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Congratulations! The year is 2030 and after a few months of waiting on a list you've been chosen to become one of a select few individuals who will be allowed to time travel to your chosen year of 1890. As you don't want to be left empty handed, you've chosen to take with you about \$10,000 in 2030 USD (around \$7800 in 2020 USD with an inflation rate of 2.5%). According to some quick searches \$10,000 in 1890 would be closer to \$363,000 in 2030, given the 2.5% inflation rate. However, the currency in 1890 is physically very different from the modern dollar bill, as the modern federal reserve was only even founded in 1913. As such, you'll have to find a way to turn your $10,000 in modern bills into a similar face value in 1890 in order to multiply your purchasing power.

Some other details:

  • Assume that the bills in 2030 are the same ones being used by the USA in 2020.
  • You can make multiple jumps to different time periods, however because of the amount of power required, each additional jump to a different time will cost you about $500 in advance. You can however control when you choose to make each jump without needing to schedule a time.
  • You are allowed to exchange your money for other goods, but the time traveling system will only allow you to bring along a large backpack of items. You can make multiple trips it will cost you the price of extra jumps.
  • You can go forwards in time as well as backwards but you can't travel into the future past 2030.
  • You're only able to time travel, not teleport. This means that when you jump through time you'll end up in about the same place you started. This means you must be able to walk wherever you need to get to or pay someone to take you there. Your starting place is the middle of Chicago.
  • You cannot get caught exchanging new currency that was printed in the future for older currency (such as trading a 2030 dollar bill for a 2005 dollar bill). You can do it, you just can't get caught.
  • There's no magic technology in 2030 that can convert your \$10,000 into a face value of \$10,000 in 1890 bills.
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    $\begingroup$ What is the goal here, explicitly? I think the sensible thing to do would be to pick the most reliable way of transporting some money, however small, and a manila envelope full of stock values/horse race results. But, I don't think that is what you are going for here. $\endgroup$
    – Zwuwdz
    Mar 5, 2020 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ Why not just bring a few small bars of gold, a kilogram of the stuff is worth over 100,000 USD. If your worried about getting noticed use high grade raw nuggets. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Mar 6, 2020 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ If you are not allowed to teleport, do you have to account for planetary movement (which limits the times you can jump to, or requires space travel) or is it self correcting so locally you have not moved? $\endgroup$
    – Fering
    Mar 6, 2020 at 15:52

7 Answers 7

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I'm not sure what what plot points you want to make in your story.

There's no magic technology in 2030 that can convert your 10,000 into a face value of 10,000 in 1890 bills.

There is no magic, but there is technology. The facility providing the time travel service will have counterfeit currency for the decades of interest for the various destinations making use of craftsman experienced in engraving plates for paper currency, knowledge of paper and coin alloys, and computer printing technology. Paper currency isn't that old, and coins would be primary. Previous time travelers will have returned with real currency after trading it with valuable metals. The chrono agency could provide all the way from gold coins down to cowrie shell currency.

You mentioned:

This means you must be able to walk wherever you need to get to or pay someone to take you there

Gold dust, flakes, and nuggets in various sizes will translate into almost any language in any time period. Beads, jewelry, fire starting kits, and clothing could be used for trade with tribal communities.

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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, if there is no compelling reason to not take counterfeit money, that's the way to go. The reason money design changes over time is because people get better at counterfeiting it. Or, yeah, just take something valuable... for that matter, the right items can be bought cheap today and sold for a lot of money back then. Think also about stuff like spices; a backpack full of salt is almost dirt cheap today, but once would have been worth a fortune. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Mar 6, 2020 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew Some items also work in the other direction. A pristine penny from 1890 will be worth a lot more than 1c in 2030. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Mar 6, 2020 at 6:30
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, that's the right answer. There's no conversion to make, just make your own money before leaving. And you don't even have to follow conversion rates either. $\endgroup$
    – Echox
    Mar 6, 2020 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ Plus, counterfeiting 1890 money is probably much easier than counterfeiting 2030 money $\endgroup$
    – Luis
    Mar 6, 2020 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Ryan_L, once time travel becomes a thing, that may not be true any more (much to the dismay of numismatists everywhere). In 2020, on the other hand... $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Mar 6, 2020 at 15:39
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Make your fortune in aluminum

Here are the rules I'm interest in:

You can make multiple jumps to different time periods, however because of the amount of power required, each additional jump to a different time will cost you about $500 in advance. You can however control when you choose to make each jump without needing to schedule a time.

You are allowed to exchange your money for other goods, but the time traveling system will only allow you to bring along a large backpack of items. You can make multiple trips it will cost you the price of extra jumps.

You can go forwards in time as well as backwards but you can't travel into the future past 2030.

Aluminum in nice clean ingots is about 1 dollar per lb. A 90-liter backpack can hold roughly 5500 cubic inches, and at a density of 0.098 lbs/cubic inch, that's about 539 lbs of aluminum, and will only cost you 539 dollars. It's a lot to carry, so hire a Sherpa, or maybe attach some wheels. Now, spend an extra 500 dollars time travel back in time to 1852. (It's allowed! You're just not permitted to go past 2030, but the rules say nothing about going further back.)

Aluminum, in the US in 1852, was 34 dollars per ounce. You have 8624 ounces of the stuff, giving you a total equivalent value of 293,216 dollars in 1852. Now, simply jusmp forward in time to 1890, and now you have approximately 290,000 dollars of 1852 American currency, perfectly usable in 1890, for only 1,039 dollars.

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    $\begingroup$ Just to illustrate how expensive aluminum was in the 19th century before techniques for mass manufacturing were developed, there is an anecdote about Napoleon holding a banquet where a select few most distinguished guests got aluminum cutlery. The less distinguished guests had to be content with merely golden cutlery. When something can only be made in a laboratory in microscopic amounts, it is expensive. And today, even for a cheap restaurant it's almost a disgrace to have only aluminum cutlery instead of stainless steel. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Mar 6, 2020 at 7:18
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    $\begingroup$ However, you will have a difficult time finding a buyer for that much aluminum, in a time period where it wasn't much more than merely a curiosity. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Mar 6, 2020 at 7:22
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Buy gold. Take it back to 1890. Sell it. You’ll get about 1/80 as many dollars as you pay for it (at 2020 prices), so \$10,000 becomes \$125. (Don’t try this trick if you’re travelling to a time between 1933 and 1974, when private ownership of gold was largely illegal in the US.)

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  • $\begingroup$ And they say the US is the most free country. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Mar 6, 2020 at 11:47
  • $\begingroup$ i'm sure you could still pawn some jewellry even in that period. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Mar 6, 2020 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ @ths Sure, but the spread on buying and pawning jewellery is enormously larger than the spread on buying and selling bullion. You would only get a fraction as much money. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Mar 6, 2020 at 17:26
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Buy some coins

A quick search on Ebay today shows that a single 1890 Morgan Silver Dollar is going for about \$20. $10k will net you about \$500 in 1890 money. \$500 in 1890 translates to about \$14,000 in 2020, so just go to Ebay with your 2030 money, buy some 1890 coins, jump back, buy \$500 worth of stuff, and jump forward and sell it.

But you can do better.

You can request certain types of coins from the bank. The trick is knowing what coins to ask for... and when to ask for them. Case in point: The Susan B Anthony dollar was minted from 1979 to 1981, and then again in 1999. So if you go to 1998 and request Dollar Coins, you can get them with ease. You might need to do some legwork, such as making a bank account for a fake business that deals with vending machines, but it's not difficult. Then you can go back to 1982 and do similar.

But. You can do better.

In 1865, the Secret Service was created. To suppress counterfeit currency. Upwards of one third of currency in circulation at the time was fake. Counterfeiting these early US Dollars was fairly easy as they were largely just... paper. The methods used to make them aren't particularly difficult to find and are rather well documented. \$10,000 in 2030 should be able to get you a setup to be able to make a significant amount of late-1800s bills that would pass inspection. Then, with your likely arbitrary amount of fake money, you can go back to the 1890s and cause havoc with whatever economy you so desire.

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    $\begingroup$ This site use MathJax. Dollar signs are special. I have edited the answer to avoid unintentional mathematics formatting. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 6, 2020 at 2:42
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The boring, iterative way.

  1. You are in 2030.

  2. Change out your money for small bills.

  3. Select the oldest 10%. Exchange the rest for large bills.

  4. Exchange large bills for small bills.

  5. Goto 3. Repeat 10 times.

  6. Jump back to the oldest time your bills would be legal tender.

  7. Change out your small bills for large bills.

  8. Exchange your large bills for small bills.

  9. Select the oldest 10%. Exchange the rest for large bills.

You get the idea. I think all paper money has dates but US paper money does not have issue dates like coins, only series numbers which helps this endeavor. Of the US bills in my wallet right now about 2/3 are series 2013 and 1/3 series 2009. I could jump to 2014 right now where none of the money I have would be surprising, or do a few changes to get all series 2009 and then jump to 2010. At either of those previous years I could accumulate series 2003 bills then jump to 2004 with them.

Chicago would be a fine place for this.

People might look at you weird in the bank sorting thru you piles of paper money but it would be a safe place to do it. Nobody would notice you doing it over and over because the next time you did it would be earlier than the time before.

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    $\begingroup$ "Hi, I would like to change my $363,000 into small bills, please" "Oh, and do you have a table where I can sort out the oldest 10%, thank you" :D $\endgroup$
    – tuvokki
    Mar 6, 2020 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ "There's this weird guy exchanging a huge amount of money and sorting it out, and he looks exactly like the guy who did exactly the same when I started working here 35 years ago. I must be going crazy!" $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Mar 6, 2020 at 13:18
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Pick other currencies that had a large inflation rate at each jump

By going back in time, you experience a kind of reverse inflation. Doing this only with dollars only sucks. Bolivars would be a much better choice for the last 5 years, the Deutsche Mark in the late 1920s, ...

Here is how it works.

  1. Change your dollars to Bolivars (let us say 1 dollar = 1000 bolivars at that point). Go back to a point in time where the bolivars you have are still exchangeable. Exchange back to dollars (let us say now 1 dollar = 10 bolivars) (eventually on the black market, see point below). Congrats, you are now a millionaire! True rates would even make you a billionaire in a few years.

  2. Exchange your dollars back to a lot of older, smaller banknotes of bolivars.

  3. Go to 1.

You even have a long list of hyperinflation episodes where you can do this.

Some restrictions apply of course. But the earning you can make will sure be worth the plane tickets you will have to buy.

When the physical currency changes, make sure to stop when both are valid

There is always a period when both currencies, the old bill and the new bill, are valid. Stop by and get only old ones. The same principles applies when a larger bill is printed (for instance the 100 000 bolivar/Deutsche Mark, ...). Stop by and get old, smaller ones.

When jumping between currencies, make sure you have an exchangeable one

In some countries, foreign currencies have to be exchanged on the black market. You may be charged more than the official rate. But who cares, you are already super rich due to reverse hyperinflation.

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Everyone is missing a step here. I'm not American so I can't tell you who is the best artist that was alive but relatively unknown in 1890, but wikipedia can help:

Artists born before 1900

So find the artist that has the highest current (2030) average sale price per painting that is within a short trip from Chicago, that is also relatively unknown im 1890. But every scrap he has. Get a receipt, hell, get 2 and leave one somewhere it'll get catalogued (tax offices?). All of these paintings will fit inside a backpack without any real issue (remove frames etc.). Now go back to 2030 and sell, sell, sell.

After this you could then go back to 1890, but really, why bother. You're one of the richest art dealers in the world now. Go buy an island.

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  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer the question at all. The goal is to have money in 1890, not get richer in 2030. Even if you come back to 1890 after that, you need to convert your fortune to 1890 money and you face the same problem (but worse cause you're richer) $\endgroup$ Mar 6, 2020 at 15:06

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