You take a taxi in New York City and the driver tells you to “cough up $20.”
How do you respond?
Do you start coughing until $20 comes out of your mouth, or do you hand him a $20 bill from your wallet?
Chances are, you’ll give him the money from your wallet. He didn’t really want you to cough, after all. He just used a common idiom that means to give money.
Idioms are strange, and trying to understand them can drive you up the wall (that is, make you crazy) if you don’t learn them correctly.
If you haven’t already noticed, it’s common for English speakers to mention money in their conversations—even when we’re not actually talking about money! Read on for a list of 20 money-related idioms that are worth their weight in gold (are very valuable).
How to Learn English Idioms the Easy Way
Idioms make conversational English fun! Learning English idioms is a great way to improve your conversational skills and experience the colorful side of English.
If you try to directly translate idioms, you’ll only be further confused. That’s because idioms don’t make sense. They’re sayings that we use to express ourselves, but they have no real meaning outside of the context in which we use them–in other words, the words, sentences and meanings that surround them.
For example, if you say that you can do a back-flip and I reply by telling you to “put your money where your mouth is and do it,” I’m saying: “I don’t believe you. Prove it.” While it makes zero sense to actually put money in your mouth, we know the meaning of that expression through context.
The trick to learning idioms is to accept their meaning without thinking too much about it. It’s not important to understand why idioms mean what they do. Just learn the meaning and the context in which they’re used.
As you start hearing idioms more frequently and using them as well, they won’t seem as strange to you. One useful way to master idioms is by learning English through pop culture.
Idioms are frequently used in casual conversations and in music, which makes FluentU’s online language-learning program a great place to learn English idioms.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.Watch any of the many videos available, and use the annotated subtitles to catch any idioms used in a video. How many idioms can you spot?
Other resources to help you learn the meaning of idioms include:
- The Idioms: The largest online dictionary that covers only idioms. Learn a new English idiom by reading the idiom of the day or use the search bar to look up any idiom you want to learn.
- The Free Dictionary’s Idiom and Phrases Dictionary: Another online dictionary that has more than 60,000 English idioms from Britain, North America and other English-speaking countries.
- Idioms and Phrases Related to Money by Learn English with Let’s Talk: An 8-minute YouTube clip introducing some popular money-related idioms we like to use in English.
- 11 Phrasal Verbs for Talking About Money in English: An in-depth, 20-minute YouTube video covering 11 of the most-popular idioms and expressions related to money.
20 English Idioms About Money to Make You Rich… with Knowledge!
Here are 20 of the most common money-related idioms used in everyday English conversations. Learning how to use them correctly will help you become more fluent and learn a little bit more about English-speaking cultures.
1. To be born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth
Meaning: Someone who comes from a wealthy and successful family.
“John was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His parents bought him everything he wanted and sent him to the best private schools.”
2. To go from rags to riches
Meaning: To go from being poor to having a lot of money.
“Actor Jim Carrey went from rags to riches. At one time, he was living in a van, but he continued to work hard and eventually became one of the highest-paid comedians in the world.”
3. Pay an arm and a leg for something
Meaning: To pay a lot of money for something.
“The price of chocolate has doubled. I nearly paid an arm and a leg for a small candy bar.”
Similar idiom: To cost an arm and a leg.
“Chocolate costs an arm and a leg now.”
4. To have sticky fingers
Meaning: To be a thief.
“The manager fired the cashier because he had sticky fingers. He stole more than $200 in a month.”
5. To give a run for one’s money
Meaning: To compete with someone who’s as good as you.
“Joe really gave me a run for my money in the chess tournament. He almost beat me!”
6. To pony up
Meaning: To pay for something or settle a debt.
“Pony up and give me the $5 you owe me.”
“I told my roommate Jane to pony up her portion of the rent money.”
7. To ante up
Meaning: To pay someone (similar to “pony up”).
The expression ante up comes from the game of poker, where players bet their money before the cards are dealt. If this expression looks familiar, it’s because ante is also Latin for “before.”
Over time, the idiom has come to refer to any type of payment someone owes—not just in poker.
“You’d better ante up and give me that $10 I loaned you last week.”
It can also be used to refer to other services besides money that someone is owed.
Joe: “I’m tired of doing the housework by myself. You need to ante up or find a new roommate.”
Thomas: “I’m sorry. I’ll help more around the house.”
In this sentence, Joe uses ante up to mean that Thomas needs to start helping with the housework.
Similar idiom: To up the ante.
Meaning: To raise the stakes / to raise the bet.
In poker, when people up the ante, they bet more money than the person before them. This is used similarly in everyday conversation, when someone raises a bet or agrees to do more.
“Susan agreed to type up the group report, but Billy upped the ante when he said he’d type, print and deliver the report to Professor Stephens.”
“I wanted to place a $10 bet on the soccer match, but Daniel upped the ante and raised the bet to $50.”
8. To look like a million bucks
Meaning: To look happy and healthy.
“John looked like a million bucks when he left the hospital. You couldn’t even tell he was sick.”
9. To break even
Meaning: To neither gain nor lose money.
“The trip to the beach cost me $100, but I almost broke even after winning $90 in a contest.”
10. To break the bank
Meaning: To be very expensive.
“Taking a week-long vacation would break the bank. There’s no way I could afford to do it.”
11. To be closefisted
Meaning: Someone who doesn’t want to spend money. Similar to being stingy.
“Carl is so closefisted, he won’t even buy snacks for the Christmas party.”
12. To go Dutch
Meaning: Everyone pays for their own meal at a restaurant.
“We had a date last night and we went Dutch. I paid for my coffee and she paid for her salad.”
13. To shell out money / to fork over money
Meaning: To pay for something (usually expensive).
“I wish I didn’t buy that new car now that I’m shelling out $1000 a month in payments.”
“She had to fork over a lot of money for traffic fines last month.”
14. To have the Midas touch
Meaning: To be able to make money easily.
This idiom comes from the story of King Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold.
“Jane really has the Midas touch. Every business she starts becomes very successful.”
15. To be in the red
Meaning: To lose more money than you make.
“I’m in the red this month after paying that speeding ticket. I’ll need to find some work over the weekend for extra money.”
The opposite of being in the red is being in the black, which means that you’ve made more money than you spent.
“After working a couple of small jobs over the weekend, I earned an extra $500 and am back in the black.”
16. To receive a kickback
Meaning: To receive money illegally / to receive bribes.
“The police chief was arrested after the news reported he was receiving kickbacks from criminals to ignore certain crimes”
“The traffic cop receives kickbacks for not writing tickets to politicians.”
17. Living hand to mouth
Meaning: To live without a lot of money.
“The family has been living hand to mouth ever since their father lost his job.”
18. To be loaded
Meaning: To have a lot of money.
“Billy paid his Harvard Law School tuition with cash. His family is loaded.”
19. To make ends meet
Meaning: To make the money needed to pay for food and bills.
“I don’t make much from my job as a cashier, but I’m able to make ends meet. I always have enough money for rent and groceries.”
20. To be as genuine as a three-dollar bill
Meaning: An American idiom used sarcastically to mean that something is fake.
When something’s genuine, that means it’s real. But the United States never made three-dollar bills, which means that there’s no such thing as a genuine three-dollar bill.
For example, the Louvre Museum in Paris has the genuine Mona Lisa. If your school has a picture of the Mona Lisa hanging in the art room, it’s not genuine: It’s a copy. That means your school’s copy of the Mona Lisa is as genuine as a three-dollar bill.
“That man tried to sell me a Lamborghini from 1953. He said it was the first Lamborghini model ever made but the company didn’t exist until ten years later. His car was as genuine as a three-dollar bill.”
The next time you watch an English movie or television show, bring a notepad and write down any strange and funny expressions that you hear so you can look them up later. Chances are, they’re idioms.
And the more comfortable you get using idioms, the closer you get to reaching full English fluency.
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.