical use. Items from the commissary, usually packaged ramen noodles or canned fish, have replaced them.
  • Vodka was often used as money in Russia during the Nineties crisis. Sometimes still used, mostly in remote areas.
    • People would also often receive small change in the form of matchboxes at some stores.
  • In ancient Rome, soldiers were sometimes partially paid in salt.note  Someone who wasn't worth what they were paid wasn't 'worth their salt.' In fact, the word 'salary' is based on the Latin word for salt, sal. All that said, the salarium (the ancestor of the "salary") was not usually paid directly in salt, but rather was a quantity of money given to each soldier so he could buy salt on his own.
  • During parts of history, rum has been used a currency in Europe and Australia. The New South Wales Corps, one of the first European military forces, was also known as the Rum Corps because of the corps' major use of rum as a currency, as there wasn't a feasible alternative (shipping currency in would take up room that could be used for more useful things and local infrastructure wasn't developed enough to make their own). When William Bligh (of Bounty mutiny fame) tried to restrict the trade, it led to a rebellion suitably called the Rum Rebellion. Armed rebels temporarily took over the government, the only time this has ever happened in Australian history.
  • Given the low worth of the Italian Lira, it wasn't really economic to make small value coins, even out of plastic, so sweets were often used instead. 21st century Mexico has reached this point also, with smaller coins than the 50-centavo piece being replaced by gum and the US dollar accepted in a lot of border regions.
  • Inverted with the giant Rai stones of Yap, as documented on the Weird Currency page.

Alternative Title(s):

Commodity Money