According to Forbes, as of early March, 2023 there were 2,640 billionaires worldwide, 735 in the U.S. alone. These billionaires have each amassed at least one billion dollars worth of assets, including stocks, real estate, and cash many of them much more than that.

But just how big is one billion? A number that large is hard to conceive of. Well, it's 1,000,000,000; ten to the ninth power; one-thousand millions. That might help somebut not much. How big is a million? Hard to say when we're just imagining it in our head or looking at figures on a page.

Wealth is also fairly abstract. What can one dollar buy? And how is a dollar earned? And what about one billion dollars

What Does One Billion Dollars Look Like?

Let's break it down...

This is one pixel. Can you see it?

Here's 1,000 pixels:

This is 1,000,000 pixels:

Getting pretty big! You probably had to scroll a bit to see it all. Well, get ready for more scrolling, because this is what 1,000,000,000 pixels looks like.

Each tiny pixel represents a number between 1 and 1,000,000,000. Because the number one billion is so vast, even a straightforward visual representation can feel a bit hard to grasp. So, some some specific numbers are highlighted along the way, tied to real-world measures, to help keep you grounded as you go:

Did you skip ahead? I don't blame you. It would take about 15 minutes of manual scrolling to get from the top of the billion-pixel rectangle to the bottom. If this rectangle (with these margins) was printed out on standard, letter-sized paper, it would comprise a volume of about 844 pages. Heavy lifting.

Some of the numbers above reference money, but dollars are also abstract. Now that we have a better sense of the size of one billion, let's look at what one billion dollars can buy.

The yearly budget of St. Louis, Missouri is about one billion dollars. Here's a rough breakdown of what St.Louis spends one billion dollars on annually.

These represent the needs of a whole City. But what are the needs of an average American?

The average American household spent $87,432 in 2021.

The two values are barely comprable!

Now consider the individual buying power of a billionaire.

The billion dollars that St. Louis spends is a sum collected in taxes and fees from the people living and doing business there. Meanwhile most non-billionaires cover their expenses by exchanging their time in the form of hours spent working for money.

That means dollars don't just represent buying power, they also represent time. Another way of thinking of the example above is that a single billionaire could afford to live comfortably in America, with no additional income, for over 11,000 years (not adjusting for inflation)!

Let's look a little closer at how much time is “worth.”

The Federal minimum wage in America is $7.25 an hour.

That's $58 a day. About $14,500 a year.

If you worked full-time from age 18 to age 68 at minimum wage you would earn about $725,000.

To earn $1,000,000,000 you'd have to work more than 1,379 lifetimes!

Think what you could accomplish! That's about 70,000 years working non-stop. (For reference, 70,000 years ago human beings were just beginning to migrate out of Africa.)

One billion dollars represents an enormous amount of time and work by an enormous amount of people. It is magnitudes more than what we consider “rich” in this country. It's enough to fund a small city for a year, or hire an army of workers. And whereas the American government is ostensibly accountable to the public and has a mandate to reinvest the funds it collects towards a democratically determined common good, a private individual has no such oversight or obligation. One person with all that social power? That's a big deal!

Then again, big and small is always a matter of perspective!

At least once we have a sense of what a billion dollars looks like, we can adjust our perspective more easily!