‘Break The Bank’: Definition, Meaning and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on July 12, 2023

Did someone say ‘break the bank,’ and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll take a look at the meaning, origin, examples, and more.

‘Break the bank’ has three meanings that are all related to one another.

They are:

  • To win so much money gambling that it’s more than the house has to pay out
  • To completely bleed one’s finances dry
  • To be exorbitantly expensive or very expensive

What Does ‘Break The Bank’ Mean?

The idiom ‘break the bank’ has three related meanings, which are:

  • To win all of the money that is available to be paid, such as at a casino
  • To exhaust one’s financial resources
  • To be too expensive or very expensive

In the first sense, to ‘break the bank’ is a gambling term. This occurs when a player wins a vast sum of money at a casino. The literal interpretation of the phrase means that the player wins more money than the house actually has on hand, but this is a very rare scenario indeed.

In gambling, the same phrase can also be used to describe a situation where a person wins more chips than there are at the table. In some fictional portrayals, a gambler will sometimes be portrayed as winning more money than the casino has in total, leaving them in a situation where they win the casino itself as the prize.

Looking at the second and third meanings, this phrase can be used in common speech to describe running out of money or something being too expensive. For example, you could say that you want to buy a car that isn’t going to “break the bank” or express that taking a vacation “nearly broke the bank.”

Where Does ‘Break The Bank’ Come From?

According to some sources, “break the bank” dates back to about the year 1600. It was, in its origin, a gambling term.

The idea is that when gamblers won more money than the house had to pay, it “broke” the house (aka the bank).

Other sources say that the phrase isn’t actually quite that old, dating back to 1873. The story is that an Englishman named Joseph Jagger won $350k playing roulette at the Casino de Monte Carlo. For the record, this would have been nearly 9 million dollars in today’s money.

The Use of the Idiom in Historical Texts

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that ‘break the bank’ has been used since the early 1800s. This pushes back on the notion that the phrase didn’t originate until Jagger ‘broke the bank’ in the late 1800s.

In A Digest of the Evidence on The Bank Chapter Taken Before the Committee of 1832, we find the phrase used in relation to the Bank of England:

“The Bank of England would do the same. Then men could not raise money, nor bring goods, nor ship them; the great bill-payer on the exchange would find a scarcity, and he would lie back. The whole machine of commerce would stand still. I do not think that any combination of persons can break the Bank. Suppose they take out a million or two, the Bank loses nothing, but they who draw out do it at a loss.”

Household Words by Charles Dickens from 1852 also uses the phrase a number of times:

“Still more unfortunately, as the event will show, I won– won prodigiously; won incredibly; won at such a rate, that the regular players at the table crowded round me; and staring at my stakes with hungry, superstitious eyes, whispered to one another, that the English stranger was going to break the bank.”

Examples of ‘Break The Bank’ In Sentences

How would ‘break the bank’ be used in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • “John went out and broke the bank buying a brand new car after he lost his job.”
  • “Paying for daycare is breaking the bank– we’re going to move closer to my family so my parents can help out with the kids.”
  • “Suzie is out there spending money like she’s a famous actress or something. I saw her with a whole new designer outfit that must have broken the bank the other day.”
  • “Are there any clothes in this mall that won’t totally break the bank? I’m going to start shopping at thrift stores.”
  • “Whenever Jim goes to the casino, he boasts that he’s going to break the bank. When he comes home, he never wants to talk about how it went.”
  • “I love traveling, but hotel fares really break the bank. I’ve started taking more day trips to save money.”
  • “All that jewelry you bought your wife must have broken the bank. It looks like she’s wearing a million bucks in diamonds.”
  • Everyone says I was stupid to buy these new shoes, but they were on sale. You could hardly say it broke the bank.”
  • Moving forward, we’re going to make a budget and stick to it. All of these little expenses are starting to break the bank.”

Other Ways to Say ‘Break The Bank’

What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to ‘break the bank’? Here are some options:

  • Cost an arm and a leg
  • Burn a hole in your pocket
  • Bleed you dry
  • Empty your wallet

Final Thoughts About ‘Break The Bank’

‘Break the bank’ is an English idiom that has three related meanings:

  • To win so much at a casino that you are owed more than the house has
  • To be financially ruined
  • To be very expensive or too expensive

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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