9 of the Oddest Alternatives to Money

Here are some of the most interesting money alternatives in history.
Christopher McFadden

What is the strangest money or currency you have bought something with? Leaves? Glass marbles? Monopoly money?

How about eels? Or giant rocks?

Read on to find out some of the most interesting means of exchange from around the world.


What are the alternatives to money?

Alternatives to currency used today include

  • Bitcoin
  • Litecoin
  • Starbucks Stars
  • BerkShares
  • Torekes
  • Amazon Coins
  • Hyper-local pounds
  • Ithaca hours
allternatives to money
Source: Keith Cooper/Flickr

Are currency and money the same?

In short, no. While the terms are used interchangeably, there is a very important distinction between them. 

The single most important thing to consider when comparing the two is their relative ability to store or represent value. 

Fiat currency, or simply currency, is not a store of value. Rather, it is a device that represents value, but has no value in itself. It can even be reduced to zero in some extreme circumstances, and many currencies have become defunct throughout history.

On the other hand, money is the term used to describe something that contains value itself. Gold or silver, for example, have consistently been a store of value for thousands of years. 

As you are about to find out, money can actually take any form, so long as people recognize it and trust its value. 

What are some interesting alternatives to money in the past and present?

And so, without further ado, here are some alternatives to money that were used to buy things in the past and present. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. In the past, people in England used to pay their rent in eels

alternative currencies eels
Source: Wildlife Trusts

Did you know that in medieval England, some tenants used to pay their rent in eels? Yes, you read that right, actual eels. 

For reference, eels were historically an important food source in many regions in Europe, and had significant economic value in many river estuaries on the Western seaboard of Europe. 

This amazing discovery was made by Dr. John Wyatt Greenlee during his Ph.D. in Medieval Studies at Cornell University.

The Domesday Book lists hundreds of English watermills whose rent was paid in eels, bundled in “sticks” of 25. One proprietor who received his rent in eels was “Giles brother of Ansculf”, who got 1000 sticks from his watermill in Bottisham, Cambridgeshire, and 2000 sticks from his watermill in Datchet, Buckinghamshire.

The village of Wells is recorded as paying its landlord, the nearby Ramsey Monastery (the landlords) 60,000 eels a year. 

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In 1273, king Edward I issued price controls for the sale of certain foods in London, and a stick of 25 eels was listed as 2 pence—or the equivalent of about $8.25 in today's US dollars. 

2. Knives and spades were an important means of exchange in the past

alternatives to money spades
Example of a bronze "spade" from the State of Zhou, circa 650-400 BC. Source: Davidhartil/Wikimedia Commons

In China, during the Zhou dynasty, between around 700 and 250 BC, knives made from materials like copper, lead, and tin were used as a form of currency in various cities in and around the Shandong province. 

No one knows for sure how the 'knife money' came about, but there are various legends about it. One popular legend is that a certain prince was running low on money to pay his troops, so he allowed them to use their knives as a form of currency to barter with villagers. Knife money may have also been brought to China by sea traders from the Indian Ocean.

Some areas used knife money with inscriptions, which were usually numerals or single words like "fish" or "sheep", which may have indicated the value. 

3. The term salary comes from the fact that salt used to be a form of "money"

alternative currencies salt
"All that glitters is not gold", unless, of course, we are talking about salt. Source: Helena Eriksson/Flickr

Did you know that the term "salary" comes from the route word in Latin meaning salt (salarium)? Amazing right?

During the Roman Empire, part of a Roman legionnaire's remuneration was in a small amount of salt. Salt is essential for life, and was a very important commodity. 

"Their monthly allowance was called "salarium" ("sal" being the Latin word for salt). This Latin root can be recognized in the French word "salaire" — and it eventually made it into the English language as the word "salary."

To give you some idea of its relative value, a barber in ancient Rome would have to shave thirteen customers to be able to buy a single dry liter of salt.  

4. Do you take massive chunks of rock by any chance?

alternative means od exchange rai stones
An example of a surviving "rai stone" on the island of Yap. Source: Bartek cieslak/Wikimedia Commons

Believe it or not, but in the Solomon Islands (specifically Yap) in 6th-century AD, massive chunks of limestone were used as a means of exchange. Called "Rai stones", these alternatives to money weigh-in in at up to 8 tonnes, and could measure around 12 feet (3.5 meters) in diameter. 

Hardly the most portable and convenient means of exchange we've ever heard of, but whatever floats your boat.

These stones were carved into large discs and transported by canoe from a neighboring island. The higher the risks that were taken to get them and the danger in transporting them, the higher their relative value. 

In fact, as this meant they were inherently rare, they became highly prized items. After all, rarity is usually a hallmark thing that makes something inherently valuable. Unlike currencies today, these rai stones would stay put in one place and acquire a new owner in situ

5. Sperm whale teeth have also used a form of currency once upon a time

alternative currencies sperm whale teeth
Source: Hannes Grobe/Wikimedia Commons

Back in the 1700s, sperm whale teeth used to be a valid means of exchange on the island of Fiji. Called "Tabua", these teeth were seen as a great symbol of wealth and were used more as a means of gift exchange than payment, per se

That being said, sperm whale teeth were highly prized and had enormous sacred and ceremonial value. These teeth could also be exchanged for other tangible goods, like a canoe, and were also used for other symbolic reasons like an engagement ring.

Captain Jame Cook, during his expeditionary voyages to the islands also set out the customs of whale tooth exchange in the 1770s. 

6. Animal pelts have commonly been used as a means of exchange in the past

alternative currencies pelts
Source: Archives of Ontario/Flickr

Another common alternative to money in the past has been animal pelts. During the 1800s, for example, beaver or deer pelts were highly prized on the American frontier. 

Native tribes would often trade the pelts with the English for metal tools and other equipment. A good quality buckskin was worth about $1 or $2

In fact, this is thought to be the origin of the slang term "buck" for the dollar today. A beaver belt would have been worth somewhere in the region of $2 in the 1830s (that is about $50 in modern dollar value).

Other parts of the world also valued animal pelts as an alternative to money too. For example, squirrel pelts were popular in Russia in the Middle Ages. 

So enamored were they with these pelts, that some historians have blamed the practice of routinely skinning rodents for increasing contagion and death rates during the Black Death. 

7. Pig tusks are an acceptable form of money in Vanuatu's remote Pentecost Island

alternative currencies pig tusks
Source: Piano! Piano!/Flickr

On the remote Pentecost Island in Vanuata, you can actually deposit pig tusks into the local bank. For centuries, residents of the island have used tusk, mats, shells, and giant rocks as a means of exchange for trade and ceremonial purposes. 

One bank, Tari Bunia Bank, has agreed to accept items such as pig tusks in an effort to protect the isolated community's historical traditions. 

To date, according to the BBC, there is no official exchange rate for things like tusks to fiat currencies, but in 2007 one tusk was worth about one Lavatu. A Lavatu, in 2007, was worth around $180

8. Some forms of money are even edible

alternative currencies cocoa beans
Source: mufflevski/Flickr

We have already covered salt previously, but there are other forms of edible money too. One prime example is called "reng".

This is a yarn-ball of turmeric spice wrapped in coconut fibers are widely used as a means of exchange in the Solomon Islands. Another example is cocoa beans (used to make chocolate) that have been used as currency widely throughout Mexico and Central America. 

Parmigiano Reggiano cheese has also been used as a form of currency historically. It was so highly regarded that it could also be used as bank collateral in Italy. 

9. Cowrie shells have also been used as a form of money in the past

alternative means of exchange cowrie shells
Source: Thalo Porter/Flickr

And the last one on our list is the use of seashells as a form of currency. Back in 13th-century Nigeria cowrie shells constituted the smallest unit of money. 

At that time, a British farthing was equal to about 25 to 32 cowrie shells. 

And that's all folks. 

These are but some of the most interesting alternatives to currency and precious metal money from around the world. 

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