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Those frugal Germans

Peter Zudeick, JPNovember 26, 2012

No one tucks away their hard-earned euros quite like a German does. Swabians in particular are famously thrifty. In his third column, Peter Zudeick looks at German frugality.

geld einmachglas hand © PA #16432012
Image: Fotolia/PA

Let's start by making one thing clear: Germans might be thrifty, but they're not tight-fisted. Being stingy is the flip-side of being greedy, and never let that be said of Germans. Scots are supposed to be miserly, and some might say the French are too. It was Molière, after all, who wrote the classic play "The Miser." Being avaricious is going too far, whereas being thrifty means knowing when to stop.

Whatever else he might be, Germany's Mr. Average is very good at not spending money. He makes sure he squeezes the very last dollop of toothpaste out of the tube, and sometimes he'll even cut it in half with a pair of scissors so as not to waste anything. He teaches his children exactly how hard to press down on the liquid soap dispenser to avoid using up too much. He never leaves the lights on, he turns the shower tap off while he lathers his hair and he always uses his tea bags twice.

I'm not exaggerating.

My mother used to cut milk cartons in half to make sure there wasn't a drop left. 

Frugality is not just a German thing

Obviously, Germans don't have a monopoly on frugality. Even the Romans saw it as a virtue, and the Swiss are notoriously tight-fisted, allegedly, as are the Dutch. The difference is that Germans have a philosophical explanation for penny-pinching.

Milk cartons with a sign indicating that the price is even cheaper (ddp images/AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Billiger or cheaper is the watchwordImage: AP

"Frugality in all things is the reasonable behavior of an honorable person," wrote Immanuel Kant in his "Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals." In other words, parsimony is not only wise and sensible, it's also moral. As Martin Luther once said: "A penny saved is better than a penny earned."

Waste not want not

Austerity is said to be especially pronounced amongst Swabians - the hearty folk of south-western Germany. Take this well-known joke: Who invented copper wire? Two Swabians who bent over at the same time to pick up a penny!

You could make the same joke about the Scots, really. Funnily enough, the Swabians are often referred to as the German Scots. In fact, there's an old joke about the Scots originally being Swabians who were thrown out for being too loose with their money.

Bank notes rolled up and stuck in a multi plug © Sergej Toporkov #16464101
A penny saved is better than a penny earnedImage: fotolia/Sergej Toporkov

Quite humorous, really. In fact, Swabians are no more and no less frugal than Prussians, for instance. Or North Germans. Or Bavarians. All Germans share an innate abhorrence of wastefulness. Literally and metaphorically. There's something very un-German about wastefulness.