5 Ways to Visualize Our $14.5 Trillion National Debt

By Meredith Margrave
July 27, 2011

$14.5 trillion. That's roughly the current size of the U.S. national debt. And it continues to grow every second.

It seems like everyone, from blue-chip execs to members of congress, is throwing around words like million, billion and trillion without any comprehension of what they really represent. CNN even goes so far as to call trillion "the new billion."

Why is it so hard to wrap your head around these big numbers?

K.C. Cole, a commentator for American Public Media's Marketplace says it's just the way we're wired. According to Cole, "We automatically 'read' a billion as about a third of a trillion. After all, it's only three zeros off. But of course, a trillion is a thousand times a billion, and a thousand is a lot."

What Cole is saying may surprise you. A thousand doesn't seem like such a big number -- most people have at least $1,000 in their bank account. But divide your $200,000 annual salary by a factor of a thousand, and you'll find yourself scraping by on only $200 a year.

Increase the size of a classroom by the same amount, and your 15 students are suddenly a mob of 15,000. The distinction is roughly the difference between a million and a billion.

So how do you visualize a trillion? Creative people are coming up with new and better ways all the time. According to the MegaPenny Project, a cube of one trillion pennies stacked together would be 273 feet tall, somewhere between the height of the Washington Monument and the Empire State Building.

Here are our five favorite ways to put this colossal number into context.

1) A Trillion Seconds Worth of Distance Run

Can you guess how many days it takes for a trillion seconds to pass? If you said, "Let me go get my calculator," you're on the right track. I'll give you a hint: Each 24-hour day is worth 86,400 seconds. That's a huge number! But it's no where near a trillion.   

  • A million seconds is 13 days.
  • A billion seconds is 31 years.
  • A trillion seconds is 31,688 years.

If you can believe it, a trillion seconds ago, modern humans were yet to exist, and Neanderthals stalked the plains of Europe.

2) Astronomically Large

Outside on a clear night, you can see about two thousand stars with the naked eye, according to the astronomy site A Bright Spot Opposite the Sun. With $1 trillion, you could buy all of those stars if each cost $500 million.

3) Oh the Places They Will Go

A brand new Porsche 911 is a pretty luxurious purchase. Only the truly wealthy can afford to plunk down $88,800 on a car that fits two people and a weekend bag. But with a trillion dollars, in addition to a diploma you could give a set of keys to every graduating high school student in the country -- for the next four years!

#-ad_banner_2-# 4) The 50 Richest People in the Room

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, the entire Walton family -- these are just a few of the names that top Forbes' annual report on the richest people in the world. Yet none of them will ever be worth a trillion dollars.

In fact, if you put the 50 richest billionaires in a room, their combined net worth would barely pass $1 trillion.

5) Not Even the Biggest Blue-Chips

Let's go back to how much purchasing power $1 trillion will give you. For that amount of money, you could buy every share of Apple, Inc (Nasdaq: AAPL) -- and still have more than $600 billion to spend buying up every share of…

  • Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) -- $229.92 billion
  • Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A) -- $185.15 billion
  • Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) -- $184.91 billion

Now that you have a better concept of one trillion, multiply that number by 14.5 and you have the current U.S. national debt. Can you wrap your head around that?