Are cryptocurrencies money?

How well do they work as money?

Published May 23, 2019Updated May 7, 2021

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.


As we saw in the previous chapter, practically anything can be used as money. Therefore, it’s more useful to ask if cryptocurrencies have the properties of good money, and how well do they function as money today.

In this chapter, we’ll see that cryptocurrencies have excellent monetary properties, but their function as money is held back by volatility and adoption.

Evaluating the properties of money

To decide how well cryptocurrencies can function as money, we’ll take a look at the properties good money should have and see how cryptocurrencies hold up. See the previous chapter for historical context and a discussion about the properties.

  1. Acceptable

    Nobody’s excluded from using cryptocurrencies—they’re open to everyone by design. The drawback is that you need a device with internet connection.

  2. Divisible

    There’s no real technical limit to how much a cryptocurrency unit can be divided, and it’s all automatic.

  3. Durable

    Coins can be used an infinite amount of times. The only drawback is keeping your private key secure, so you don’t lose your coins.

  4. Fungible & Uniform

    For most cryptocurrencies, fungibility is problematic. If all transaction history is public, like it is in Bitcoin, it could be used to blacklist certain addresses, and in the long run break fungibility if coins having touched a blacklisted address become less valuable.

    Cryptocurrencies like Monero tries to solve this problem, so I’ll say that cryptocurrencies are fungible.

  5. Limited in supply

    Cryptocurrencies follow predetermined emission rates, ensuring a limited supply.

  6. Portable

    You can carry any amount you want in your wallet. One billion worth of cryptocurrency is as easy to carry as one cent. There’s no difference in transacting large amounts or small amounts.

  7. Recognizable

    Cryptocurrencies are impossible to counterfeit and if implemented correctly, they’re easy to separate from each other.

    While at a low level it may be difficult to tell which cryptocurrency a number belongs to, all necessary data is public so you can differentiate them. Wallet apps do this automatically, making them easy to identify.

All in all cryptocurrencies fulfil the properties excellently.

Cryptocurrencies can also be considered to be sound money—the value is entirely market driven and there’s no manipulation of the supply.

Comparing properties with other forms of money

This is a table of how I think cryptocurrencies compare to other forms of money. I differentiate between the two forms of fiat—digital and physical—because they have different properties. Gold can be either gold coins or gold bars—basically some suitable physical form of gold.

Fiat (digital) Fiat (physical) Gold Cryptocurrencies
1. Acceptable Poor Excellent Excellent Excellent
2. Divisible Excellent Good Good Excellent
3. Durable Excellent Good Excellent Good
4. Fungible & Uniform Excellent Excellent Excellent Excellent
5. Limited supply Poor Poor Excellent Excellent
6. Portable Good Good Good Excellent
7. Recognizable Excellent Good Good Excellent

I know this might be controversial, so let me motivate some of the entries:

  1. Digital fiat gets a poor score on acceptable because it requires a bank account to use. This isn’t something everyone can get as banks have the right to reject you if they want.
  2. Digital money is inherently easier to divide than physical variants. You can always send an exact amount without having to mix and match change.
  3. Paper notes can easily wear out or burn up. While cryptocurrencies cannot themselves burn up or deteriorate, the security backups and your phone can. Therefore they score lower than gold on durability, which is near indestructible.
  4. I see no major problems with fungibility or uniformity.
  5. Both digital and physical fiat gets a poor score on limited supply. Per the discussion in the previous chapter fiat money is unsound.
  6. Cryptocurrencies are simply much more portable than the other options. Carrying large amounts in cash or gold is cumbersome and digital fiat isn’t easy to move across borders.
  7. While it’s possible to check for fake cash and gold coins, it requires expertise and certain tools. Therefore they get a lower recognizable score.

Even if you disagree about certain choices, it’s hard to deny that cryptocurrencies come out of the comparison pretty well. Of course, this doesn’t give the whole picture. There are other significant differences, for example:

Do cryptocurrencies function as money?

We’ve looked at the properties—but how well do they function as money, today?

  1. Medium of exchange

    Cryptocurrencies work well as a medium of exchange, but they’re not commonly used.

  2. Unit of account

    Most who use cryptocurrencies still convert the amounts to fiat.

  3. Store of value

    The valuation is highly speculation driven and has been notoriously volatile.

    Bitcoin closing price per month, between 2010 and 2019.
    Bitcoin price per week up to the beginning of 2020.
    The price peaked in December 2017 to $19,870, and some exchanges had it even higher. A year later the price had dropped to $3,177, a drop of over 84%.

While cryptocurrencies are used as money in certain communities and for certain goods, they’re not in widespread use. They don’t function very well as money globally, today.

There are mainly two things holding cryptocurrencies back today:

  1. Large volatility

    It’s hard for merchants to accept cryptocurrencies if they might lose a large percent of this months profit due to market movements.

  2. The network effect

    Money is better the more people who accept it. Getting people to start accepting a new form of money is difficult—even if it’s better than the alternatives.

Both of these are functions of how new cryptocurrencies are. When the market matures, the volatility will naturally decrease. Barring any large weaknesses the network effect will only grow larger as cryptocurrencies have a unique value proposition.

Perhaps it’s to be expected that cryptocurrencies aren’t global money yet—they’re only a decade old after all.

How well do other forms of money function?

Again, let’s try to compare cryptocurrencies with the other forms of money. This time I’ll combine digital and physical fiat, since they function the same in practice.

Fiat Gold Cryptocurrencies
1. Medium of exchange Excellent Good Good
2. Unit of account Excellent Poor Poor
3. Store of value Poor Excellent Poor

With the motivations:

  1. Both gold and cryptocurrencies can work well as a medium of exchange. But they’re not commonly used as such, which lowers their score.

    There’s a feedback loop here: the more they’re used the better they are, and the reverse holds true as well.

  2. Nobody prices goods as “0.2 ounces of gold” or “0.13 BTC”. Neither gold nor cryptocurrencies are currently used as a unit of account.
  3. Fiat isn’t a good store of value. If you store money in your bank account or beneath your mattress inflation will eat away the value. Cryptocurrencies, despite the historic increase in price, are far too volatile.

While cryptocurrencies match up poorly, there’s no perfect alternative.

Note that unlike the fundamental properties that don’t change that much, how well money functions change with time. For example a few hundred years ago gold coins would be used everywhere.

What do lawmakers say?

Several countries—like Sweden—have ruled that Bitcoin isn’t a currency. The reason is there’s no responsible issuer and it’s not legal tender3 in any country.

Cryptocurrencies just don’t fit into existing rules of fiat currencies. This often happens with new innovations that break the mold—laws cannot keep up.4 For instance cryptocurrencies remove the third-party requirement, something previously thought impossible.

There are others who’ve ruled in favor of Bitcoin as a currency. For example the EU ruled that VAT is not applicable to the conversion between fiat currency and Bitcoin, however VAT still applies when used for goods and services.

So, are cryptocurrencies money?

Cryptocurrencies fulfil the properties of money very well—in fact, they fulfil them better than any alternative in history. Unlike fiat they can also be considered sound money as the valuation is entirely market driven.

While they are used as money in certain communities, they do not function well as global money today. They’re very volatile and adoption isn’t there yet.

I personally think cryptocurrencies is the best form of money we’ve ever seen, but they haven’t reached their potential yet.