Much like “Barbiecore” or having a TikTok, cryptocurrency is hard to avoid. These days, it’s the stuff of small talk at parties, targeted ads, splashy magazine features. It makes appearances in Top 40 pop songs. And no matter how far removed you are from the fin-tech space — professionally or personally — odds are, blockchain is still a recurring subject in your life.

That said, for something so widespread, crypto is not exactly an easy notion to comprehend. It requires a whole new vocabulary, along with a conceptual understanding of a financial system that operates unlike any of our more traditional modes of banking, or transacting. But here’s a secret: It’s not nearly as intimidating as it may seem from afar. In fact, all you’ll need in order to partake in the crypto convo is a bit of foundational knowledge to help you get started. “You don’t have to work in tech or finance to master crypto,” says Denelle Dixon, CEO and executive director at Stellar Development Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at making the financial world more accessible. “You just need some guidance to help you make informed decisions.”

That’s why we tapped Dixon for her expert intel when it comes to dipping your toes into the crypto space. And fortunately, she’s got all the answers you’ve been waiting for — be they about familiarizing yourself with blockchain technology via trusted platforms like PayPal, navigating different crypto coins, or fighting to make the crypto space more accessible at large. Your crypto-cation starts now.

Illustrations by Allie Sullberg

The Fundamentals Of Blockchain

To understand cryptocurrency, we have to first understand the concept of blockchain. Dixon says it helps to think of blockchain as a database that stores information. Remember checkbooks? When you write a check, you have a ledger where you (theoretically) write down all your transactions. A blockchain is similar to that ledger (albeit, a bit more modern): It records information from every transaction automatically. 

“When crypto transactions happen, there are a bunch of computers all over the world that actually verify that, Yes, this is a valid transaction,” Dixon says. “Those verifications create a blockchain record, like a ledger, as proof of the transaction. So when you put all those transactions together, you get a whole block of transactions. After a certain number of transactions, the block closes and another opens in order to create more space. And then another block opens. And they’re all synced together like a chain. So, in short, blockchain is just a block of transactions on a digital ledger that come together to create a whole chain of transactions. But here’s the best part: It’s an immutable record that can never change.”

Most cryptocurrencies use blockchain technology — and when you have an account on the blockchain, you’re the sole owner of that account. “You’re not required to go through a centralized authority like a bank in order to get there,” says Dixon, “which means blockchain has the potential to create accessibility that isn’t currently available in our financial system.” As she explains it, institutions like banks can make it near impossible for marginalized communities to set up accounts or save. Often, they’re “de-risked” out of the banking infrastructure, meaning banks find them too risky to bring on as clients. Unfortunately, blockchain still has a long way to go when it comes to solving this problem as, right now, any user’s typical onramp to blockchain (via crypto) requires a bank-friendly payment method — but crypto proponents like Dixon maintain the hope that, down the road, users will be able to operate as fully free agents when it comes to getting themselves established on blockchain.

Cryptocurrency Coins To Know

While there are plenty of cryptocurrencies out there, there are two that everyone should know before diving into the crypto market. Bitcoin, for example, is the most commonly referenced. “[Bitcoin is] the source and inspiration for basically all blockchain systems, created a decade ago by the anonymous ‘Satoshi Nakamoto,’” Dixon explains. “It’s a decentralized digital currency with its own market value that can be affected by trading and supply.”

You may also be familiar with a coin called “Ether” — short for Ethereum. “Ethereum is another big and well-known blockchain platform that has its own native cryptocurrency called Ether (ETH),” continues Dixon. “It’s similar in some ways to Bitcoin, but was built to become another Internet-style network that theoretically allows you to create any kind of decentralized application (dApps) inside the Ethereum network.” 

dApps are applications that run on blockchain technology, and like many other apps, allow you to play games, trade coins, or solve other problems. Individuals can build their own dApps on the Ethereum blockchain, but unlike a regular application (say, Facebook), the data isn’t centrally stored and controlled. It’s stored on the Ethereum blockchain, where each user has control over their own data and can interact with other users directly without going through an intermediary. ForkDelta, a crypto token exchange, and Magic Eden, an NFT marketplace, are two popular examples of dApps.  

Illustrations by Allie Sullberg

Where & How To Buy Crypto 

Crypto can be purchased through any secure cryptocurrency exchange — a platform that allows you to buy, sell, transfer, and check out with cryptocurrency. While it used to be more complicated to purchase crypto, platforms like PayPal have made it that much simpler to purchase a coin (or even a small part of a coin) for beginners.

If you have PayPal, you and, well, the platform’s millions of active users already have the first step down. You’ll start with a linked bank account or debit card. From there you can then buy, hold and sell Bitcoin, Ethereum, Bitcoin Cash and Litecoin directly in the PayPal app. You can even opt to pay with crypto while checking out for eligible purchases, which is converted to traditional currency at millions of online businesses.

Illustrations by Allie Sullberg

Finding Reliable Resources

Not every coin is worth buying, and not every so-called expert is trustworthy. As the crypto industry is gaining steam, scammers have been known to use the frenzy to their advantage. Case-in-point: The infamous ‘double your money’ scam whereby hackers pose as celebrities and make promises to double the amount of crypto sent to a specified wallet address (shockingly enough, the crypto is never returned).

Needless to say, it’s important to remain vigilant when influencers, celebrities, or, well, anyone you don’t know offers to multiply your crypto. And when it comes to vetting sources, Dixon says to do your own research while recognizing that the crypto market is very volatile. If you’ve never heard of a coin before, ask around before jumping in. 

“Education is key. Everyone’s situation is different, so how one goes about interacting with the crypto market depends on the individual. It’s reasonable to look at the history behind cryptocurrencies. Some have been around longer than others, so you have more history to look at,” she says. “Just like in other industries, users need to be careful and mindful of where and how they share their information.”

Along with due diligence, if you’re buying or selling crypto, Dixon says it’s important to take into consideration the fact that the market is extremely volatile — so there are no guaranteed returns, especially in the short term. Never spend what you would not be okay with losing, knowing that cryptocurrencies are not stable. 

Illustrations by Allie Sullberg

The Blockchain Beyond Coins

When it comes to using crypto, lack of representation is one of the barriers to women getting involved in the space,” she says. Fortunately, she says she’s encouraged by seeing more and more women leaders join the industry as well as women-focused crypto communities and organizations. She’s even got the numbers to prove it: “A recent survey we conducted in conjunction with Wirex found that more women are using crypto, with 32% of women in the general population surveyed reporting having owned crypto,” she says. And as she sees it, these numbers can only go up from here.

There’s still plenty of work to be done to create more accessibility in the crypto world, especially as most “players” must have a bank account or credit card. However, Dixon is motivated to be a part of that work alongside other industry leaders — and thoroughly optimistic about the future. 

Disclaimer: Buying and selling cryptocurrency is subject to a number of risks and may result in significant losses. PayPal does not make any recommendation regarding buying or selling cryptocurrency. Consider seeking advice from your financial and tax adviser.