We're hearing a lot about some big numbers these days. There's the $800 billion stimulus package, for starters, and some $700 billion to bolster Wall Street. (According to Discover magazine, all the U.S. coins and bills currently in circulation are worth $829 billion.) Our budget deficit totals more than $10 trillion overall. My colleague Christopher Barker recently added up the expected U.S. outlays to fight the financial crisis and came up with a total of ... more than $13 trillion! Jeepers.

Take a few minutes to try and really appreciate just how big these numbers are. Let's start with "just" a million. Open a Word document and type 10 asterisks. Cut and paste that 10 times, for 100. Cut and paste that 10 times, for 1,000. Keep it up until you get to 1 million, and then scroll through that to appreciate its size. (Note that you might want to accumulate that many dollars to avoid a gruesome retirement.) Next, remember that a billion is a thousand millions, and a trillion is a million millions. Then multiply that by 3.6, to begin to appreciate our national budget. Then take an aspirin.

Applied to companies
Let's consider these numbers in a corporate context. The market cap of ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) was recently about $350 billion. That's just half of the amount dedicated for the Treasury Asset Relief Program (TARP). It's not much more than Citigroup (NYSE:C) alone has been guaranteed -- even though Citigroup's market cap was recently just $16 billion.

Here's another shocker: The S&P 500, the index of 500 of America's biggest companies, which make up roughly 70% to 75% of the entire U.S. stock market's value, was recently worth about $7 trillion. So the entire U.S. stock market has recently been valued around $10 trillion. It looks like we're allocating even more than that to try and get our economy back on track. 

Applied to us
We can apply the massive numbers to ourselves, as well. Think about your salary. The table below shows you how long it would take you to earn a million, billion, and trillion dollars:

If you earn...

To earn $1 million will take you ...

To earn $1 billion will take you ...

To earn $1 trillion will take you ...

$50,000 yearly

20 years

20,000 years

20 million years

$100,000 yearly

10 years

10,000 years

10 million years

Think about that $800 billion stimulus package -- just that. Considering that there are about 300 million of us in the United States, that comes to $2,667 per woman, man, and child. There are more than 110 million households in America, so that comes to some $7,000-plus per household. Our total national debt amounts to some $33,000-plus per American. That's not chicken feed!

On the bright side
Understanding the enormity of the numbers that our government has been dealing with should drive home just how serious our economy's problems are and how critical it is that they be solved.

The good news is that these numbers can work for us, too. Think about the miracle of compounding, for example. If you're both smart and lucky enough to invest in some great long-term growers, you can see your wealth explode. If you earn 15% per year over a 30-year period, you'll turn a $10,000 investment into nearly $660,000.

Here's a taste of how quickly some familiar companies have grown and what they're expected to do in the future. (I'm also including their star rating from our Motley Fool CAPS community of investors -- if you're intrigued by some, look into them more closely.)


Past 20-Year Average Return

Expected Growth Over Next 5 Years

CAPS Stars (out of 5)









Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO)




McDonald's (NYSE:MCD)




Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT)




Data: Yahoo! Finance, Motley Fool CAPS.

So next time you see some big numbers bandied about, take a moment to really appreciate their size -- along with how they can help you or cost you.

Frustrated with your 401(k)? Even if your employer's plan isn't the greatest, you don't have to give up your dreams of a happy retirement. Get the tips you need to turn your retirement savings around in our special report, "How to Make the Most of Your 401(k)" -- just click here for instant free access.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Wal-Mart. Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Try our investing newsletters free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.