The tax man’s taken all my dough.
He does this every month without so much as a by your leave and then every quarter he also sends me a bill for my freelance work. He’s only doing his job I suppose — although why he had to do it on my birthday I don’t know. I transfer the money and now I am stoney broke.
I’ve had a good innings. The holidays have been and gone. Our travels together are almost — but not quite — at an end. My bus ticket is paid for the next six months, my football ticket is paid for the season. The immigration authorities have had their money for my application, the translator is tucking in to his pound of flesh.
There is nothing left to pay for and I have nothing left to pay with. To paraphrase a German saying, I have month left over at the end of the money.
This happens to millions of Germans. It happens to millions of British people too, but not all at once like it does here. Unlike in the UK, everybody gets paid at the same time — when the month is in its late twenties or early thirties. A few days from now, the queues for the cash machines will be stretching round the block.
In the meantime, I will survive. I have a full fridge, some lunch money and more clothes than I can wear in one lifetime, provided I don’t get fatter. There is nothing else that I wish to buy.
Germany is a microeconomist’s paradise. You can live like a king here for what in Britain would be considered miniscule amounts of money, provided that — like me — you’ve had enough practice.
Necessity is the mother of invention: Payday loans are not a feature of German life. Pawnbrokers can be found in every town and yes, they accept gold teeth but — according to my former neighbour — they charge extortionate rates. As such it helps to pick up a few tips to maximise income and minimise expenses when cash flow hits the tightest bend in the river.
The first piece of advice is also applicable in the UK. Search washing machines, backs of sofas and pockets. All euro notes are machine washable and will also survive a turn in the tumble drier.
Failing that, there is usually a small fortune to be had lying around the house in the form of bottle deposits. It takes a little time to understand the complexity of the deposit system, for it encompasses far more than simple bottles — but it is well worth the effort. Vast riches await those who persevere.
Aluminium drinks cans are the most prized find. Every canned soft drink you buy here comes with a whopping 25 cent refund when you give the can back. Most plastic bottles are in the same price bracket and as Germans tend to prefer bottled water over tap water, the amount of unexploited wealth sitting around German households easily tops the amount that the British have locked up in round pounds and old penny farthings.
Next on the list come yoghurt pots (glass only) and swing-top bottles — both of which will fetch you fifteen cents a time. If you bought these items in crates then the crates also come with a cashback guarantee. Finally, standard beer bottles can be redeemed at eight cents each.
Even the most well-to-do of Germans will take time out of their busy schedules in order to exchange cans for cash. Thus, having checked around the house you should also check the footwells of cars and in bags and rucksacks for any containers you may have forgotten in the rush.
If times get really tough, you can go out into the streets and collect bottles from other people. There are a lot of them about. If there is really no possibility to reclaim your deposit money then it is completely acceptable, encouraged even, to leave your can of bottle on a fence or at the side of the street so that somebody else can have it. At concerts and football matches a highly competitive cottage industry has grown up as a result.
I will not be out collecting bottles, although I will pack the ones in the house into bin bags and lug them up the street to the shop tomorrow. I will go early because at this time of the month the queues for the machines where you feed in your bottles are longer than the queues at the checkouts.
It will be one of the discount supermarkets. This has nothing to do with my precarious financial position and everything to do with it being the closest one. There is no stigma about using cheap supermarkets in Germany and they have become leaders in their field as a result. Top-end places like Rewe and Edeka are used only by people looking for specialist items or who do not live close enough to a Lidl or Aldi. In Herne we do not have that problem.
There is also no stigma about using no-name products. I actually teach a guy who worked in the laboratories for a well-known name in the world of washing powder who assures me that the only difference between the posh stuff and the cheap alternative is that they put coloured granules in the expensive variety. When I passed this information on to others I found out that almost everybody knows this.
If anything, using brand name products from supermarkets will attract snide comments about having too much money. An ex-girlfriend of mine used to put the rubbish out at midnight because she did not want the neighbours to know that she used the expensive binbags. She was right to do so. German housewives are world class gossips and can ruin reputations just as surely as can the tabloid press.
Excessive use of brand names is considered wasteful and uncool — and could see you driven out of town once word gets out.
There is one exception to the “no brand names” rule. Relative to income, Germany has some of the most reasonable alcohol prices in the world and thus it is seen as bad form to skimp in any way. Germany has few national beer brands but a standard half litre bottle of pilsener from a recognised local brewery should cost around seventy cents.
Cheaper variants are available and are, as with the washing powder, essentially the same product as the stuff in the Becks bottles. At my local supermarket the budget brew of choice is called 4.9, a reference to its alcohol content, and comes in a plain black can which costs, I think, around 30 cents plus deposit. You will be regarded as a pauper if you buy it. People do, but they seldom pay with a note. While Aldi and Lidl get a good name for wine, you must never ever buy beer from there.
Wine is actually a slightly different matter. A decent bottle should set you back about half as much as it would in the UK but because few people know the cost or can tell a good one from a bad one, corners can be cut. The only rule is that it should come out of a bottle and not out of a carton. My default Merlot costs four euros a litre, although it is often on sale for €2.22. On such days I like to get to the supermarket for opening time to beat the queues.
Amongst the young at least, significant economies can be made on spirits without any feeling of social disgrace. The Wild Man once gave his sixteen year-old son ten euros to get himself a couple of beers having passed a school examination. Several hours later when the call came from the police station both he and I were subtly reminded just how much vodka ten euros can buy.
As my last birthday was my fortieth, I have left my five-euro vodka days behind me. I am a whisky lover these days, a collector of fine single malts, for the sake of appearances at least. I am actually no great lover of spirits but I have quite an impressive collection thanks to the sponsors at my Burns’ events. As elsewhere in the world, the largesse of others can be a welcome way to keep up appearances at those times when your piggy bank starts eyeing you up suspiciously.
I was going to have a glass of limited edition 27 year-old Bowmore on my birthday, a gift from a grateful customer a few years back. Price unknown; free to those who are in the know, very expensive to those who are not. In the end I passed. I had been out to a bar with a friend, had three beers for a total cost of ten euros and when I got home I was too tired to bother. It seems that one of the best ways to make economies is simply to get older.
At the weekend, myself and a friend from football are going to have a joint birthday party. We have a brass farthing each and we intend to rub them together. He is looking through the supermarket catalogues for special offers on beer and we will buy as much as his car will carry. It will be like the feeding of the five thousand, except that everybody will be drunk.
He also wants to get some five-euro vodka but I have put my foot down.
We are men of refined tastes after all –connoisseurs of Beck’s beer and other people’s whisky. We must also think not only of today but of tomorrow. Tempting though it is to make hay while the sun shines, I remind my friend that the vodka bottles come without deposits.