As everyone knows and grandparents are fond of reminding us, the value of money tends to decrease over time, and the purchasing power of the dollar has decreased by 95%. It would be logical to assume that it will continue to do so, right? Well, Hollywood has caught on to this and, if The Future is depicted, goods will likely be (by the standards of The Present Day) highly overpriced. At this rate, a Zillion-Dollar Bill will just get you a cup of coffee and a newspaper.
In real life, it is a possible, but not very likely scenario, especially in a Fiat currency system. First, in modern economic science inflation isn't even seen as something inherently bad. As long as the average income also multiplies, the inflation would do little harm. Deflationary periods are usually tied with recessions rather than booms. Deflations only were beneficial in commodity currency systems free of debt, such as the gold standard or Lincoln greenbacks. However, if the creation of money is based on loans, such as the Fractional Reserve System that the Federal Reserve operates under and bank credits that we have now, then this is very likely. Printing money en masse as credits and bailouts with interest can create rapid inflation, and rapid deflation can cause a sharp decrease in the money supply to pay back that debt with interest, causing defaults, unemployment, and stockholders selling off worthless investments. This was theorized to be one of the causes of The Great Depression.
Second, governments can sometimes simply revalue their currency when the numbers get too unwieldy, by creating "new" dollars or whatever, worth 1,000 or whatever of the old dollars. Except that governments usually leave that to the central banks. This revaluing is usually only for hyperinflation - they don't do much about "normal" inflation - for example, they aren't going to change things so that that newspaper in the 1980s that cost 40 cents and now costs $1.50 costs 40 cents again - ditto that 20-cent bag of candy that now costs about $2. Although, likely when numbers become ridiculously high for a chocolate bar, then new currencies will arise and gradually shift to their use for sake of convenience, with the older currencies likely kept in record (so that they're still valuable).
The portrayal of runaway cumulative inflation in fiction probably peaked from 1973 through 1982, the annual inflation rate in the U.S. never fell below 6% and often reached double-digit percentages. To this day, there's been no consensus as to what caused this period of "stagflation." The "Nixon Shock" of 1971, when President Richard Nixon took the US Dollar off the remaining vestiges of the Gold Standard allowing the Federal Reserve to have no restrictions in printing and loaning money as debt, was a highly likely cause. For all we knew at the time, this high inflation rate might continue indefinitely. Thus, many fiction writers painted a picture of the future with $15 cups of coffee by the year 2000. (Insert joke about Starbucks' prices here.)
As a rule of thumb, prices double every 23 years with an average inflation rate of 3 percent, and every 10 years if the average rate is 7 percent. When a show pulls out this trope, use this to compare what future prices are actually likely to be at that time.
See also No Paper Future. Compare Ridiculous Exchange Rates and Compound Interest Time Travel Gambit. May be the result of Artistic License - Economics.
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Anime and Manga
One of Doraemon's Gadgets of the Week was a machine that allowed the user to buy things from different time periods (with that period's respective price), by choosing a date and object and inserting the corresponding amount of cash in the machine. Nobita manages to make a profit by buying things cheaply from the past and selling them in the present at an increased price. Unfortunately he decides to celebrate by ordering a bag of candy from the future...
Another time he used time travel to invest his parent's "secret" money stash, collecting a fantastic amount of interest in the far future...except the stack of bills he gets is in the future currency, so Doraemon has to find a collector to exchange it for modern bills. The result is that he only gets a modest increase (but enough for Nobita to get a bump in his allowance).
Lampshaded in a Hayate the Combat Butler chapter when Wataru angrily protests the price of travel, and Sakuya tells him it's based on the projected price of crude oil in 2008. In-universe, the year is still 2001.
Subverted in a Blinky comic strip in The Dandy where a front cover of the comic in the future (far enough to the point it's now on sale on Jupiter with the characters living in Zeerusted homes) and shows it being priced as "still 50p".
The MAD spoof of Star Wars had Han Solo wondering what he was going to buy with the immense reward he'll get for rescuing Princess Leia. Leia says for that money he can buy a cup of tea on Earth, as "the inflation isn't as bad there."
In an episode of The Freak Brothers set in the future, an overdue parking bill is in the millions, Phineas tries to pay it with a billion dollar bill from his tiny change purse, but drops the bill which is too small to see.
In a Filipino comic strip, were the protagonists entered in the year 2078, one of them claimed 10 million pesos after selling his necklace that dated during the 1970s. So when he tried to buy shoes, the shoes cost 8 million pesos.
Mortadelo y Filemón: In "Los mercenarios" the main characters obtain 100 000 "percebos" (fictional coin of Percebelandia) They think they can get more than one million pesetas (a fortune in the moment of the album), but thanks to a sudden devaluation only obtain 17.50.note This, for the non familiarized with the former Spanish coin, is less than 15 dollar cents, not a lot of money, even in 1975 when the album was published.
Doc Brown gives Marty $50 to buy a Pepsi with in the year 2015. Similarly, Marty is asked by a charity collector to contribute $100 for the town hall clock, presumably out of pocket change. Contrast this with the 1985 version of the scene, in which Marty gave a solicitor a quarter - a pittance of pocket change even then, and definitely less than a Pepsi would have cost in a restaurant.
According to the wiki, Marty sold his 80s pocket money as antique currency to pay for Gray's Sports Almanac.
Subverted by old Biff's taxi ride; a cross-town ride from Hill Valley Square to Hilldale is $174.50 — expensive relative to the time of the movie's release, but ridiculously cheap compared to the Pepsi and the clock tower donation.
In Idiocracy, which takes place in the year 2505, everything costs several billion dollars. Of course, the ridiculously bad economy is actually a plot point in the film. Assuming 3% inflation, prices should only be in the millions.
And again, in Goldmember, Dr. Evil requests "One billion, gajillion, fafillion... shabadylu...mil...shabady......uh, yen." The U.N. representatives calculate it in their heads and determine that it is a reasonable claim.
In the I, Robot movie this is used, but not to absurdity - beers are shown to cost considerably more than they do now - US$48 for three bottles of beer in 2035.
This might actually fall more into the category of accurate future inflation. With the exclusion of dive bars the cheapest you'd find a bottle of beer in a bar in a major US city in 2012 is $5 and $7-$8 is perfectly reasonable. $16 23 years later sounds very reasonable.
Another Arnold movie, The 6th Day, taking place in the near future, Arnold's clone pays $447.16 for a cab ride which shouldn't have been a long trip for him. You can see the base cab fare is set at $200.
2007's I Am Legend shows the price of gas (at the time New York was evacuated) as well over 5 dollars a gallon. This is likely less a result of inflation so much as how hard it would be to move fuel around, what with the disease and all going around.
Inverted in Cherry 2000, which depicts a near-future which has undergone massive deflation. For example, mixed drinks in a bar cost 25 cents.
In the 2000s as imagined in the 1979 film Americathon, a bum asks for $25 for a cup of coffee (As of 2012, that varies from a little under $2 at a convenience store to almost $4 at some pricier Starbucks if you order a vente).
Portrayed realistically in Alongside Night where the US dollar has lost practically all of its value from excessive printing by the Federal Reserve. Eventually the entire government either collapses or ends up privatised because of the advice of a bunch of revolutionaries described in the book as "worse than terrorists and the mafia combined".
In the Crosstime Traffic series by Harry Turtledove, a future society makes common use of "benjamins" — ie, hundred-dollar bills — in contexts where we moderns use dollars. A dollar is a fairly worthless coin, analogous to a penny. A later book in the same series has them use a hundred-dollar coin.
In his Timeline-191 — stories in the CSA that just lost World War One — he shows one character complaining about the ridiculous inflation that just started. A beer is now a dime rather than a nickel. Of course showing the economic spiral, the beer prices do go up and up - things start getting really bad when beer gets to a dollar... then ten, then a hundred... It eventually reaches the point where the Hitler Expy says "Bet you a million dollars" during a speech, then takes a million dollar bill out of his pocket and throws it away.
In 1978, in the original version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, part of the indication that Ford Prefect really did believe the world was about to end was that he bought six pints, paid with a five-pound note, and told the barman to keep the change. In the 2005 film, this became a fifty - £5 wouldn't even pay for six pints nowadays, let alone leave you with a notable amount of change.
Several Robert A. Heinlein future stories have mentions that the United States went the "drop a few zeroes" route to address inflation.
Lazarus Long: $100 placed at 7 percent interest compounded quarterly for 200 years will increase to more than $100 million, by which time it will be worth nothing.
In Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, a girl asks the hero, who is in a pensive mood, "Dollar for your thought?" "What?" "Old saying."
But a million of dollars is still able to buy the services of the premiere lawyer. Though he treats it as a retainer, rather than his full fee.
Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is set after "megainflation," and characters refer to "one trillion dollars" the same way we would refer to 10. One character's net worth is given as several million dollars, "before megainflation," causing the main character to let out an amazed whistle. In fact, even billion-dollar bills are now good only for toilet paper, a practice the FBI is seen discouraging because it clogs the plumbing. The result has been the introduction of non-inflated currency such as Kongbucks, which have become the unit of exchange for larger transactions.
In The Age of the Pussyfoot, a science fiction novel by Frederik Pohl (written around 1967), Charles Forrester is revived from cryopreservation in the year 2527 with a quarter of a million dollars from his insurance and interest (worth about $1.7 million in 2011). He thinks he is rich. It takes him a while to find out he isn't. It's handled quite well as the main source of inflation is rising health care costs.
An Isaac Asimov short story about Human Popsicles has a man withdrawing a couple million dollars from his bank account after being revived... and finding out that a new suit cost several million (or was it billion?) more.
Parodied in The Book What I Wrote (Eddie Braben's book about Morecambe and Wise) in which his reminiscing about 1950s Britain is accompanied by helpful footnotes such as "A shilling is worth about a hundred billion pounds in today's money".
Based on Real Life, James Bond, when in France at the beginning of On Her Majestys Secret Service likes to think of the money in his pocket in old francs because that makes him feel richer, while counting his expenses in new francs to make them seem smaller.
The Jaunt, a Stephen King short story, inverts this. The eponymous teleportation technology makes petroleum-powered transportation virtually obsolete and makes oil drilling on Mars viable, so gasoline is only a few cents a gallon.
Subverted in the Time Warp Trio book 2095. In said year, a slice of pizza costs something like $150, but antigravity devices are a buck apiece. Which might have something to do with said AG disks being powered by MSG.
In The Forever War it's mentioned that on the planet Heaven a meal costs a few hundred dollars, of course it's justified as much of the population of Heaven is soldiers on medical leave with multiple decades or centuries of back pay that's been accumulating interest.
A couple Dilbert comics played with this in the third-word country of Elbonia. One man goes to a grocery store with a chain of bills attached to each other and tells the cashier that the other end of the money chain is being held by his brother in a different town, who will let go when the sale (Of a single potato) is completed.
Table Top Games
Steve Jackson Game's Car Wars aka Autoduel, made in the mid 1980s, depicted a Mad Max styled post-apocalyptic 2030's of road-going car battles. Most cars are electric, but where gas is available at all it costs about $40 a gallon.
The supplement Chassis and Crossbow depicted the even more apocalyptic 2010's, where following a nuclear war and mass collapse of civilization, the trade value of a gallon of alcohol-derivative faux-gas is... about $3 a gallon. Eerie.
Used and Averted in Shadowrun. A standard lunch costs 40-60$ UCAS dollars. However, in the standard currency of the setting, the Nuyen, that's only 10-15¥.
Inverted by "classic" Monopoly which still uses 1932 prices, with prime oceanfront real estate going for a few hundred dollars.
In the 1989 Doctor Who story "Battlefield", set Twenty Minutes into the Future, the Doctor buys a round of drinks. A lemonade, a vodka and Coke and a water come to five pounds. The Doctor pays with a £5 coin. In 1989 the drinks would not have cost more than two pounds and both the amount and the fact that a five pound coin existed were mildly startling. They got the five pound coins half-right (they exist and are technically legal tender, but are only made in small runs as collector's items) and the price is actually not far off what you'd expect to pay for that drink order in a British pub in 2013.
The Doctor Who Magazine recently featured an article in its 400th issue, where a picture of a mock-up 800th issue cover was seen on one of the pages. The price "300 Euros" could be made out on the side.
In the Y2K episode of Kenan & Kel (set in the year 3000), prices have inflated into the millions range, with a few grocery items costing a whole backpack full of cash.
Subverted in the episode "The Leap Back" on Quantum Leap. Sam suggests mailing the master code for the imaging chamber (which locked when he and Al cross-leaped), to his father's lawyer with $100 to ensure the man will follow the odd-but-specific instructions about mailing it to Sam on a specific day in the future(the day that Sam is actually at currently, but trapped in the imaging chamber). Al, who's still out of it from the Leap, thinks Sam is talking about the cost of postage.
Sam: The post office. And my dad's lawyer, Doc Krosnov. We mail Doc Krosnov a letter, right? With, say, a hundred bucks.
This exchange strongly suggests that a stamp in Sam and Al's "present' time period (the late 1990s) costs in the ballpark of $100
that would be a rate of inflation of 40,000% in less than a decade!
Lost in Austen inverts this. When the modern protagonist Amanda truthfully says she lives on £27,000 a year, it gives everyone in the Regency era entirely the wrong idea about how wealthy she is.
A 1976 Saturday Night Live sketch titled "Jeopardy! 1999" had dollar values in the Jeopardy! round ranging from $10,000 to $50,000. The clue values on the actual show in 1999 were $100 to $500.
In the adventure game Gateway, loosely based on the novel of the same name, a news bulletin seen at the beginning of the game informs the player that the new currency reform means that a new U.S. dollar is worth about 1,000 of the old ones, meaning that prices are now at roughly the same numerical value they were at in 1995, 200 years previously.
Deus Ex gave us a vision of a "nightmarish" future in which Unleaded is 3.95 a gallon, and Diesel 4.05 (i.e., what gas prices are, approximately, as of 2013)! For reference, the actual price of gas at time of the game's release was about $1.50. Bet 4 bucks a gallon sounded downright nightmarish to them.
JC's augmentations apparently cost fifty billion dollars (and the same again for Paul), which would probably not be unreasonable if anyone used dollars in Deus Ex's future.
According to Saints Row 2, gas is about $8.40 per gallon. This is lampshading the minor gas crisis that was occurring during the game's development, when gas was raising about 40 cents per month (coming to a head of about $4.50 a gallon in some states.)
Fallout 1 had a gas station where the price of regular gasoline was somewhere in the $4500 range. Premium fuel was $8000.99 per gallon. (Then again, this may have been more due to the lack of oil. The shock of the price is still jarring to those who do not know about the oil shortage of the past)
The newspapers from the 2050s and 2070s shown in the Fallout 3 loading screens cost $56 each.
In a very weird pseudo-inversion, the deflation in these games with the bottle cap currency gets to near ridiculous levels. A nuclear powered laser minigun in the Fallout games costs... five thousand bottle caps. The collapse of the economy after the war made things that before would cost thousands upon thousands of dollars? Now $11.66 in today's money, and that's only going off of scrap prices!
This trope may be the reason why in Secret of Evermore, the Omnitopian Credit is the least valuable of the four currency (even compared to what the cavemen of Prehistoria are using).
The Tex Murphy game, Under a Killing Moon takes place in 2042. One of the in-game items is a single postage stamp. It costs 10 dollars.
Might seem to be the case in EVE Online as the simplest of commodities cost hundreds of thousands ISK to millions, high-end ships cost hundreds of millions, and capital ships cost billions. However that's most likely a case of sci-fi fans not having a sense of how expensive space ships, space travel, and Amarrian wheat by the metric ton, would be. And the creators do.
The Assassin's Creed games tend to transpose centuries worth of inflation into the prices you have to pay in the Animus. For example, the first sword you can get in Assassin's Creed III costs £700 in 1754, which is considerably more money than most people in that time period would see over the course of their entire lives (£10-15 per year was a fairly good wage for working class people at the time), and still much more than a comparable sword would cost today.
Keith: Where I'm from, I could've bought a whole ship for 20,000. Carla Paolini: Well, times are changing, Mr. Maxwell.
Inverted in  Travels Through Time. Putt Putt can Time Travel to the Old West and get a salary of 5 cents for helping out a train, which can buy him one gummy candy. In Medieval Times, the same nickel can buy him a full suit of armor for one puzzle, in a time when metal would be very expensive. In the 22nd century, Putt Putt expresses concern that he can't afford a small battery, but the shopkeeper Ms. Electra mollifies his concerns by telling him there's no money in the future, so he can take it for free.
21st Century Fox (takes place in 2066) plays it straight, but the inflation doesn't get much mention, besides a couple of comics near the beginning, where gas is "cheap" for $70 a gallon, and a can of soda is 20 dollars - and the main characters just happen to have a couple of $20 coins on them.
Used for a throwaway gag in Flaky Pastry after Nitrine gets catapulted into the far future and gets some fast food.
In a future arc of S.S.D.D one character remarks that $2 million won't get you a candy bar, of course it was an economic crisis that messed up their world.
Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life has a basic lozenge cost ∞ dollars on Uranus since all the solar system's cash and financial robots were dumped there when they became worthless due to the post-scarcity economy.
Oh, Neopets. Their inflation has been compared to Germany's after WWII.
In the South Park episode "Goobacks", the future immigrants are willing to work for minimum wage, which they then put into a bank account so that in their time the interest has built up to the point that they have billions of dollars. Of course, due to inflation this is worth even less than when they put it into the bank.
Futurama averts this - with Fry's $4 billion in his account (saved over 1000 years, of course) is enough to make him independently wealthy, and getting a $300 tax rebate is a big deal.
In Family Guy, it was spoofed as Pearl, the old singer, was shown in a documentary getting a meager sum of a couple thousand dollars a long time ago, "which is worth over $3 billion today".
In an episode of Samurai Jack, a bounty hunter says that Aku has a bounty on Jack's head worth two googolplex. Yes, the hunter is convinced that this is "a looooot of money" and the person offering the bounty controls the entire world, but that's just ridiculous.
In the Courage the Cowardly Dog episode "One Thousand Years of Courage", Eustace, Muriel and Courage end up in the year 3000. Muriel remarks that something doesn't seem right:
The Simpsons had a parody of the (then) modern Russian economy with an instance of Ridiculous Present Inflation, with a Russian dignitary at the Olympics committee:
Russian: Come to Russia, where 1 dollar worth 5 roubles. [gets paged on his beeper, and reads out the message, sounding increasingly panicked] 12 roubles. 50 roubles. 1000 ROUBLES!?I must go. [Frantically leaves the conference hall.]
Also an inversion: in an episode set in the Huckleberry Finn era, Tom and Huck are shocked that a couple days worth of supplies cost 2 cents and there was a 99-cent store which sold such items as grand pianos.
One episode of Arthur, presented in the context of far-future people living in a Jetsons-style world watching an old VHS tape, has one character talking about the incredible deal they got on mittens for "only" $3 million.
Time Warp Trio has 100 dollar bills as something you borrow from a (school aged) friend for gum in the year 2105.
An old joke tells of a man who suffers a coma and wakes up 50 years later. He calls his stockbroker firm, which tells him that due to a split he now has a billion dollars. Before he can celebrate, the payphone asks him to insert $1 million dollars...
In Germany under the Weimar Republic, it did reach a point when a newspaper cost 100 billion marks, and you literally needed wheelbarrows of marks just to buy groceries. In some cases, the wheelbarrow itself was worth more than its contents. Germans of that era would burn wads of banknotes as fuel during the winter, owing to the money being cheaper to burn than the wood/paraffin alternative.
This was parodied in the fake travel guide Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry. An enigmatic leader of the country faced widespread inflation, the book mentioning that the people had to carry wheelbarrows of money to purchase simple goods. The leader solved this problem by declaring wheelbarrows legal tender.
A popular German urban legend had a man going to the bank with a wheelbarrow full of marks reach the bank and leave it outside for a minute while talking to the tellers. Upon returning outside to wheel the money in, he finds the wheelbarrow gone... and all of the money cleanly dumped on the sidewalk.
Towards the end of 1923, the inflation became so severe that the price of groceries could go up while you were queuing for them.
Less well-known than the German hyperinflation, the worst inflation yet happened in Hungary in the wake of World War II. When the pengő currency was replaced by the forint on 1st August 1946, the conversion rate was 4 x 1029 (a 4 followed by 29 zeros) pengő to a single forint.
To give you an idea of just how ridiculous this number is: if you could buy one atom of hydrogen for one pengő — just one atom — you could fill theHindenburg for twenty-five forints. (And, at 2010 exchange rates, that would run you a little over 12¢ US, less than a tenth of a euro.)
Happened in the modern times in Zimbabwe where the exchange rate at late June, 2008 was 20 billion $Z to 1 $US. In 2007 the inflation rate was going up so fast that golfers would prepay for their drinks before starting their round because the price would have gone up significantly by the time they finished the 18th hole, and that waiting a day to buy bread meant you could no longer afford to do so.
The economy is right now pretty much running on foreign currency: the Zimbabwean dollar is so worthless that it's actually more cost effective to sell the currency for use as recycled paper (and get paid in real money) then it is to use it for its face value. A Zimbabwean newspaper printed its ads on Zimbabwean money...
In very recent past, exchange rate for one U.S. dollar was about 1,500,000 Turkish liras. Six zeros have been removed from the currency since.
1996, Poland revalued its currency by knocking off four of the zeros; there was a period in which both old and new currency was accepted and goods were double-priced accordingly.
In 1997 in Russia. Only three zeros got chopped instead of four, so for about a year there were neat, Soviet-like single-digit sums. Then came crisis of 98, and inflation struck again... It got much better recently, but inflation is still about 10% per year, so rumors of a new revaluation tend to hover around.
The Soviet Union used to have coin-operated phones. Then it collapsed, and in the 1990s after hyperinflation the rubles, never mind the kopeks, became totally worthless. The only source of coins to run the coin operated machines was the phone company who could recycle the coins and sell them for whatever the phone call was worth. This also happened on the Moscow and St Petersburg metros, where the barriers were coin-operated. The metro system sold tokens the same size and weight as the coin that had operated them.
Averted (for a price) in Soviet Union. As the USSR made the population affluence its main propaganda point, in can never afford the wage drops or inflation lest it lose the face. However, the economy can grow only so fast, and to make everything worse, in The Seventies the Soviet economy stagnated. As the prices were fixed, the only outcome of the money supply overrunning the supply of goods was the shortage — the dreaded deficit, when even the basics required enormous lines, and the population that turned their disaffection with the government into a ridicule.
Forget The New Russia, look at the Red October era. The scrip of the newborn Soviet Republic had to be revalued every year to keep it barely afloat, and despite all revaluations, prices were in the millions range. The kerenki, scrip of the Provisional Government which was used as more or less universal between Soviet and non-Soviet territories, was never revalued and people just stopped counting zeroes and started to accept kerenki as 1x1 meter uncut sheets.
Mexico dropped three zeros out of the "peso" for the sake of simplicity in 1993. New coins and bills appeared into circulation and the old ones were taken out.
The Government of Ghana lopped four zeroes off the end of the cedi when it hit 10,000 to a dollar back in 2007.
A huge problem in the South during the American Civil War, due to the Confederate government simply printing more money to pay for the war. As one politician put it: "You bring your money to market in a basket, and bring home what you buy in your pocketbook." An additional problem was that the CSA's currency was redemption-based, with the theory that a few years after the war, one could turn it in for 'hard' currency. Thus, when the South was defeated, the money became 'As worthless as a Confederate bill'.
During the late eighties in Peru the inflation was ridiculously high, to the point that in 1990 the annual inflation rate had well surpassed 10000% (yes... that is a one followed by 4 zeroes). As a consequence you did have to buy meager stuff like a bottle of coke with millions of intis. When the Inti was changed for the Nuevo Sol the exchange rate was 1 million Intis to the Sol.
In Brazil, inflation slowly grew through the 70s and 80s, reaching 200%/year around 1985 and something like 1700%/year in 1989. Inflation was fixed in 1994 with yet another currency (the Real) which is still working today.
In Venezuela it reached the point where one American dollar was Bs.5,000. They fixed it though; now with the "Strong" Bolivars, the conversion rate is about 6 Bolivars to the dollar — but only if you go thorough the Officially sanctioned way to get them (the black market dollar has a rate at least 8 times that and increasing daily).
It's more than ten times that, now. It's gotten so bad that someone made a joke about it: Man walks into a brothel, whispers something to one of the women, and gets slapped. He approaches another, and gets a drink thrown on his face. A third spits on him. The owner, a well-experienced woman who thinks she's Seen It All so whatever he's saying can't possibly shock her walks up to the man and asks him what he's been telling all her girls. His response: "I want to know if I can pay in Venezuelan Bolivars."
During and after the American Revolution, paper money issued by the Continental Congress was proverbially worth nothing, mostly because the government had no effective powers and no assets to back it.
Ancient societies had this problem even though they used coins that had intrinsic values. The problem was that many rulers would need a lot of coins fast so they would just slightly decrease the percentage of the good stuff in the coins so they could issue a lot of coins cheaply.
The later Roman Empire suffered hyperinflation when, instead of diluting the gold, the government repeatedly simply tried to buy it all.
King Henry VIII of England was known as "Old Coppernose" because the silver would wear off the high-relief parts of his coins, revealing the underlying copper.
For a time the last US coins minted with silver content (quarters and dimes from the early 60s) were worth more as precious metals than as collectibles. Enough coins were melted down that the balance swung the other way, and the coins are rare enough to collect again.
Incidentally, this is why you can occasionally find pennies from the 1950s in your pocket change, but dimes and quarters stop abruptly at 1965 (the first year with the cupro-nickel sandwiches). It's also why you don't see half dollars in circulation ever; since they still contained some silver until 1971, during The Sixties people were constantly hoarding them, so that by the time they were switched to cupronickel as well, cash registers had removed their slots for the half dollars, and as far as society was concerned, they did not exist.
Then in 1983 the amount of copper in a one cent coin cost about 1.25c, so the Treasury Department switched to pennies made with zinc with a thin cladding of copper. Only problem is the price of zinc is also going up. As of 2012, it costs the U.S. mint almost 2 1/2c to make a 1c piece. The profit they make from making other coins is the only reason they don't need more subsidies.
The same financial logic was why Canada is pulling it's penny out of circulation on February 4, 2013, with the last penny stamped in May, 2012. (The penny remains legal tender, it's being removed as it gets deposited in banks and other financial institutions).
This is also a reason why 1 yen coin is minted in aluminum since 1955: during the World War II the Japanese economy suffered huge inflation, and in 1946 the yen was pegged to the US dollar at the rate of ¥360 per $1. At first the yen coins were minted in brass, similar to the modern 5 yen coin, but the rise in copper prices meant that the coin was worth more than its face value as a bullion, resulting in significant losses for the Bank of Japan. This led to the change of its material to the much cheaper aluminum, and it remains the same ever since, even if it appreciated more than 4 times, so now the rate is ~¥88 per $1.
Russian 5 ruble coin used to be minted from cupronickel-clad copper until the steadily rising metal prices forced the mint to switch to stainless steel. Other coins followed suit, so now all modern Russian coins are minted from steel, though some have brass electroplating, like largely worthless kopeck coins and 10 r. piece that replaced the previously issued paper note.
Ming Dynasty China suffered from severe inflation because of the large influx of silver from Mexico, via European outposts in Southeast Asia. While a large quantity of valuable goods, including tea, silk, and ceramics were shipped to Europe, very little European or New World goods entered China, other than silver. The oversupply of silver made everything expensive and may have contributed to the socioeconomic turmoil that would undermine the Chinese empire in 16th century.
Even gold, the proverbial rock in the tempest of economic turbulence, is not immune to inflation. In 1342, Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire was passing through Cairo his pilgrimage to Mecca. Either he did not quite notice the prices on the other side of the Sahara or he wanted to make a reputation for himself (or both), He ended up spending so much gold in the bazaar of Cairo that the gold market in the Mediterranean region collapsed for a decade.
Or just this past year, where the price of gold has dropped 21.5% since its high in 2012.
In 1986, an Italian politician proposed to replace the old currency (lira) with the "lira pesante" (heavy lira), with a value of 1000 lire for each lira pesante, in order to bring Italian prices in line with the other European nations. Some printing tests were made, but technical and political problems proved the currency replacement to be impossible, so the project was abandoned. Italy eventually switched from the lira to the euro in 1999, with a conversion value of 1936.27 lire for each euro.
People would joke about being a "lire millionaire," which, just before the Euro valuation, meant you had around $800 U.S.
Japan has never revalued their currency, and as a result the smaller denominations, sen (1/100 of yen) and rin (1/1000 of yen) have been removed from circulation.
During the early days of yen (19th century) you could find a 1 yen banknote, while today 1 yen is the least worth coin.
Nowadays the yen appreciates at such a speed that we might see the Ridiculous Future Deflation.
One of the interesting aspects of the yen is that you won't find it among the top ten currencies that are valuable. However, if you treat the yen like any other subdivision (say, the US cent), it becomes one of the most valued currencies. It's sort of mindscrew to think about buying a can of soda in "100 cents".
Make your own with The Inflation Calculator. Simple experiment: what was a thousand dollars worth in 1800? What cost $1,000 in 1800 costs $12,653 today. Put more simply, a thousand 2011 dollars is equivalent to eighty 1800 dollars.
And what costs $1 in 1800 costs $1 in 1928.
Or one example, in 1920 a man could buy a fairly nice suit from a haberdasher for one $20 gold piece, which was, of course, worth twenty dollars. Would a $20 gold piece buy you a suit today? Well, it's about one ounce of gold, which means it's worth about $1,700 in 2012, which will buy five really nice suits, or about ten suits off the rack at a men's clothing store.
In 1951, as Johnny Cash song lyrics would have it, a Coke and a burger cost 30 cents. Of course, people made a lot less money then, too...