How much cash can you cram into a cereal box?

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July 24 2009 4:52 PM

Somebody Call Officer Crumb!

How much cash can a corrupt politician cram into a cereal box?

How much cash can Apple Jacks stash?
How much cash can Apple Jacks stash?

Federal agents arrested 44 people on Thursday, including five New Jersey politicians and five rabbis, as part of an investigation into corruption, organ sales, and bank fraud. One of the many shady deals involved the passing of $97,000 in cash stuffed into an Apple Jacks cereal box. How much U.S. currency can you fit into an Apple Jacks box?

$9,050,000. In order to stuff that much money into a box of Apple Jacks, you'd have to use a mix of high-denomination bills that have been taken out of circulation and a 21.7-ounce family-sized package. That calculation is based on three assumptions: 1) that the box, which is 321 cubic inches, could hold 4,658 bills, each of which is 6.14 by 2.61 by 0.0043 inches; 2) that you would lose no space to air or the unavoidable folding of bills; and 3) that you have access to all of the highest-denomination bills currently in circulation.

The highest-denomination bill ever available to the public was the $10,000 note, which the Bureau of Engraving and Printing stopped producing in 1945—along with $5,000, $1,000, and $500 bills. (There were also $100,000 notes printed in 1934 and 1935, but they were only issued to the Federal Reserve Banks as part of the government's buyout of banks' gold supplies.) If you could fill up your Apple Jacks box with $10,000 bills, you'd have $46,580,000. But the Federal Reserve began taking the high-denomination bills out of circulation in 1969, and as of May 30, 2009, there were only 336 of the $10,000 bills left on the market. Once you put all those into your cereal box, you'd have to get the 342 remaining $5,000 bills, and then finish up with some of the 165,372 $1,000 bills still being used. That gets you the total of $9,050,000 listed above.

If you did stuff a cereal box with rare bills, its actual value would far exceed the face value of the notes. Collectors will pay anything from $40,000 to $140,000 for an authentic $10,000 bill at auction, depending on the bill's condition. The $5,000 notes are worth between $20,000 and $100,000, and the $1,000 bills between $1,500 and $5,000. So a currency enthusiast with an unlimited bankroll might spend as much as $101,140,000 for your 21.7-ounce box full of cash.

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All of these numbers assume the current dimensions of U.S. bills. Prior to 1928, the bills were more than an inch longer and about two-fifths of an inch wider. If you used the old bills, you could fit 36 percent fewer of them in the box. That loss in value might be offset, to some degree, by the fact that these older bills are worth more to collectors.

Let's say you don't have access to rare bills or oversized boxes of Apple Jacks. If you used $100 notes and a 17-ounce box—the largest carried by many supermarkets—then the most cash you could fit would be $436,500. To squeeze $97,000 into the 17-ounce box, you couldn't use anything smaller than $50 bills. A standard-size box of Kellogg's Apple Jacks could hold just $87,300 worth $20 bills.

Until 2007, General Mills was the brand of choice for smuggling cash. The biggest box of Cheerios in most grocery stores used to be 20 ounces as opposed to its 17-ounce Kellogg's counterparts. But the cereal giant has recently shrunk its packaging, while holding prices steady, to combat increased grain prices. Embezzlers, beware: Kellogg's is now testing a slightly smaller box that holds the same amount of cereal.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jay Beeton of the American Numismatic Association, Arthur Blumenthal of Stacks Rare Coins, Claudia Dickens of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Olivia Harvey of Kellogg Co.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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