Financial Idioms

Financial Idioms

Idiom: an expression or phrase that may appear nonsensical if the words are taken literally. There are so many idioms ingrained in the English language that you may not realize when you use one. And for some reason, there’s no end to the idioms that refer to money. If you’re wondering what one of these financial idioms actually mean, or where the heck it came from, you’ve come to the right place. Today we’re answering WTFI (what’s that financial idiom?).

Ballpark figure

Meaning: rough estimate of the value of something.

Origin: this term references a baseball field, an enclosed space. It’s an extension of the phrases “in the ballpark” which means within a reasonable price range, and “out of the ballpark,” meaning beyond a reasonable price range.

Break the bank

Meaning: spend all of your resources, or even more than you have.

Origin: originally used in gambling, when a player has won more than the banker (the house/casino) can pay.

Paying through the nose

Meaning: spending far more money than what’s reasonable. 

Origin: this one is debated, but some suspect it came about after the Danes conquered Ireland in the 9th century and took a census by “counting noses”. Exorbitant taxes were imposed on each “nose”, so people had to ‘pay through the nose’.

Tighten your belt

Meaning: spend less money.

Origin: this saying likely gained popularity during the great depression following a stock market crash in the 1920’s. When people couldn’t afford to buy food and went hungry, they would have to tighten their belts or risk their pants falling off due to weight loss.

Feel the pinch

Meaning: being affected by financial hardship. 

Origin: from the mid 1800’s and similar to tightening the belt, the pinch may have referred to pinching/taking-in a waistband when one loses weight from hunger. It could’ve also meant the pinch children would feel when their shoes were too small and their families couldn’t afford new ones. 

Nest egg

Meaning: savings or investments for the future, ideally a large sum intended for a certain goal like a home purchase or retirement. 

Origin: dating back to the late 17th century, it’s believed to come from poultry farmers’ routine of placing real and/or fake eggs in hens’ nests to encourage them to lay more eggs, making more income for the farmers. 

Making ends meet

Meaning: ensuring a paycheck lasts until the next paycheck is received; having just enough money to cover necessary expenses. Alternatively, ‘making both ends meet.’

Origin: Long ago I heard this explanation – say you are paid monthly, each month is a rope. Making your paycheck last until the next month, when the next paycheck will come, is necessary to make the ends (of the rope) meet. While not the very first use of the phrase, in the 1700’s a Naval surgeon and novelist Tobias Smollett used the variation “make the two ends of the year meet”, believed to reference a practice on ships of splicing rope ends together in order to reduce expenses.

Fool’s gold

Meaning: something that appears valuable but isn’t; something worthless that some might mistake for valuable.

Origin: fool’s gold was a term for iron pyrite – a shiny mineral that looks somewhat like real gold but is made of iron disulfide. During the gold rush of the 1840s, many inexperienced miners believed they had struck gold upon finding a chunk of iron pyrite. Fool’s gold is relatively worthless, being naturally abundant and less useful than real gold.

In the black 

Meaning: refers to a company that is profitable or financially stable.

Origin: this saying comes from the color of ink used by accountants to enter a positive figure on a company’s ledger/financial statements, in the days of old when pen and paper were used.

In the red

Meaning: refers to a company with a negative bottom line, in substantial debt, financially unstable. A business that’s frequently ‘in the red’ typically has an uncertain future. 

Origin: as mentioned above for the origin of ‘in the black,’ ‘in the red’ stemmed from the color of ink accountants used to record a negative number on a company’s ledger. 

Bring home the bacon

Meaning: working; providing; earning money.

Origin: used in one mother’s encouraging telegram in 1906, although it’s believed that ‘bring home the bacon’ was known in the African-American community prior to this. Before Joe Gans fought Oliver Nelson in the world lightweight championship boxing contest, Gans’ mother sent him a telegram telling him to “bring home the bacon”. Gans won the match, becoming the first native-born African-American to win a world boxing title. He replied to his mother with a telegram saying he “had not only the bacon, but the gravy.” The phrase became popular with sports writers and later spread to general usage. 

Bottom Line

I can only speculate there are so many figures of speech related to money in the English language because people spend a great deal of time thinking and talking about the subject. But no matter the reason, I hope I’ve answered the question that drew you here – WTFI (what’s that financial idiom?). Curious what another financial idiom means or where it originated? Have a favorite saying about money you think should be on the list? Leave a comment below.  

Sources: here, here, here, here, and also here

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