Next question of my post-apocalypse series of questions, started here: Which is about manufacturing of fuel

Joe and his group have after a couple of years build up a sizeable bio-fuel production, and have started an iron/steel industry, using some of the pre apocalypse ironworks in the area to trade with other settlements in the Midwest, and have even started to create an unified government/law and culture (questions about that, for a later time).

But a large problem have occurred during their first meeting. They discovered that the different settlements had a different currency and/or different way of handling values.

Examples include Joe's group, which is communist based, basically meaning no money involved and everyone gets a job, a place to live and food is equally handed out, if one does their job (or if they have a great excuse for not work (illness, being too young to work, etc.)), and another group is mostly nomadic, scavenging Ohio and Indiana for valuables (Metals, livestock, construction plans/materials, weapons, ammunition, etc.) and use bullets as money, and lastly a group, also nomadic, which uses bottle caps.

All participants at this first unifying meeting can't decide on one defined currency. Joe want to use steel coins and bills made in his settlement, but others declined because that would give Joe's group a leading edge in inflation and control of money. The idea of using bullets was shoot down (Pun not intended) because in case of war or self-defense, they would literately throw money away. Another idea of using the bio-fuel was also drop, because then people have to haul a bottle around, every time there is a market, and all the merchants have to haul tank trailers of fuel back from the market afterwards.

They have some requirements for the currency that they wanted to use:

  • Something that more that one settlement can make/control (Exemption being the scavengers for have the ability to maybe, randomly, run across a former factory of said currency, and gained an unfair advantage).
  • Something that is easy to work with (no cents or similar things)
  • Something that is handy (Meaning that not having to haul a two liter bottle of fuel around, every time one goes shopping).
  • Something that is that can't be (easily) counterfeited.
  • Something every settlement can use.
  • Something that is not need for something else (example: bullets)

Some information on the settlements in this going-to-be unified company

  • There are five larger settlements (300 people or more). Two which is nomadic scavengers, the rest is based on some kind of industry, being fuel, metal, lumber and/or farming.
  • There are ten medium sized settlements (100 to 300 people), all which is farmers.
  • There are approx. 25 small settlements (under 100 people), most which is handling stuff like maintenance of railroad tracks and roads, and building/maintaining transportation equipment (trains, ships/boats, vehicles).
  • The area they cover is, the north-west Ohio, north-east Indiana, the southern part of Michigan, and the islands in Lake Erie.

Joe had hoped for an easy solution, but have run out of ideas. so he asked himself the "million dollar" question:

What could be used as an unified currency? or how could there be a compromise for said currency?

  • $\begingroup$ Hi, is there a reason you did not accept an answer as correct? The bullets one works (example here: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/80647/14037 ), at least as a base for barter (which is just a precursor to currency) $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2017 at 11:04

5 Answers 5


Currency needs to have value. Our economy used to be backed by the gold standard. This meant that your paper money was actually worth a certain amount of gold. This all changed, of course, but the basic idea that currency needs to be worth something is still critical - especially in your scenario.

And so, you need to find something that all of your factions value. Which holds value in an of itself, and no one faction controls.

You could resort to using gold and silver, but you'll find that those metals are pretty useless to a bunch of people trying their best to survive in the post-apocalyptic world. Not to mention that your settlements are far too small for any real economic solution to be developed.

The absolute best bet is, in fact, one you've already discounted: ammunition.

Ammunition is valuable in and of itself. It can help save your life! And in a world which we've lost control of, ammunition is going to be very useful (and thus valuable) indeed.

Furthermore, you can find ammunition all over the US. No one controls it exclusively, and brass casings can be reloaded, so there's an element of re-usability as well.

The fact that you use it up in firefights makes it more valuable, not less. All this said, keep in mind that a lot of people will simply continue to barter goods with one another (give me a chicken, I'll give you 3 lbs of flour, etc.)

And furthermore, the second that ammo becomes very difficult to find people will revert to using bows and arrows, spears, etc.

Using something like bottle caps won't work out, because they are not useful. I'll illustrate with an example:

Ammo as Currency

You show up at my farm and offer to trade 5.56 rounds for a chicken. I've been raising it for months. I've fed it, watered it, kept it safe from predators, not to mention disease. We haggled, and you and up paying 20 rounds. But you don't feel like cooking it yourself, so you tell me that you'll make it 25 rounds if I do it all for you. Deal! You go away a happy man, having eaten a good meal, and having some meat for the road. I have ammo for my well-preserved rifle. Two days later some bandits come calling. They have spears, knifes, etc. Well, guess what, I have a clip of 5.56. I wait for them to come out in the open, pretend to surrender, then shoot 3 of them dead! Sure am glad I traded for ammo!

Bottle-caps/Gold/Silver/Other useless junk

You show up at my farm and offer to trade bottle-caps rounds for a chicken. I know I can trade them in for other useful items over at the next settlement, so we haggle, and you and up paying 20 caps. But you don't feel like cooking it yourself, so you tell me that you'll make it 25 caps if I do it all for you. Deal! You go away a happy man, having eaten a good meal, and having some meat for the road. I add those bottle caps to my stash. Two days later some bandits come calling. They have spears, knifes, etc. Well, I'm screwed, because I never had time to go trade my caps in for ammo!

Using ammo as currency is basically bartering with an item that will always be useful. In this scenario nothing is going to be more precious.

  • $\begingroup$ You miss the point that currency needs to be based on something useless (that is, without obvious utility). Ammunition is only usable once, at which point it loses its utility. $\endgroup$ Commented May 21, 2016 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast - I'm not missing the point at all. Currency needs to be valuable, not useless. This is a post apocalyptic world, there are no banks which can back a currency! You can't form a bank between 3 tribes of nomadic survivors either. Realistically they wouldn't establish a "currency", they would simply barter. But if you were going to try and set up something akin to currency, ammo is it. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ Yes you are. Currency must not be usable, or it will be used and stop being currency. Useful items or materials are good as a basis for barter, but not for currency. You've missed the distinction. And currency does not require a central bank, either. It only requires that the parties to the transaction agree on its value. As Robert Heinlein put it, the value of something is determined by what somebody will give you for it. $\endgroup$ Commented May 21, 2016 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM Asker said: "Something that is not need for something else (example: bullets)" Besides, gold and silver haven't had much industrial application historically, and are mostly useless. Have you seen the price of gold lately? Also there are problem with bullets (I like the idea though and it has been ruled out). Can anyone manufacture bullets? Yes? They are the new bank. And if not, the value of bullets will rise over time until they are simply not a practical unit of exchange. $\endgroup$
    – user20787
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 10:39
  • $\begingroup$ @inappropriateCode - here's the thing. You're 100% correct as far as currency goes. But not in a post-apocalyptic scenario. If you walk up to me and offer me 50K CASH for my car, I will sell it to you. Why? Because I can walk down the street to the dealership and buy a new one! But in a world gone to hell I would be stupid to accept ring pulls or some other useless item for a commodity that I may not be able to replace. But ammo is intrinsically valuable. In this sort of scenario you can't have a central authority which backs the currency, so currency cannot exist as we know it. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 14:15

Money is anything that has value. While recently money has not been tied to the value of a physical commodity traditionally it has.

Lets consider a few concepts.

Obviously the settlements have to agree on the value of 'money' and an exchange rate. Lets start with a 'basic' non unified currency exchangable for a physical resource as needed - for example bringing in a "gas" chit of the value of 2l would get you 2l of gas of a certain quality, or a "wheat pound" gets you a pound of wheat.

Based off that, set the value of currency off of the average value of a bunch of these commodities, exchangable based off the current agreed value of them.

Of course, someone needs to handle this - this is one of the situations where a government of sorts is handy. Set up a central authority with offices in each settlement, with civil and military/police administration shared amongst them. Anyone can walk in, and exchange goods for 'money'. Since its based off a bunch of goods no one settlement has an advantage, control is shared, and since each settlement works towards its own self interest, it should self regulate.

The central authority makes money (with some degree of signorage for operation costs) and moves goods from one settlement to another based on demand.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The OP describes trobes of nomadic survivors scratching a living in the dirt / scavenging and you want to establish a central authority that will enforce the rules of currency, etc? How? There are a million steps between barely surviving and setting up a bank. Setting up a government which is recognized by all survivors is the least of their concerns. How about simply having enough food, water, and medicine for everyone? $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented May 21, 2016 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ Question talks of settlements and trade. It talks of a unified government and industry starting up.We have politics. This sure ain't metro 2199 or fallout but it's a workable answer from the parameters of the question taking into account the political and economic conditions in the question. Who determines the value of bullets or bottle caps anyway? $\endgroup$ Commented May 21, 2016 at 23:31

Perhaps the staple food would be the easiest and most common unit of exchange most people can produce. In feudal Japan rice was effectively currency. But you said you don't want the currency to be consumable in any way.

I don't think however you can have something everyone can make which also isn't consumable or easy to lug around. Steel coins or something like that sounds like a great idea, like precious metals. Easy to carry and hard to forge, but it can't be produced by everyone. I'm not sure your specification is viable? Either it can be produced by everyone and is consumable, or it isn't possible for everyone to produce or is quite bulky.

Also worth noting that in this context each commune in your world has its own currency much like every nation in the real world has its own currency. You're proposing creating a Euro equivalent amongst a bunch of post-apocalyptic tribes. You're going to need a pretty good diplomat to pull it off! Each tribe will want to keep its own currency because it is best for them.

Come to think of it however, bullets would be a good common currency precisely because they discourage war between the tribes and violence generally. You should reconsider that idea! If a tribe which makes bullets produces too many they become poor! I actually on second thought really like this idea for its potential implications!


I think you're going in the right direction with the fuel. If you look at the history of currency, people switched from gold/silver to paper backed by gold and silver partially because paper is easier to carry.

My recommendation would be to have each settlement create their own currency or a shared currency that the settlement agrees is worth a specific number of ounces/liters/gallons of fuel. This would be based on the amount of fuel that the settlement controls.

Settlements would need a treaty in place to guarantee the backing of their currency, and any settlement that breaks the treaty would have the rest of the settlements go to war with it.

  • $\begingroup$ @Burki how not? I'm suggesting currency backed by fuel. Either one currency or treaties among the settlements to agree to recognize each others currency. $\endgroup$
    – kuhl
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry. I stand corrected! I must have been reading sloppily... I removed my comment. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 13:08

I think the best bet would be to lay out a chart of all items the communities have,want,and need for daily life...then establish a standardized value for each item according to that village. Each tribe leader can establish such a list and whether that tribe adopts a paper coin currency or whay have you there will be a rationalized value of goods. This is especially true as the nomads are actively scavenging they will by nature be hauling items around. The settled areas will have certain items of interest they haven't found and a nomad may see a notable bounty for this desired item and go hunting for it or recall seeing it at a location....as others have hinted the true value of an item to any tribe is only equal to how much it is desired.just as a settled villager with washers and dryers would have no value held to a clothes line but may desire a heavy full body mirror which similarly would have no value to a nomadic tribe when a pocket mirror would suffice.

establishing this sort of barter regime would enable an optimal situation for both parties as a community board nay be established for each party and it is at each community's choice to do trades at all and their values are agreed upon...while a villager may be able to place item request bounties in the local trades buildings and secure payment equal to the local standards...ie the town established knives are worth 5 a villager could bring 5 knives to market and trade for 25 worth of goods or secure payment on a 25 bounty for the nomads items they may desire.

Note: this type of trade mechanic is what essentially drives our trade today...the shiny cars sitting in the dealerships are only about $400 worth of steel and maybe a couple hundred more in other materials most of the assembly process is automated today adding a few more hundred to production costs....the end result that you are paying upwards to half a million dollars for a high end sports car or 1/10th that is all based on what customers are willing to pay for it..if people stopped paying these outrageous sums for these things the value would sharply drop to a point they are willing to buy at.

Seeing a structured exchange center in the towns alone may be enough to satisfy the nomads to accept the currency and as long as the coinage was guaranteed to be accepted at a future date and was easy to carry the nomads would likely accept it as a payment for goods they traded.. the biggest issue comes with remote settled areas if any town could have such an exchange hub run by the same entrepreneur then he can be assured his currency would be accepted more readily.Especially considering towns people will still be inclined to stretch their legs beyond the boarders of their own town whenever it is possible and convenient.

Thus as long as the daily commodities are kept at a minimal fee of say $1-(10 bullets 1lb fruit....) each, the society will have their own values on luxuries...and currency will be accepted or people will go elsewhere...after an apocalypse people will weigh values in new lights and think dovi really want to spend a weeks wages for one nights stay at the local inn....sure they got a pool but the river is right there....


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