Auslaenderin in Berlin: Saving-itis
Our correspondent explores why Germans won’t open their wallets in a two-part series.
One thing that invariably happens when you move abroad is that you take on some new habits, those of your adopted country. In my case, as an American in Germany, that has usually meant using one slice of bread for a sandwich, riding to work on a bicycle, reusing shopping bags and yes – saving money.
I confess: I have always been a profligate spender. I was – WAS − the quintessential American: living in debt, spending as if there were no tomorrow, no reckoning. We as a nation are always optimistic that somehow, it will all work out, the next paycheck will come, the books will someday get balanced. If not, well, it was fun while it lasted.
The time of reckoning has come – as we all witnessed. Wall Street collapsed; thousands of jobs were cut worldwide; and entire nations, Iceland, for example, whose government resigned over the crisis, are imploding. So I can say that I am now one of those ‘reformed’ Americans who in these troubled times has learned from the inveterately pessimistic Germans I live among that yes, the sky can fall.
That cynical outlook is the reason why − to the chagrin of many retailers − this is a famously thrifty nation with average household savings rates of around 10 percent in the past decade. Everyone who can save does, it seems. Discounters do better than any other retailers here: I have been repeatedly told that Germans can teach the bargain-loving, coupon-clipping Americans (whose rate of savings is less than half that of the Germans) a thing or two.
In my opinion, Germans are not the most pessimistic people on this continent (I lived in Poland once and became familiar with the dark Slavic soul) but one learns after living in Europe for a while that history, and a truly dark one at that, is very much a part of the present. In fact, there are constant reminders of the dire conditions after World War II, and the brutality and poverty under the Communist regimes of the former Soviet Bloc.
So it’s no wonder that people crave security in case those desolate times return. We Americans have been fairly lucky. The Great Depression is firmly history and wars rarely touch us so close to home. We have struggled through rather short recessions in the past few decades. But the financial crisis facing us, well, few average Americans really understand the enormity of it, despite being repeatedly told of the impending doom. We’ll get over it, that’s what always happens, Americans think, their optimism reasserting itself; things will be all right.
Maybe so. But living in Germany has definitely made me more skittish about the future. That is probably in part because of the high (double-digit) unemployment rate in the city I live in, Berlin, which feels unnatural to an American. Also, it is in the nature of the German labour market itself, rigid, sluggish and with a high proportion of freelancers – something very unfamiliar to anyone from the US.
It could be that I just became a bit infected with pessimism from living in Germany. Still, I am glad to say that this habit of ‘underspending’ has somewhat rubbed off on me. That quality might just save this country from the worst of the financial crisis that has hit other more frivolous spenders such as the US, Britain and Greece so hard. And regardless, even if everything turns out okay, as I believe it eventually will (I can’t help it), there is nothing wrong with having money in the bank.
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