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What Does "Break the Bank" Mean?

By Larry Ray Palmer
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Break the bank" is a slang term that means something costs too much money or exceeds the budget. This idiom has its origins in casino gambling as a reference to occasions when the casino bank does not have the cash to cover winning bets. In common usage, the phrase is often used as a way of saying that a service or product is too expensive.

When the phrase is used in everyday speech, someone might say something like, "Purchasing that car would break the bank," or a similar variation. In the majority of cases, the term is used in a derogatory manner to describe overpriced and expensive products. The phrase may also be used to warn others of impending costs or monetary loss on an acquisition, or even to suggest that a price for goods is reasonable, and won't break the bank.

While the phrase is commonly believed to originate with casino gambling, there are other suggestions for where it started. Some obscure references point to the practice of storing money in ceramic banks, often called piggy banks. Early piggy banks did not have the removable plugs, so the only way for people to retrieve their savings was to break the piggy bank. The individual's money often remained in the bank, therefore, until times of unusual need. During times of economic hardship or unexpected expenses, these banks were often destroyed to retrieve the money. If one had broken the bank before times of need had truly arrived, the individual might not have enough money to carry him or her through a time of emergency.

Break the Bank was also the name of a 1948 game show. The original version was hosted by Bert Parks and aired in 30-minute segments. The show saw later incarnations and revival of the phrase in 1976, 1985, and during the early 2000s. In these quiz-style game shows, contestants answered questions for a chance to win money and were permitted to wager their earned winnings against a chance to win the larger prize by breaking the bank. During the time the show ran, no contestant ever broke the $250,000 US Dollar (USD) bank, and the closest contender was a dentist named Harry Duncan, who won $60,000 USD.

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