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Dollars & Sense: What's Behind the Designs of US Currency?

Dollars & Sense | Kat Tretina | December 4, 2021

Small businesses are an essential part of the Tennessee economy. The Small Business Administration reported that 99.5% of businesses in Tennessee are classified as small businesses, meaning they have fewer than 500 employees each. 

As a small business owner, you likely handle a lot of cash. But when is the last time you really looked at the bills and coins that come through your register? Chances are, it’s been a while. You may be able to identify who is on each bill or coin, but you may not realize just how frequently those bills are updated. 

The designs on U.S. currency are a mixture of tradition and modern technology, and a lot of thought and planning goes into their creation. 


Current U.S. Currency

As of 2021, there are seven bills and four coins in circulation for everyday use. 


$1 Bill

$1: The $1 bill has President George Washington on the front and the Great Seal of the United States on the back. The $1 bill isn’t often counterfeited, so its design has stayed the same since 1963. 

$2 Bill

$2: Featuring President Thomas Jefferson on the front and a vignette of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the back, the $2 bill is still used today, but is becoming uncommon. Unlike other bills, which have gone through frequent redesigns, the $2 bill has been unchanged since 1976. That’s because it is not often counterfeited, so there’s no need to update it for security reasons. 

$5 Bill

$5: The $5 bill has President Abraham Lincoln on the front and the Lincoln Memorial on the back. Unlike the previous two bills, the $5 note has gone through significant changes. It was changed in 2008 to include a large purple five, and security thread that glows blue under UV lights.  There is also a watermark that is visible when held up to the light. 

$10 Bill

$10: Although not a president, Alexander Hamilton was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and appears on the $10 bill. On the back is the U.S. Treasury Building. The bill was updated in 2006 with security thread, a watermark, and color-shifting ink. 

$20 Bill

$20: President Andrew Jackson appears on the $20 bill, and the White House is on the back. It was redesigned in 2003 to include security thread, a watermark, and microprinting. 

$50 Bill

$50: Featuring President Ulysses S. Grant and the United States Capitol, the $50 bill was updated in 2004. Key security features include security thread, watermarks, and color-shifting ink. 

$100 Bill

$100: Redesigned in 2013, the $100 bill features Benjamin Franklin and Independence Hall. The additional security measures include a security ribbon and color-shifting bell in the inkwell. 



Despite the coin shortage, you likely handle coins every day as part of normal transactions. The U.S. Mint produces four circulating coins: the penny, nickel, dime, and quarter. 


Penny: Abraham Lincoln appears on the penny, and after 2010, pennies feature a union shield and the national motto on the tails side. 


Nickel: The nickel features Thomas Jefferson and his estate, Monticello, on the tails side. The coin was redesigned in 2006 with an updated portrait and increased detail.


Dime: Since 1946, the dime has used a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a torch with an olive branch. It was last updated in 1965, when the U.S. Mint removed silver from its composition. 


Quarter: The $0.25 coin has a portrait of George Washington. Its tail side has gone through many iterations. Most recently, the America the Beautiful Quarters program ran from 2010 to 2021. Quarters had five different designs each year depicting national parks and sites from the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. The version shown above was produced in 2021 and depicts George Washington crossing the Delaware.


How the Designs are Chosen

According to the U.S. Department of Treasury, there are many factors that go into the design of U.S. currency: 

  • Law: There are laws that dictate what people can appear on U.S. currency. The Secretary of the Treasury selects the designs, unless specified by an Act of Congress. The existing laws prohibit portraits of living people on currency, so all of the bills and coins feature statesmen from the past. All of the current bills’ face and back designs were selected in 1928. However, the U.S. Department of Treasury does not have records of why the selections were chosen. 
  • Security: The designs of our currency are occasionally updated to improve security and to make it more difficult for bills to be counterfeited. The U.S. Treasury aims to update the bills with the latest security features, such as threads that glow under UV lights, watermarks, and serial numbers. 
  • Overall Impression: Banknote designers develop the overall look of our currency. When updating a bill, banknote designers aim to create an image that conveys an image of strength and reliability. They continue to use familiar images and locations so that the currency is immediately recognizable as belonging to the U.S., but update it to improve detail or anti-counterfeit measures. 

Although our currency has gone through many iterations, the fundamentals of our bills and coins remain the same. The next time you complete a transaction, take a close look at your change. You may find that your bills and coins have new meaning for you!


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Information contained in this blog is for educational and informational purposes only. Nothing contained in this blog should be construed as legal or tax advice. An attorney or tax advisor should be consulted for advice on specific issues.

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