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Finance Terms to Know in 2020 -
Decoding Money in America

By Karen Lynch

At-A-Glance

 

>    Americans have an extremely large vocabulary of colloquial/slang terms for all aspects of money.

 

>    Our overview of American money slang—from “the slang of the deal” to common finance terms—can help you avoid getting lost in translation.

 

 

Money may make the world go around, but that doesn’t mean that everyone in every country talks about it in the same way. Get some help decoding American money from this sampling of slang and finance terms that might be unfamiliar to newcomers to the U.S.

American Money Slang

There are more slang words for the dollar and for money than almost anything else in the U.S. It all adds up to a lot of “loot.” Here are just a few of the most common expressions:

 

  • Buck. A dollar. (May date back to when deerskins, or buckskins, were used in trading—and now you know more than most Americans do about this term!)
  • Bacon. Money, and earning it (“bringing home the bacon”). Other food names for money include clams, bread, and dough.
  • Benjamins. A $100 bill (with American founding father Benjamin Franklin on the front). 
  • Hunned. From hip-hop, a hundred.
  • Megabucks. A lot of money, “a gazillion.”

The Slang of the Deal

This list of slang can help you decode discussions about putting your money to work, when dealing with merchants, banks, credit card companies, and others. 

 

  • Credit card surfing. Serial switching among credit cards to avoid interest charges. Considered risky.
  • John Hancock. A signature (since John Hancock signed the American Declaration of Independence with a huge flourish).
  • Plastic. A credit card, and there are many types: bank cards, store cards, retail cards, travel cards, hotel cards—and at work, corporate cards, purchasing cards, or p-cards.
  • The damage. The cost, the price. 
  • The smart money. Professional investors. However, “stupid money” does not mean incompetent professional investors. It means an excessive amount of money.
  • “Venmo me.” A request for someone to send you money using a popular peer-to-peer mobile app. (Venmo is only in the U.S.)

Slang for Money Trouble

Sometimes, personal finances “go south,” as money “slips through your fingers”—in other words, you’ve lost “a bundle.” The following American slang words describe downturns, foibles, and flip-flops.

 

  • Bounced check. A check written on an account with insufficient funds. It’ll be “bounced” by your bank back to your landlord, credit card company, or whoever else you were trying to pay. Next come bank fees, late payment fees, maybe interest charges. Some banks offer “overdraft protection”—they pay the check anyway—for a fee. 
  • Broke/Busted. Out of money.  
  • In the red. In debt. Also, “in the hole” and “in hock.” Red ink all around.
  • Maxed out. When a credit card is at or over its credit limit. 
  • Rainy day. A time of need, for which you should have set aside an emergency fund.

Serious Money and Finance Terms to Know

While “serious money” is often slang for a lot of money (and so is “real money”), this section lists straight terms about finances and financial situations that may differ somewhat (or altogether) from the lingo in your home country: 

 

  • 401k. An employer-sponsored retirement savings plan. Not to be confused with $401,000 (since “k” is also shorthand for 1,000).
  • Alternative data. A record of your phone bills, rent payments, and other day-to-day transactions, sometimes used in calculating your creditworthiness. This can help newcomers who have a “thin file” of payments for “big ticket items” such as houses, cars, and college educations. (See “credit score,” below.)
  • Billion. Be aware that a billion in the U.S. is only one thousand million—unlike a European billion, which is a million million.
  • Chapter 11. A form of bankruptcy that lets you restructure your debt.
  • Checking. Known as “chequing” in other countries.  
  • Credit score. A much bigger deal in the U.S. than in other countries. Predicts the likelihood that you’ll pay your debts. Used by landlords, credit card companies, and others to decide whether they’ll do business with you. Also known as a FICO Score, after one of the top credit rating software companies.
  • Credit line. Also referred to as a credit limit. The amount you can spend on your credit card before you’re “maxed out” (see above). 
  • Currency exchange. A place to change your money. In Europe (even the U.K.) and French-speaking Canada, this is a “bureau de change.”  
  • The Fed. The U.S. Federal Reserve, America’s central bank. Since exchange rates, inflation, and interest rates all affect your personal finances, you might want to keep an eye on news from the Fed.
  • Going green. Not joining an environmental movement, but registering to receive your banking, credit card, and other statements electronically.
  • Layaway. Putting down a deposit for a merchant to hold your purchase while you pay for it on an installment plan. Known in some countries as a “hire purchase.” 
  • Main Street. The mainstream economy (versus “Wall Street,” see below). Same as “High Street” in the U.K.
  • Teaser rate. A promotional offer to attract customers to a particular credit card or loan; after a period of time, the rate will go up. 
  • Security code.  A 3 or 4 digit unique code on your credit card. This is also known as the CVV number (for card verification value), CVV2, CVC (for card verification code), or CID (card identification number). You will be asked for it, again and again, when making purchases online or on the phone. 
  • Wall Street. The U.S. financial system of bankers, investors, and traders. Began as a term for major financial exchanges located on the same street in downtown Manhattan. Not unlike “The City” in London or “Bay Street” in Toronto.

The Takeaway

Don’t get lost in translation. As a newcomer to this country, you can get some help decoding the way Americans talk about money from our sampling of money slang and practical finance terms.

The Author

Karen Lynch is a journalist who has covered global business, technology, and policy for more than 30 years. Karen also is a principal at Content Marketing Partners.


“What Is Credit Card Surfing?”, Yahoo! Finance; https://finance.yahoo.com/news/credit-card-surfing-103000451.html

2 “Requirements,” Venmo; https://help.venmo.com/hc/en-us/articles/209690188-Requirements