You’ve finally pulled it off! That ATM heist you’ve been planning for months was a success, and now you’ve just got to figure out where to stash the dough until the heat is off. That might take a while, though: After all, the ATM camera probably caught you; you may have left a muddy boot print or two; and you did “accidentally” shoot that guy, so if you get caught, you’re gonna end up in the slammer for a few years. Best to stash that money in a place where it will last the longest — but where is that?
In case you happen to find yourself in this exact situation, or if you’re just curious about some of your favorite money-stashing sequences on film, we reached out to Douglas Cobb, a paper scientist and forensic paper examiner, to tell us just how long cash might last in some of our favorite movie scenarios.
Buried in the Yard, Like in National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation
The backyard is the go-to spot for a lot of cash-hiding. You’ll occasionally find news reports of stashed money from a previous homeowner, and it also happens in a number of movies, like the cash Andy leaves Red in Shawshank Redemption (not a backyard per se, but it’s under a tree in a field, so same difference) and Cousin Eddie’s buried bread in Vegas Vacation. It’s the most obvious place to hide money, but it’s not necessarily the best: If you just dug a hole and tossed the money in without protection, Cobb says the money would become a food source for bugs and worms. “Money is made from 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen fibers — often called ragstock or rag paper — while most paper is made from cellulose fibers from trees,” Cobb explains, adding that those critters in the ground would make a pretty hearty meal out of that, so you might find the cash reduced to nothing with 10 or even five years.
If you put it in a suitcase, it’ll last much longer. How long depends upon what the case is made from — the more waterproof, the better. “Once money gets wet or moist, it will start to mold within as little as 200 days,” Cobb says. So, if you pick the right suitcase that’s fairly guarded from moisture, Cobb says it could last “a few decades.”
Buried in the Snow, Like in Fargo
Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter in Fargo isn’t the brightest of criminals, which is why — spoiler alert — he ends up in a wood chipper long before he can retrieve his hidden cash. His choice of hiding spot for his money is also far from ideal. As Cobb explains, “The biggest issue here is that the money wasn’t in anything other than in the briefcase, which was the type that simply had two hinged halves that closed over each other and didn’t seal water out of it. Because of this, the moisture would almost immediately begin to work its way into the paper.”
As long as the snow is there, Cobb says that “not a lot of degradation will happen” because it’s frozen. Come springtime however, the snow in Minnesota — where the movie takes place — will melt, soaking the cash. Now, money is designed to get wet, which is why if you accidentally wash the cash in your pocket, the money survives. “Money contains a lot of ‘wet strength,’ a chemical that’s added during the manufacture of the paper,” Cobb says. “Wet strength adds strength to paper when it’s exposed to water and moisture.” The fact that it’s made of cotton and linen — and not typical paper — is also part of the reason it’ll last, and Cobb adds that cash is also “pressed under thousands of pounds of pressure, which further strengthens the bonding, and adds that crispness to new money.”
Still, “wet strength” won’t protect Buscemi’s stash forever, as Cobb notes, “the degradation process will accelerate as soon as the weather warms up, and since the money is bound in stacks, the outer bills will decay much faster, while the inner bills will be somewhat protected. The money will remain moist or wet for a long time, even if not sitting in water, and it will continue to degrade.” He expects that within a few years, those outer bills won’t be salvageable, but the inner bills may last a few decades thanks to less moisture and less exposure to mold spores in the air.
Fortunately, this movie cash did not go to waste. As depicted in the Fargo TV series, it was recovered the same year — 1987 — by Stavros Milos, who uses the cash to become the “Supermarket King of Minnesota.”
Stashed in the Walls, Like in Triple Frontier
The Ben Affleck action flick Triple Frontier may suffer from that movie-of-the-week feel that many Netflix original films have, but it does have a pretty awesome scene where the main characters discover the hidden stash from a South American crime boss. While this has no other protection aside from the walls themselves, Cobb says that if it stays dry, it could last over 100 years — perhaps even 150 years — which he’s seen in many cases in his work. “It will probably fade some and get brittle,” Cobb says, but of all the scenarios depicted here, it’s probably your best bet, assuming it stays dry, you don’t have mice and you’re handy with installing some new drywall. So at least we got something worthwhile out of this movie!
Hidden in a Fridge Door, Like in El Camino
After driving off at the end of Breaking Bad, we learn in El Camino that Jesse eventually heads to the apartment of Todd, his white-supremacist captor, who once alluded to some hidden money in the apartment. After tearing the place apart in a desperate search for cash, Pinkman finds it by accident in the door of a refrigerator. In there, Cobb says the money would get exposed to moisture and mold, the latter of which will be especially bad if there’s still food in the fridge. Overall though, Cobb says that a fridge isn’t bad for a storage unit, and the cash may last a few decades.
Lining the Walls of a Banana Stand, Like in Arrested Development
Michael Bluth only found out that there was hidden money in the walls of the banana stand after he burned it to the ground, despite years of being told “there’s always money in the banana stand” by his father. Had he not torched the stand, Cobb says, the thin, shed-like walls of the banana stand — along with the mild California climate where it was located — would shield it from the elements fairly well, including the moisture from the sea (as it was on the boardwalk). Overall, Cobb says that this non-taxable Bluth income could have lasted a good 60 to 100 years, so while there couldn’t “always” be money in the banana stand, close to a century is pretty good — especially since that just might be how long you’d go to jail for after pulling off that ATM heist in the first place.