How Much Is $1 Billion?

How Much Does $1 Billion Dollars Get You in American Politics?

Twenty-dollar bill
Twenty-dollar bill. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Politicians at both the state and federal levels talk in numbers that most folks can't comprehend. A billion this and a trillion that. But how much is $1 billion and how far will it get you if you want to run for president, or even just the House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate?

If you want to run for president and have any chance of winning, you're going to need about $1 billion. It also helps to be independently wealthy, though not every president was rich. Spending on the 2012 presidential election reached about $2 billion among the two major-party presidential nominees, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. In the 2016 presidential election, spending by both likely major-party nominees — Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton — is expected to top $3 billion. 

Winning a seat in Congress is much less expensive, however. In the 2014 House elections, nearly 2,300 candidates seeking one of the 435 seats raised and spent about $1 billion in total, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics. That comes out to an average of less than half a million dollars raised for each candidate. Winning candidates, however, tend to raise and spend more: About $1.7 million each, according to an analysis by MapLight.

Winning one of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate costs much more than that, but still nowhere near $1 billion. In 2014, 474 Senate candidates raised and spent little more than $700 million in total, or an average of $1.5 million each. 

How Much is $1 Billion?

So how much is a billion? What does it mean to say that something costs a billion dollars in the United States?

One this we do know is $1 billion doesn't go nearly as far as it used to, thanks to inflation. What cost $1 billion in 1980, for example, would now cost you nearly three times as much, or about $2.9 billion, according to the Consumer Price Index.

What cost $1 billion in 1950 would now cost you nearly 10 times as much, or about $10 billion.

What $1 Billion Looks Like in Mathematical Terms

Here's the math:

Amount How to Write It In Math Terms
One Thousand Dollars $1,000 103
One Million Dollars $1,000,000 106
One Billions Dollars $1,000,000,000 109
One Trillion Dollars $1,000,000,000,000 1012
One Quadrillion Dollars $1,000,000,000,000,000 1015
One Quintillion Dollars $1,000,000,000,000,000,000 1018

What a Billion Looks Like In Other Terms

The chart, however accurate, doesn't put the number — one thousand million — into perspective. Most of us know that the numbers are big, we just don't know how to think of them in the context of our own lives.

Here are some attempts:

  • The world's wealthiest person, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is worth nearly $80 billion, according to Forbes. There are more than 1,800 people in the world who are billionaires. There are not, however, any billionaire members of Congress; the wealthiest Washington politician, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, was worth only a cool $598 million when he served in the 113th Congress.
  • If you had $1 billion you could buy about 2,300 convertible Lamborghini sports cars, about nine of the most expensive penthouses on Park Avenue in Manhattan, about 100 of the mansions like the one Pharrell Williams moved into, and about 500 bottles of the world's most expensive champagne — the $2 million-a-bottle Gout de Diamants.
  • If we wanted to pay down $1 billion of the U.S. debt, paying one dollar a second, it would take 31 years, 259 days, 1 hour, 46 minutes, and 40 seconds. To pay off a trillion dollars of debt, at a dollar a second, would take about 32,000 years.
  • About a billion minutes ago, the Roman Empire was in full swing. (One billion minutes is about 1,900 years.)
  • About a billion hours ago, we were living in the Stone Age. (One billion hours is about 114,000 years.)
  • About a billion months ago, dinosaurs walked the earth. (One billion months is about 82 million years.)
  • A billion inches is 15,783 miles, more than halfway around the earth (circumference).
  • The earth is about 8,000 miles wide (diameter), and the sun is about 800,000 miles wide, not quite a million.

[This article was updated by U.S. Politics Expert Tom Murse in June 2016.]