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What is Fiat Money?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Fiat money is a form of currency which is deemed valid and legal because the government says that it is, not because it is backed by a commodity such as gold or silver. The United States is one of the most prominent nations which relies on fiat money, although many other countries do as well. There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to this type of currency, and the issues with fiat money have been debated vigorously for centuries by economists and politicians.

The term “fiat” refers to a government decree. When a government creates fiat money, it declares that money produced by certain banks or mints is valid legal tender which will be accepted for all government debts, thereby making the currency legal. When the government is willing to accept a specific currency for payment of taxes and other government debts, this also means that everyone else in the society will be willing to accept it in exchange for goods and services. As a general rule, the money is minted by government-owned mints or banks, and it is marked with language which indicates that it is legal tender for both public and private debts.

Alternatives to fiat money include commodity currency, in which people exchange actual physical commodities like gold, and representative currency, in which each bill represents a set amount of a commodity, and it can be redeemed for that commodity. Historically, many nations had a gold or silver standard, in which currency was backed by government reserves of gold or silver, and citizens could walk into banks and ask to exchange their currency for its value in gold or silver. However, many nations turned away from representative currency to fiat money in order to cope with changing economic climates.

Fiat money is not self limiting, which can make nations which rely on this type of currency extremely vulnerable to hyperinflation. Citizens rely on their governments to make the right decisions about printing money and extending credit to ensure that their economies do not become inflated. When fiat money systems are abandoned, it is usually because hyperinflation has become such a huge problem that the economy falls apart.

There are some advantages to fiat money. The lack of self limiting measures on such currency can allow a government to rapidly expand the amount of funds it has in response to periods of economic growth, for example. No requiring backing with commodities can also free up government reserves of gold and silver because they no longer need to be retained and maintained.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Glasshouse — On Sep 01, 2010

@ genevaMech- You may have heard talk about our current system of fiat money being on the verge of collapse, but you have to take this information with a grain of salt and a bit of critical thinking. It is true that there is a global recession, and there are a few fundamental flaws with our current fiat money system, but all monetary systems have flaws and are constantly evolving.

Hyperinflation is a worst-case scenario, and is unlikely to happen. In most cases, the organizations and individuals spreading this doomsday message have a hidden agenda. They are often trying to push people towards trading their fiat currency to them for physical commodities like precious metals. You have to ask if gold is so valuable and stable, why are these companies willing to sell their "stable currencies" for an unstable currency on the verge of hyperinflation.

By highlighter — On Sep 01, 2010

@ GenevaMech- Fiat currency can collapse, and countries have abandoned their currency in the past. Fiat currency, like any currency, has its complications and can suffer from collapse if governments do not manage it properly. There have been instances in fiat money history where the system has failed. In these cases, a new commodity based system or a revised fiat money system replaces the old system.

An example of a fiat currency collapse was seen in Post World War Two Hungary. Hyperinflation was moving at such a fast rate that prices were doubling almost twice a day. If you were paid in the morning, your wages would be worth half as much by the time you went to bed. It got to the point that people were trading cases of alcohol and cigarettes because they were popular commodities, and held value better than the national currency.

By GenevaMech — On Sep 01, 2010

Can fiat money collapse?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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