Life and Customs: Germany versus Sweden

Expats living in Europe have a unique opportunity to travel and visit interesting places in many countries. Traveling from Berlin to Stockholm, for instance, is only a 75-minute jet flight – about the same time as flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the USA. If you’re an expat who hasn’t been taking advantage of this, it’s time to start!

Recently, I had a chance to compare some of the customs and practices in Germany and Sweden. I was surprised by some of the differences, but I have written about similar differences before in “Comparing Germany and France and…” Here are a few interesting and practical cultural comparisons between Germany and Sweden.

Living as an expat in Germany or Austria, it can be easy to forget that the EU does not equal the euro. Most of the time it does, but as soon as you venture off to Scandinavia, the UK or eastern Europe, you are reminded that there are still ten European Union member nations (out of 28) that do not use the euro.[1] You are transported back to a time when travelers in Europe had to exchange money at the border when entering another country – back to the days of French francs, Spanish pesetas, Italian lira, and German marks. (Prior to the Schengen Agreement of 1995, travelers also had to get their passports checked and stamped.) Traveling from Germany to Denmark, for instance, means exchanging euros for Danish kroner (DKK, 1 krone = €0.13 or $0.14). If you head to Switzerland (not an EU member), you’ll need to use Swiss francs (CHF).

Stockholm harbor

Stockholm’s busy harbor is also a scenic tourist attraction. PHOTO: H. Flippo

Much of today’s money exchange problem is solved by another recent development: the wide use of credit cards, especially in Scandinavia. Need to pay for a taxi? The driver grabs his portable credit card reader and wirelessly processes your card. Any shop, grocery store or restaurant will gladly accept your credit card for payment.[2] Continue reading

Germany’s Cash Culture: “Geld stinkt nicht”

In Germany, Cash is King

North Americans are often frustrated by the lack of credit card acceptance in Germany. Americans and Canadians, so used to paying with plastic, are dismayed to discover that once they stray from the tourist circuit, their AmEx, MasterCard, or Visa credit cards are often useless in German-speaking Europe. It’s another cultural difference, and it’s not a minor one. You need to wrap your head around the fact that cash is king in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. As the Germans say, “Geld stinkt nicht.” (“There’s nothing wrong with money.” lit., “Money doesn’t stink.”)

Euro banknotes

Euro banknotes range from five to 500 euros. Notice that, unlike US bills, euro banknotes also vary in size. PHOTO: ECB

The Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, recently estimated that 79 percent of financial transactions in Germany are settled in cash, while in Britain and the USA that figure is under 50 percent. A typical German walks around with the equivalent of about $123 in cash in their wallet, nearly twice as much as Australians, Americans, the French or the Dutch typically carry. There is little talk of a “cashless society” in German-speaking Europe.

Many people have searched for an answer to why Germans (and the Swiss and Austrians) are so much more in love with cash (Bargeld) than most other nationalities. The use of cash for most transactions seems to be deeply ingrained in the German psyche. Children grow up in Germany’s cash culture, and as adults they think nothing of paying a bill of 500 euros or more with paper money. And they can do that with a single banknote, the 500-euro bill that was created as a concession to Germany to ease the pain of giving up the Deutsche Mark (DM). The 500-euro note, worth about $570 today, replaced the popular 1000-DM bill. Switzerland still has its 1000-franc (CHF) banknote, the largest denomination bill in the world, and today worth just a little over 1000 US dollars. We’ll discuss more aspects of these giant banknotes below.

Possible reasons for the German passion for cash vary from the German love of privacy and anonymity to the historic encounters with hyperinflation in the Weimar era, and after World War II. Germans also claim that by using cash, they are better able to keep track of their finances and avoid debt. (The German love of using cash is countered by an intense hate for debt.) Other observers claim cash offers a good way for Germans to avoid taxes with off-the-books cash transactions. Continue reading

10 Ways That Europe is Different from the USA

First, let me tell you about the inspiration for today’s blog post.

Recently a friend suggested that I read what turned out to be a rather disheartening rant published by an online expat website. (The names shall remain anonymous in order to protect the guilty.) The writer, an American lady, was complaining about her life in Germany, a lament brought on by a recent visit to her local Apotheke (pharmacy). She was whining about the fact that she had to take the extra time and trouble to consult with a German pharmacist (in German of all things) in order to obtain a medication that she could have bought over the counter in the US.

Bikes and pedestrians

Germans and other Europeans walk and ride bikes more often than Americans.
PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Several people left comments pointing out that the German system actually provided the benefit of helpful, professional advice that would have required a visit to the doctor in the US. True, you can’t just go to a supermarket and buy a bottle of aspirin in Germany, but you can go to your local Apotheke and get sound advice about which pain reliever would be best for your situation. While living or traveling in Germany and Austria, I have made several trips to the pharmacist to get help with a medical problem. In every case, the pharmacist either provided a good solution or, in one case, told me to see a physician. (What I thought was a sprained finger turned out to be a broken one.) Continue reading

Essential Oils and German Sales

For a while now, I have been using essential oils around the house in place of OTC remedies. I got into them through my sister in the US, who was selling them as a sort of side venture. She teaches yoga as her main job. After talking about the oils to all and sundry, and having friends and strangers ask me how they could get them, I decided that I might as well try to make a bit of money to cover my oil “habit.” I have had some success, but I have also learned a lot about how Germans view money, sales, and commitments over the past few months.

I had assumed it would be really easy to get the oils business moving here. People are very open to alternative, natural treatments. My regular GP often offers me homeopathic and plant-based remedies before she gives me the “real” drugs. And it is true, most Germans that I know are very interested in essential oils, especially when they see how well they are working for us. When my older girls had issues with ADD and concentration years ago here in Germany, the therapist (and psychiatrist) quickly offered them various versions of ritalin, which surprised me. We were sort of desparate at the time, but the medicine was not a great choice for either of them. Now we are battling those issues with an oil mixture. I have had huge problems with sleeping in the past year or two. In Ireland the first thing they did was offer me sleeping pills. Here we tried all sorts of other approaches first. When it all failed, I finally was able to get a prescription for Ambien, but only if I promised to take it no more than once a week. I get it. I don’t want to fill my body with chemicals and I certainly don’t want to do the same with my kids. So I am trying something else. And I was never a believer in the homeopathic remedies, for example.  Continue reading

ATMs in Germany: Chips versus Magstripes

Although we take them very much for granted today, automated cash-dispensing machines have only been common since the late 1970s. Banks introduced the devices first in Europe, then in North America and elsewhere. Today there are an estimated 2 to 3 million ATMs in service around the world, with about 60,000 of them in Germany and 350,000 or so in Western Europe.

The German term for ATM is Geldautomat, but the Austrians and the German Swiss prefer Bancomat/Bankomat. Even in the English-speaking world there are several different expressions for automated teller machines: ATM, ABM (automatic bank machine, Canada), bank machine, cash machine, Cashpoint (actually a trademark), and hole in the wall (UK). ATMs have pretty much eliminated old-fashioned traveler’s checks. Remember those? Continue reading

Credit card differences

I was planning to write today about the problems sometimes encountered by Americans when they try to use their US credit card in Europe. As fortune would have it, I experienced exactly the reverse yesterday: Trying to use a German card in the US.

I was helping a German friend who is visiting us in the US use his credit card at a gas station. He inserted the German Deutsche Bank MasterCard into the gas pump. First he had to choose credit or debit. It’s a credit card, so he chose credit. Then a message appeared that I’ve seen a lot at gas pumps during my US travels lately: “Please enter your ZIP code.” Well, a German Postleitzahl is the same length as a US ZIP code, so he tried that. “Please see the clerk” was the machine’s response. We tried debit also, but it wanted a PIN that didn’t work. So it was off to see the clerk.

We were able to get the German card accepted with the clerk handling the transaction (and showing a German ID), but we had to guess how much gas we needed. If it was less than that amount, we would have to return to have the clerk enter a refund of the difference. Luckily, we guessed about right and did not have to do that. But the entire experience was a hassle caused by the differences in the way US and German credit cards function.

Basically, American credit cards are out of date (überholt in German). Continue reading

German banking (and credit cards) for beginners

When I was traveling in France recently, I rediscovered some of the differences among the European countries in the area of banking and credit card use. Credit cards are more common in France than in Germany (but not as common as in the US), and the French still write personal checks, just like in the US, but very unlike in Germany.

EC card

A German EC/Maestro bank card is like an American bank debit card.
PHOTO: Volksbank Raiffeisenbank Würzburg

Expats in Germany already know that Germans just don’t use checks. A check drawn on a US bank account is virtually useless in Germany. It takes a lot of effort, a German bank account, and some financial savy to cash or even just deposit a US check at a German bank. The German equivalent of a personal check is called eine Geldüberweisung (“money transfer”), but these days you rarely see the paper variety. Usually, you handle an Überweisung by computer, transferring funds from your German bank account to someone else’s account. Continue reading