Bicultural Urbanite Luke
The Prudent Life
One of the constitutional shifts I’ve noticed in myself over the years of living in Germany has to do with my attitude towards resources. A holistic German attitude towards material supplies—one that involves striving to use only what you need and making the most of what you’ve got. The prudent life.
By Luke Troynar
When you live in Germany as a foreigner for long enough, you unwittingly start picking up all kinds of cultural habits. There's the little things, like invariably choosing sparkling water over still, carrying a sizeable amount of cash with you at all times, or bidding farewell to strangers in elevators with a jovial “tschüss!” after standing in silence the whole way up (that one still weirds me out though).
A gradual transformationAnd then there’s the subtler, yet more fundamental changes to your way of life; those which ever so gradually transform your perspective on the bigger picture. One of the more positive of these constitutional shifts I’ve noticed in myself over the years has to do with my attitude towards resources. Namely, my adoption of a much more frugal approach to the art of living that seems to be something of a German convention, especially in Berlin.
Of course, when it comes to money, “the more you make, the more you spend” maxim still applies in Germany’s capital, just like in any other city of the Western world. And yes, there’s certainly an ‘elite’ syndicate of lux-life prima donnas scattered about various lux-life pockets of the city determined to flaunt their social status with all the usual kinds of exorbitant lifestyle choices.
But these big spenders are more the exception than the rule in Berlin; and in any case, the cultural practice I’m referring to isn’t exclusively about money (although the dough certainly plays a big part in it). What I’m talking about is more of an underlying, holistic attitude of German people towards material supplies—one that involves striving to use only what you need and making the most of what you’ve got. The prudent life.
The need to carry cashIn fact, this fundamental quality is evident in some of those little things I mentioned earlier. The need to carry cash at all times, for instance—due to a lack of card payment options around Berlin—while irksome as a consumer in 2019, has the blessed offshoot of forcing you to keep track of your spending rather carefully. Similarly, the comically fussy splitting of restaurant bills among friends in Berlin is another hallmark of this attitude, as is the relative preference for public transport and bike-riding over driving cars—or even just walking instead if the destination isn’t too far.
When compared to Australia, home of the multi-Land Rover-owning family who love driving two blocks to fetch a carton of milk and are all about upsizing, this kind of careful utilisation of resources can seem overly thrifty. The same could be said for the way Berliners eat out at restaurants; reasonably, often just ordering one main course in the name of getting satt (adequately full), as opposed to the kind of full-blown epicurean gorging of multiple appetisers, elaborate deserts, and lavish drinking that occurs whenever I go out dining with friends in Melbourne.
A credit-free lifestyleProbably most telling of all, however, is the Germans’ notoriously credit-free lifestyle. While many Melbournians I know living on attractive salaries use credit cards liberally, often incurring sizeable debts despite ample Aussie earnings, in Berlin I’ve personally never had a German friend who could even comprehend the point of getting a credit card—even if they earn considerably less. For most Germans, you see, the idea of spending money that you don’t have simply doesn’t compute. It doesn’t fit with their whole ‘economy of life’, which seems to implicitly condemn the notion of excess.
On the whole, this stance is one I understand as sensible moderation and perhaps even a kind of utilitarian idealism. It’s something that I’ve come to admire in contrast to what I now see as Australia’s more religiously neoliberal mindset of ‘more is more’ (and more than that is even better!). I can definitely still feel the lux-life Aussie lurking somewhere inside me, biding his time and yearning for the thrill of Dionysian excess and reckless spending sprees. But for the most part, I’ve become accustomed to the modest joys and the merits of the prudent life.