TIME Money

We Still Don’t Have Safe and Reliable Money

bitcoin-world-coins
Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

If we're going to have fast, reliable online transactions, we need a system that actually works

They said it was imminent. They said so two decades ago. But I am still waiting for a truly fast, reliable, and safe form of money for people—all 7 billion of us. So many other things that were once unimaginable to us are now true: we can connect with anyone on the planet almost instantaneously—to talk, see each other over video, and send each other pictures of our cats and dogs, even kids. But if we want to move a penny, or 10 rupees, it is no longer a brave new world, not even close. It’s virtually impossible for someone to easily transfer money to another at a low cost, unless both parties are physically present at the same place and same time.

Not so, you may protest. We have Apple Pay, Paypal, Google Wallet, Mastercard, Visa, M-Pesa, Bitcoin, hundreds of alt-coins spawned by Bitcoin, all of which claim that they will dethrone good old-fashioned cash off its mantle. But not so fast. Despite all the hype around the supposedly new-fangled digital alternatives to money, these remain either expensive or inconvenient. Credit card companies charge retailers two to three percent of any transaction, which we’re all paying for in the form of higher prices, passed on by merchants. Direct withdrawals from bank accounts are cheaper, but have traditionally taken a long time to clear, sometimes as long as a day.

The drawbacks of these digital alternatives are evidenced by the resilience of cash. Eighty-five percent of all transactions globally (and 40 percent in the U.S.) are still carried out using cash, particularly transactions involving small amounts of money. There are good reasons why that is the case. Cash is convenient. Cash is private. Cash is intuitive. Cash does not incur explicit transactions costs.

And yet cash is also cumbersome to carry and store. It can be stolen and forged, remains uninvested and usually loses purchasing power over time, and most importantly, cannot be transferred easily across large distances. And so, the pressing need for a digital currency that works.

If you are a cryptocurrency enthusiast, you are probably reading this with great impatience, eager to get to the discussion of how Bitcoin and its alternatives are the answer. Cryptocurrencies, which are digital, encrypted currencies that operate independently of a central bank, are almost costless to move instantaneously, offering both privacy and security. I am also a cryptocurrency enthusiast. But I am not ready to declare victory. At least, not yet.

First, transactions using cryptocurrencies are not convenient. They are not intuitive. Just watch someone pay for coffee at a coffee shop that accepts bitcoin as payment (there are some). Only geeks are likely to find it simple and easy to use. You may protest that this is what people said about email and Internet 20 years ago and look where we are now. Perhaps so. But the transition to electronic money will not be as easy or as simple. Why? Because we are talking about money. Bitcoin’s “blockchain” technology keeps a permanent, public, and seemingly inviolable record of all transactions, which is distributed publicly across many private computer servers around the world in a decentralized fashion. It’s brilliant, elegant, and revolutionary—but also, to quote the author Nathaniel Popper, “one big hack away from total failure.”

Money attracts both fraud and regulation. And uncertainty. Financial regulators are conservative, wary of any new technology that is easy to use and accessible, unless it be proven completely fraud-proof (an impossible standard).

And so, regulators are over-zealous in clamping down on innovation. They will reflexively (and absurdly) invoke “Know your customer” (KYC) regulations and “Anti Money-Laundering” (AML) requirements every time someone proposes something new. It’s as if regulators never want to hear the benefits that might come from financial innovation, however much they might offset any potential downside. But someone who designs a faster car should not be prevented from manufacturing and selling it lest thieves use it get away after robbing a bank. We need to rely on other means of deterring crime.

When we discourage innovation and proliferation of convenient, secure, and costless digital alternatives to money for fear of money-laundering and related crime, we are continuing to disenfranchise nearly 3 billion poor people in the world who would benefit the most from the financial inclusion that frictionless digital money and payments will generate for them.

Here is a concrete example. Imagine that a woman working as a day laborer in India earns 100 rupees on a given day. She may go to a grocery store on her way back home to buy goods worth 80 rupees. If technology made it possible for her to deposit the remaining 20 rupees (which is only about 30 cents) immediately in an account that earns interest or put it immediately in an investment that is expected to grow, without incurring any transactions costs, this could transform her life. Even “small” transactions costs of 5 or 10 cents per transaction would induce her to keep the money in the form of cash, which would not only fail to grow, but may be spent in an impulse purchase by her husband or children.

Similarly, a migrant worker should be able to send money he or she earns nearly free of transaction costs to the family that may live in a different city, or even a different country. Nearly $600 billion of such remittances are currently made across borders. And they are expensive, outrageously so. Nearly 7 percent is lost in intermediation.

How about services such as the mobile phone money transfer business M-Pesa, which is ubiquitous in Kenya? Given the lack of banking alternatives that exist in many African countries, M-Pesa services have deservedly received attention and acclaim from media, policy makers, and global development advocates such as Bill Gates. But even services such as M-Pesa have high transactions costs.

Given the revolution in communication technologies, and how they’ve transformed so many non-monetary domains, it seems reasonable to demand that in the near future we do away with most everyday transactions costs, which are unnecessary. We should shoot for a one- or two-tenths of a percent as an acceptable fee, whether we are seeking to pay with our Apple Watch at the corner deli or seeking to pay for a meal in rural India.

How do we get there?

First, financial institutions need to abandon the stupid idea that every transaction, no matter how small, must be verified. Every time I buy a cup of coffee using some form of electronic money, the retailer need not check with Visa or my bank if I have money or I am credit-worthy to be offered an implicit credit of a few dollars. Such verification should happen infrequently, only when the aggregate amount in question has reached a large predetermined amount. After all, most people have reputation capital these days; in our increasingly interconnected world, even sellers on e-Bay from far-off places like Guangzhou in China can be “trusted” given their reputation scores.

Second, the new digital money needs to feel simple, intuitive, and easy to use even in even the most illiterate parts of the world. You often hear experts advocating financial literacy and educational programs to “teach” people how to use new technology-based money. But the most effective adoptions happen when people learn by imitation. So, this electronic money must become ubiquitous. People should see it being used by rich and poor alike and in developed and developing countries in essentially similar ways. No one offered cell phone literacy classes or programs when the technology was introduced, but cell phones quickly went from being aspirational objects to being widely adopted as the costs fell sufficiently low. Now more people use cell phones than toilets in the world. In the same way, electronic money is likely to grow when middle-class consumers start using it regularly, even when transacting with the poor.

Lastly, the dream of the libertarian cryptocurrency enthusiasts that money will become totally anonymous, far from the reach of the government and inept regulators, is not practical. We want technology that empowers individuals, but we need shared institutions such as the courts and regulators that protect people and the integrity of the currency being used. After all, 7 billion people aren’t going to make the transition purely on faith.

Bhagwan Chowdhry is a professor of finance at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and the co-founder of Financial Access at Birth. More about him can be found here.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY women

These 10 Countries Already Have Women on Their Currency

And here's a look at the bills themselves.

The U.S. Treasury Department announced Wednesday night that it will put the image of a woman on the new $10 bill in 2020.

No figure has yet been selected for the honor, but it will be a woman who played a major role in U.S. history and was a champion of democracy.

Got any suggestions? The government will be soliciting input from the public on a new website it plans to launch soon and on Twitter using the hashtag #TheNew10. “We’re going to spend a lot of time this summer listening to people,” said Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

If you’re looking for inspiration, you should know that at least 10 other nations, including Syria, the Philippines, and Israel, have already recognized female leaders on their banknotes—all of which you can see in the gallery below.

Read next: Who Should Be the First Woman On a Modern Dollar Bill?

  • Syria

    Queen Zenobia
    Khaled Al-Hariri—Reuters/Corbis

    Syria’s current image is that of a nation wracked by civil war and struggling against the violent militant group ISIS. But it outpaced the United States on one sign of social progress: recognizing women on official currency.

    Syrian Queen Zenobia, known for fighting back against Roman colonizers in the second century AD, appears on the 500-pound note.

     

  • Philippines

    Philipine 500 and 1000 peso notes
    Edwin Tuyay—Bloomberg via Getty Images

    During the mid-1980s, the Philippines introduced a 500-peso note featuring prominent senator Benigno Aquino Jr., who had been assassinated in 1983. His wife, Corazon Aquino, went on to become the first female president of the Philippines—and the first female president in Asia, for that matter—and her image was added to the bill after she died in 2009. Early 20th-century suffragette Josefa Llanes Escoda also appears (alongside two men) on the 1000-peso note.

  • Turkey

    Nick Fielding—Alamy

    In Turkey, the current 50-lira note features turn-of-the-century novelist and women’s rights activist Fatma Aliye Topuz on its reverse side. (The first president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, appears on the front of every bill.)

  • Mexico

    500 Mexican pesos notes on a table with traditional Mexican ornament. The note has the portrait of the painter Diego Riviera on one side and Frida Kahlo on the other.
    Daniel Sambraus—Getty Images

    Mexico’s 500-peso note shows muralist Diego Rivera on the front and his wife and fellow artist Frida Kahlo on the back. Her image is a 1940 self-portrait, alongside a famous painting of hers from 1949, “Love’s Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and Señor Xólotl.” Seventeenth-century Mexican writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz appears on the 200-peso note.

  • Argentina

    Eva Peron (1919-1952) on 2 Pesos 2001 Banknote from Argentina. Second wife of President Juan Peron.
    Georgios Kollidas—Alamy

    Argentina’s beloved former First Lady Eva Perón—widely known by her nickname “Evita”—appears on the current 100-peso bill. The 20-peso note depicts 19th-century Argentine political activist Manuela Rosas along with her father, politician Juan Manuel de Rosas.

  • New Zealand

    New Zealand 10 Ten Dollar Bank Note
    Glyn Thomas—Alamy

    Like many other former British colonies, New Zealand features Queen Elizabeth II on its currency—the 20-dollar note to be precise. But Kiwi banknotes also honor suffragette Kate Sheppard, who in 1893 helped New Zealand become the first country in the world with universal voting rights for both men and women. Her image appears on the 10-dollar bill.

  • Israel

    Wikimedia Commons A portrait of Israeli poet Rachel Bluwstein, who lived from 1890 to 1931.

    The Bank of Israel recently announced that it will be adding images of two female Israeli writers to forthcoming 20- and 100-New Shekel banknotes, respectively. The former will feature turn-of-the-century poet Rachel Bluwstein, and the latter author, poet, and literary expert Leah Goldberg, who died in 1970.

  • Sweden

    Artwork showing the designs of new folding Swedish krona, or kronor, currency notes due to be issued in 2014 stands on display at the Riksbank in Stockholm, Sweden, on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013.
    Bloomberg via Getty Images—Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Imagery on the krona celebrates several women in Sweden’s history. Currently there’s Selma Lagerlöf—the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature—on the 20-krona note, as well as 19th-century opera singer Jenny Lind on the 50-krona bill. Starting this fall, a new line of banknotes will feature Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren on the 20-krona, 20th-century soprano Birgit Nilsson on the 500-krona, and classic film actress Greta Garbo on the 100-krona note.

  • Australia

    An Australian one-hundred dollar banknote
    Carla Gottgens—Bloomberg via Getty Images Dame Nellie Melba on the Australian 100-dollar banknote

    Australia has one woman on either the front or back of every banknote currently in circulation. They include Queen Elizabeth II on the front of the $5 bill, social reformer and writer Dame Mary Gilmore on the back of the $10, 19th-century businesswoman Mary Reibey on the front of the $20, politician and social worker Edith Cowan on the back of the $50, and turn-of-the-century soprano Dame Nellie Melba on the front of the $100 note.

  • England

    Jane Austen to feature on banknote. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, with the ten pound note featuring Jane Austen at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, near Alton. The Austen note will be issued within a year of the Churchill £5 note, which is targeted for issue during 2016.
    Chris Ratcliffe—PA Wire/Press Association Images The new Jane Austen £10 note will look like this.

    If featuring women on currency were a contest, the Bank of England would win, with every note since 1960 depicting Queen Elizabeth II on the front. Past bills featured nurse and statistician Florence Nightingale on the back, current 5-pound notes show 19th-century social reformer Elizabeth Fry, and the next 10-pound bill will celebrate famed 19th-century author Jane Austen.

TIME Money

U.S. to Put a Woman on the Redesigned $10 Bill in 2020

The Treasury Department will announce whose face will grace the currency at a later date

The U.S. plans to put a woman on the $10 bill, announcing Wednesday that the next $10 bill will feature the likeness of a woman who has played a major role in American history and has been a champion for democracy.

The new note, anticipated to be released in 2020, would be unveiled just in time for the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which secured women’s suffrage. “America’s currency makes a statement about who we are and what we stand for as a nation,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said on a call Wednesday.

Just who the woman will be, however, has not been determined yet. The Department of Treasury launched a campaign to garner public input on what the next bill should look like. Over the summer, the Treasury Department will host town-hall meetings and engage with the public digitally about the bill’s design.

“The public outreach is going to give us a chance to hear from the American people about their ideas for what kind of symbols, ideas, and representation should be on the $10 bill,” Lew said.

While the outreach to the public is novel and in line with the bill’s theme of “democracy,” the final selection of look will be traditional. After public comments close, the Department will make the ultimate decision of what the bill looks like and Lew later announce whose face will be featured. The new bill will also include enhanced security components and a new feature that will make it easier for the blind and visually impaired to handle.

For months, there’s been a large movement to get a woman on the bill, including a charge led by a 9-year-old girl, who wrote a letter to President Obama asking why American currency was so male-dominated. The advocacy group Women on 20s, however, has been calling for a woman’s face to appear on the $20, in part due to Andrew Jackson’s role in the slave trade and the killing of many Native Americans.

Lew said while there is a “happy coincidence” in the timing of their announcement and the calls for action, the $10 bill had been set to undergo a redesign for some time. “The Women on 20 campaign reflects the best tradition of American democracy,” he said. “The planning of this has gone back several years.”

And the change has been a long time coming.

Alexander Hamilton has been the face of the $10 bill since 1929 and, according to the Federal Reserve, there were 1.9 billion bills in circulation at the end of 2014. The last woman to appear on a bill, however, dates all the way back to the 19th century, when Martha Washington appeared on the $1 silver certificate from 1891 to 1896. Before that, Pocahontas appeared in a group photo on the $20 national bank note.

“Our Democracy is a work in progress. We’ve always been committed to becoming a more perfect union,” Lew said. “This decision of putting a woman on the $10 bill reflects our aspirations for the future as much as a reflection of the past.”

U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios, however, says for many in the U.S. it will mean a bit more.

“For many of us who have daughters, who have sisters, aunts and mothers, I think for all of all us — we go with what we know. Having something on the note that touches the American public every day is very symbolic not just for today, but for our future,” she said.

The public is being invited to engage in the discussion on who is on the next bill online through the website thenew10.treasury.gov and using the hashtag #TheNew10. The main criteria for the next portrait is the subject must be deceased.

TIME Currency

This Experiment Shows Why You Should Take Bitcoin Seriously

Newest Innovations In Consumer Technology On Display At 2015 International CES
Ethan Miller—Getty Images A general view of the Bitcoin booth at the 2015 International CES at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 8, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

NASDAQ is using a key bitcoin technology

The technology that powers the cryptocurrency bitcoin could soon become much more important to the global financial system.

NASDAQ is planning to pilot a new transaction-tracking system on one of its smaller markets that makes use of blockchain technology, a key component in the bitcoin system. A blockchain is a public ledger that keeps track of transactions within a digital currency by logging them across various computers. The computers work in tandem to ensure the authenticity of a transaction. This automated process allows for transactions to be decentralized from a central bank or money issuer, which speeds up the rate at which a buy or sell can occur.

Instead of using bitcoin, NASDAQ will apply this technology to securities bought and sold on a market for private companies. Shares in these companies are often bought and sold using a slow, informal system in which lawyers must manually verify transactions, according to the Wall Street Journal. The blockchain could significantly increase the pace at which trades can be executed.

NASDAQ calls the plan to use blockchain technology an “enterprise-wide initiative.” The financial sector has expressed a keen interest in bitcoin and its tech. The New York Stock Exchange and Goldman Sachs, among others, have already invested in bitcoin-related companies. Even if bitcoin fails as a currency, many observers have said the blockchain technology behind it could have promising use cases in finance and other fields.

MONEY currencies

Why the Strong Dollar Hurts Investors and What They Should Do About it

Johnson & Johnson products
John Raoux—AP Johnson & Johnson products

The strong dollar is hurting some multi-national corporations. That doesn't mean you should do anything.

Johnson & Johnson endured a difficult first quarter. Profits at the healthcare behemoth declined by almost 9%, and the company lowered earnings projections for the rest of the year.

Part of the blame went to poor sales of a particular hepatitis drug. But J&J also took a hit from something that its executives can’t in any way control: foreign exchange.

Over the past 12 months, the U.S. dollar has gained against every major currency, according to data from Bloomberg, including more than 20% against the euro.

That can be pleasant for American consumers and travelers, whose dollars can suddenly buy more imported goods and stretch further when spent abroad in places like Europe.

But a strong dollar can also have negative consequences, and the losers include multinational American companies like J&J that sell goods overseas, where American exports are suddenly more expensive than before and thus less competitive. Indeed, currency fluctuations sliced the company’s earnings by 7.2%.

What’s more, there’s reason to believe this kind of impact will be felt across the U.S. economy. The International Monetary Fund recently projected that currency effects would decrease U.S. economic growth this year by half a percentage point, to 3.1%.

In light of all this, investors may be wondering if they should make some changes to their domestic stock portfolio, perhaps lightening up on companies with lots of international business. Here are two reasons to hold off.

The Strong Dollar Is Already Baked Into Stock Prices

Intelligent folks can disagree on the efficient markets hypothesis, which holds that share prices always reflect all relevant information. But at least some of today’s currency issues are already cooked into company stock prices.

In other words, it’s probably too late to avoid the negative currency effects—and selling now might mean missing out when the currency pendulum swings the other way. You can see that in Johnson & Johnson: While the company’s numbers look bad on paper, they actually outperformed analysts’ expectations. The company’s stock was unchanged yesterday, and is actually up a bit over the past month.

That’s also true of the broader U.S. stock market: The S&P 500, which collectively takes in about half of its revenue from overseas, is up almost 2% so far this year.

Moreover, Europe won’t stay on its current economic path forever. Eventually the economies of its member nations will improve, the European Central Bank will stop buying bonds, and interest rates will one day rise. When that happens, demand for euros will increase.

The Dollar Won’t Stay Strong Forever

One reason the greenback has performed so well against other currencies is that our monetary policy looks downright hawkish by comparison. The Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank are holding down interest rates and buying up bonds in an effort to lower interest rates, stimulate spending, and improve economic growth. If that plan sounds familiar, that’s because the U.S. Federal Reserve spent years doing the same thing. These days the conventional wisdom is that the Fed will start to raise rates this summer or fall, thereby making dollars more desirable.

But the conventional wisdom isn’t always right—and in fact economic data over the past couple of weeks has revealed some weakness in the U.S. Last month’s jobs report showed employers adding fewer workers than expected, while retail sales underperformed as well. And while a plurality of economists polled by Bloomberg couple of weeks ago estimated that the Fed would raise interest rates in June, the most recent poll shows that a majority now think that increase won’t be announced until September. As a result, the dollar has actually underperformed the yen, euro and pound over the past month.

Which all means that you can be made to look silly by trying to time the market.

“From the prospective of individual investors with an intermediate to long-term time horizon, you shouldn’t be focused on the dollar,” says John Toohey, head of equities at USAA Investments. “It all tends to even out over time.”

TIME Economics

The Real Reason the Dollar Is So Strong Right Now

72967148
Purestock—Getty Images/Purestock Close-up of American dollar bills

And why it could seriously hurt American business

When is a stronger U.S. dollar not a good thing? When it causes companies to sell fewer products overseas. That’s one of the big concerns at the moment among American CEOs, many of whom are worried about what the dollar’s strength against currencies like the euro and the yen mean for US exports–and corporate profits.

They have legitimate reason to worry. Each of the five major dips in U.S. corporate profitability since 1970 have occurred following reduced sales after periods of relative dollar strength. The Fed has recently expressed concerns about whether the dollar’s strength could hold back the US recovery, which has been lackluster to begin with. Wages are still growing at only around 2 %, not enough to push up consumer spending, which is the major driver of our economy. If US exports also begin to suffer, it could be difficult for the economy to sustain the 3% a year growth figure that is needed to create more jobs.

Some economists believe the dollar’s strength reflects the fact that the U.S. is still the prettiest house on the ugly block that is the global economy. (Certainly, to employ another metaphor, it’s the strongest leg on the global stool with China slowing sharply and the Eurozone debt crisis flaring back up as Greece looks likely to run out of money next month.) But I think it’s more about central bankers and their actions. The dollar’s strength reflects the Fed’s own recent indications that it will likely raise interest rates by the end of the year.

Indeed, the dollar’s strength almost perfectly tracks Fed statements about the coming end of easy money. The tightening of US monetary policy (or even the hint that policy will tighten at some point) has driven the dollar up (and oil down) even as Europe’s beginning of its own “QE” or quantitative easing program has driven the Euro down. None of it reflects the economic reality on the ground, but rather the fact that central bankers are, as investment guru Mohamed El-Erian frequently says, the “only game in town.” For more on what the stronger dollar might mean for consumers, companies and the economy as a whole, you can listen to Josh Barro from the New York Times and I discuss the topic on this week’s Money Talking.

MONEY Travel

3 Reasons You Should Be Planning a Trip to Europe Right Now

Calle Barrera, Coruña city, Galicia, Spain
Lucas Vallecillos—age fotostock Calle Barrera, Coruña city, Galicia, Spain

A strong dollar abroad and expensive hotel rates at home are key reasons why you should be considering the grand European vacation this summer.

What a wonderful dilemma to have. The cheap price of gas helps make the financial argument for an all-American road trip this summer. And yet, the surging dollar and other factors listed below reveal that a peak-season vacation in Europe will be less expensive than it has been in years.

Is this the summer for you to see Europe? Here are three reasons why it should be—and why you should be booking the trip asap.

1. It’s actually possible to snag an affordable flight. The emergence of WOW Air and Norwegian Air, upstart low-fare airlines based in Iceland and (duh) Norway, respectively, has made a summertime trip to Europe more affordable for the masses. These airlines are known for advertising incredibly inexpensive fares—sometimes less than $100 each way across the Atlantic—and while you won’t find flights at such prices in the summer, the peak season airfares that are available are dirt cheap compared with mainstream carriers.

A few recent fare searches revealed that, for example, WOW Air flights from Washington, D.C., to Copenhagen in August were available one way for under $200, with all mandatory taxes and fees included. WOW Air flights from Boston to Reykjavik in early July were available starting at just $155. Meanwhile, we also spotted a round trip from Los Angeles to Copenhagen on Norwegian Air for a total of $825 in August, which is easily $200 cheaper than what other European carriers were charging for the same dates.

Not long ago, travelers assumed a summertime flight to Europe would cost at least $1,000, and probably a whole lot more. So the rock-bottom fares from these airlines certainly appear to be game changers. Still, before booking a flight with these or other airlines, check the fine print—with special attention paid to fees for baggage, seat selection, and such. Low-fare airlines like WOW, Norwegian, Spirit, and Ryanair are especially prone to charging for services that competitors provide for free. Factor all of this in when making decisions.

The dollar goes a long way in Europe. Back in January, we took note of how the euro fell to its lowest level against the dollar in nine years. At that point, one euro was equal to $1.19 in American currency. A look at the online XE Currency Converter shows that the dollar has only grown stronger of late, with one euro worth about $1.08. Hotel prices throughout Europe are down significantly compared with last year for American travelers, thanks to currency fluctuations among other factors. For that matter, virtually every on-the-ground expense—restaurants, wine, tours, souvenirs—in much of Europe will be substantially cheaper for Americans. Train tickets and flights purchased overseas should be less expensive too.

As the Los Angeles Times put it, compared to last summer, when one euro was equal to $1.37:

An American tourist strolling the streets of Paris this April can buy 25% more croissants, cafe au laits or mini Eiffel towers than a year ago with the same dollars.

Hotel rates in the U.S. are soaring. While travel expenses overseas have gotten more affordable for Americans, the reverse is true within our own borders. A Hotels.com study shows that the average hotel room in the U.S. sold for $137 in 2014, a 5% increase over 2013. American hotel rates are expected to rise another 5% to 6% this year.

Recent TripAdvisor data, on the other hand, shows that hotel rates in Europe are on the decline: Rooms booked on the site for the summer of 2015 are averaging $133, compared with $164 for last summer. According to TripAdvisor’s TripIndex, which factors in hotel and transportation costs, the price of a one-week vacation has dropped this year by 11% in 24 out of 25 European cities, when compared with the summer of 2014.

Point being, Europe is especially a bargain when you consider how pricey it’s gotten to vacation close to home.

TIME Money

See the Most Beautifully Designed Currencies From Around the World

From Costa Rica to Nepal, here is a selection of the most stunning bank notes in circulation

TIME politics

Exclusive: Read a 9-Year-Old’s Letter to Obama About Putting a Woman on U.S. Currency — and His Response

Image courtesy of Kim B., Sofia's mother Sofia, the girl who wrote to Obama asking him to put a woman on U.S. currency

"Why don’t women have coins or dollar bills with their faces on it?"

The little girl who asked Obama last year why there aren’t any women on U.S. bills has finally gotten a letter back from the President — and she’s invited to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.

President Obama made waves last year when he mentioned he had received a letter from a little girl asking him to put some women on U.S. currency, which he called a “pretty good idea.” That letter was from Sofia, a Massachusetts girl who was just finishing third grade at the time.

“I was studying Ann Hutchinson, who stood up for women’s rights,” she says. “Almost everyone who chose a boy, on their poster they had pictures of different dollar bills or coins with their person on it. So I noticed, why don’t women have coins or dollar bills with their faces on it?”

Sofia, now 9, knew immediately what she had to do. “I just came home from school and said, ‘I need to write to the president.’” Sofia’s mother provided her letter exclusively to TIME:

Kim B. (Sofia's mother)
Image courtesy of Kim B., Sofia’s mother

For a while, Sofia didn’t hear anything back from the President. She says she “sort of forgot about it” until her dad showed her the President had mentioned her letter in a speech. “I was really excited about it, because I thought that maybe it would actually happen,” she says.

In the months since Sofia wrote to Obama, a campaign to put a woman on the $20 bill has gone viral. The W20 movement is hosting an online poll so the public can vote on which woman should replace Andrew Jackson. The group plans to petition Obama and the Treasury Secretary to make it happen. Almost 220,000 people have voted in the online poll so far. And Sofia, who is now in fourth grade, is a junior ambassador for the campaign.

MORE 10 Countries That Put Women on Cash Before the U.S.

Even though she’s a longtime fan of Ann Hutchinson, Sofia wants to see Rosa Parks on the $20. “What she did was really important,” she says. “If it wasn’t for her, we’d still be segregated today.” She got her whole class to vote in the online poll, and her third grade teacher got her class to vote as well.

Last month, Sofia finally got a personalized letter back from the President, along with an invitation to attend this year’s White House Easter Egg Roll. Here’s what President Obama wrote to her:

Unknown-1
Image courtesy of Kim B., Sofia’s mother

“The women you listed and drew make up an impressive group,” Obama wrote. “And I must say you’re pretty impressive, too.”

“I’ll keep working to make sure you grow up in a country where women have the same opportunities as men, and I hope you’ll stay involved in issues that matter to you,” he continued. “If you keep focusing in school and trying to help others whenever you can, there are no limits to what you can accomplish.”

Sofia wants to be a teacher or a scientist when she grows up — after a younger friend was diagnosed with cancer, she decided she wants to study cures. But she also has some advice for other kids her age who want to make a difference. “Write a letter to somebody important,” she says, “because something could happen and it could actually change.”

Read next: The Campaign to Get a Woman on the $20 Bill Is Picking Up Steam

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com