With our national debt continuously rising in recent years, some observers see the specter of significant inflation ahead, as they envision our government printing many more dollars to pay off our debts. Whether we do end up with major inflation remains to be seen. But we all may benefit from a reminder of what happens when inflation runs amok.

Extreme inflation even has a name -- hyperinflation -- and it has reared its ugly head many times throughout history. One particularly striking example was in post-World War I Germany, when inflation advanced by an eye-popping 3,250,000% in a single month in 1923. Yes, you read that right -- 3.25 million percent.

Hyperinflation makes life very difficult. It makes money close to worthless very quickly. If you find some money in your pocket that you left there a few months ago, what might have bought you a fancy dinner then may buy you just a pack of gum now. Imagine all the work for retailers, continually hiking prices upward. Imagine the necessary salary increases and the ever-larger bills -- and the hand cramps from writing so many zeroes.

Significant inflation isn't a thing of the past. Money as we know it is sometimes said to have originated in Turkey, where a new currency made its debut just a few weeks ago. An article at Salon.com offered some details: "Under the new system, 1,000,000 Turkish lira, about 75 cents, is equivalent to 1 new Turkish lira -- the price of about three loaves of bread.. The old currency boasted the world's largest bank note -- 20,000,000 lira, worth only about $15." With the new currency, a bottle of soda will no longer have a price tag of 1.5 million lira.

Turkey is expecting inflation of just 8% for the coming year, thanks in part to a new economic plan backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The IMF itself is busy warning the world that we still need to worry about inflation. In a 2003 article on the topic, it noted, "Hyperinflation reduces the size of the financial sector and gradually erodes the efficiency of the price system and the usefulness of domestic money as a store of value, unit of account, and medium of exchange -- taking the economy, in the extreme, to a near state of barter."

So part of a worst-case scenario for us investors might be a future where we pay for shares of Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) by sewing a pair of pants for our broker. Or perhaps our stock market would be reduced to what it is, at its essence -- a trading platform. Maybe we'd offer our shares of Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) to anyone who will trade shares of Google (NASDAQ:GOOG).

This isn't our likely future, but it's still good to be aware of our ever-evolving economy and of dangers that lurk on its fringes. In the meantime, you might consider investing some money abroad -- or at least check out a free sample issue of our Rule Your Retirement newsletter, which can help you plan for a more secure future.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.