fbpx Skip to Content

“Pennies on the dollar” — 3 Ways to Use this Expression

“Pennies on the dollar” — 3 Ways to Use this Expression

Sharing is caring!

Money is something that’s on a lot of people’s minds. It makes sense, then, that there are lots of expressions about money.
If your attempt to succeed isn’t quite good enough, someone might say you’re a day late and a dollar short. If you’re frugal, you’re probably a believer in the saying that a penny saved is a penny earned.
Today, we’ll examine a different expression involving pennies.


What is the meaning of “pennies on the dollar”?

The saying “pennies on the dollar” is used in three distinct ways. First, it can be used to say that something is much cheaper than it should be. It can also be used to compare the cost or value of two different things. Finally, it can be used to talk about the return on an investment.

The origin of the expression “pennies on the dollar”

To properly understand this expression, you need to know that the origin of “pennies on the dollar” is exchange rates.

In financial exchanges across currencies, the worth of each country’s money can vary considerably.

That means if you give someone ten US dollars, you won’t necessarily get ten English pounds or ten Canadian dollars.

The difference in value can be described with the word “on.” For example, if someone offers you ten pounds on the dollar, it means they will give you ten pounds for every dollar you give them.

The expression itself has moved away from exchange rates. However, all three versions we’ll cover here have their roots in a comparison of financial value.


How to use “pennies on the dollar” in a sentence

As noted above, there are three different meanings to this expression. Although each have their origins in financial exchange, the actual meaning can vary and must be determined by context.

In the sections below, we’ll detail each meaning and provide example sentences to make it easier to spot how people are using this saying.


“Pennies on the dollar” as a synonym for cheap

The most common way people use “pennies on the dollar” is to say that something is cheaper than it originally was.

In this case, the expensive price is represented by “dollar” and the cheap price by “pennies.” The actual difference in value might not be a specific number of pennies, but the saying implies that the new price is much cheaper.

This isn’t always a good thing. If you’re the one who bought it at the more expensive price and are now selling it for cheap, you might be disappointed.


“I bought a bunch of bitcoin right before the market crashed, so I had to sell them for pennies on the dollar.”

Here, the speaker lost money buying digital currency at a high value and selling it at a low value.

“The man who owned the shop swore he was selling me the baseball cards at such a loss he would only earn pennies on the dollar.”

In this example, the shop owner is trying to talk up how good a deal the purchaser is getting.


“Pennies on the dollar” to compare two values

More generally, “pennies on the dollar” can be used to compare any two values.

With this usage, the expression doesn’t have to talk about a change in cost of a specific item. Instead, it can be used to compare two people’s salaries, the cost of land in two different cities, or any other pair of things.

Both items don’t have to appear in the sentence. In fact, one is often implied.


“Houses in Thailand are so cheap you can get them for pennies on the dollar.”
“Before child labor laws were passed, large companies used to hire minors for pennies on the dollar.”

In the first sentence, it’s implied that the houses are a lot cheaper in Thailand than they are where the speaker is currently living. In the second, the implication is that children were paid considerably less than adults.


“Pennies on the dollar” and investment

The third way to use “pennies on the dollar” is when talking about investments.

Unless you know a lot of bankers, you’re unlikely to hear this version of the saying tossed around. It is a little different than the other meanings but is essentially still a kind of comparison.

In investment banking, you earn money on the money you have invested. The meaning of this version should already be clear.

In short, when someone tells you will “earn pennies on the dollar” they mean that for every dollar you put into a savings account of hedge fund, you will earn pennies on top of what you put in.

Unlike the other versions of the saying, this one will usually also have a time period attached. That time period is how long it takes for your investment to earn you the extra money.

For example, if you earn ten pennies on the dollar after a month and you put in ten dollars, you’ll gain an additional one hundred pennies, or ten dollars, at the end of that month.


“My grandpa got rich earning pennies on the dollar. Every time he got paid, he just reinvested the extra money.”

The speaker’s grandfather in this sentence may not have earned much for every dollar, but he understood that pennies add up if you get a lot of them.

“It wasn’t a very good investment, because it only earned two pennies on the dollar after a whole year.”

In this case, the speaker is pessimistic about how much money they managed to earn.

The difference between “pennies on the dollar” and “pennies to the dollar”

Although “pennies on the dollar” is the standard way to use this phrase, you may also see people use “pennies to the dollar.”

There’s even a third option in some contexts, where someone might talk about “pennies for every dollar.”

Despite the slight difference in phrasing, all three versions are identical in meaning.


“The movie star was depressed because actresses only earned pennies for every dollar compared to their male costars.”
“The movie star was depressed because actresses only earned pennies on the dollar compared to their male costars.”
“The movie star was depressed because actresses only earned pennies to the dollar compared to their male costars.”

Although they have differences, all the above sentences say the same thing.

In plain English, the female movie star is upset to find out that she earns a lot less money than her male counterparts.