Clothespins

“The air dries my clothes for free!”

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“The air dries my clothes for free!” One of the students in the first English class I taught in Berlin said this to me as we were walking to the train station after class one evening. She was telling me about an American exchange student she had hosted that year. In short, it didn’t work out, and the student moved out halfway through the year. It seemed their differences were primarily cultural misunderstandings due to different values and priorities. Apparently the exchange student wanted to use an electric blanket at night and wanted to dry her clothes in the dryer so her pants wouldn’t be “crunchy”. In most German households, they don’t use dryers. Many households don’t even own one. As my student so practically reasoned, “Why would I use the dryer? The air dries my clothes for free!”. This sentiment embodies the practicality and frugality that is so characteristic of the German culture. Why spend money on something when you don’t have to? Living in Germany, I quickly learned the phrase deutsche Sparsamkeit (German frugality). The word Sparsamkeit and the adjectival form sparsam come up frequently in everyday conversation. Sometimes in English the word frugal can have a somewhat negative connotation (especially when taken to an extreme). In contrast, sparsam is not seen as negative at all. To be sparsam is to be money-conscious, but in a practical sort of way. Germans certainly enjoy their money. In fact, most take at least one significant vacation per year. I get the feeling they know when indulge themselves within reason. It also seems they prioritize their spending on what really matters to them, and they’re able to do this because of a lot of small actions that are deeply embedded in their culture.

There’s ample evidence of their Sparsamkeit around the house, especially when it comes to saving electricity. Going back to the clothes-drying example, almost all German families I know hang-dry their clothes. In the summer they hang them up on a clothesline in the backyard or on the balcony, which helps the clothes dry much faster. Since we didn’t have enough space on our balcony when we had one in Berlin, we bought a drying rack from IKEA for about 10 euros, which we used inside the apartment throughout the year. According to the California Energy Commission, drying a load of laundry costs between 32 and 41 cents[1]. My husband and I do laundry on average once a week, but when I was growing up in a family of four, we probably did laundry about three times per week. Hang-drying three loads of laundry per week could save you around $57 per year. Obviously you won’t get rich from an extra $57 per year, but this combined with a lot of other small actions could end up saving you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars each year.

There are plenty more opportunities around the house to save energy and therefore cut down on the electric bill. For example, the refrigerators and freezers in Germany aren’t nearly as cold as they are in the US. When we moved back to the states, we stayed with my dad for two weeks while we looked for an apartment, and we couldn’t believe how cold he had his refrigerator set! One morning we came across a few eggs that had frozen because the refrigerator was so cold! Now, we keep our refrigerator at the warmest setting. Our food doesn’t go bad any faster, and it’s one more way to keep our living costs down.

It’s well worth pointing out that most German houses and apartments do not have air conditioning, which is another way they save money on their electric bills. The climate there is typically much milder and doesn’t get as hot for as much of the summer as it does in most of the United States (although the last couple summers have seen some more extreme temperatures). However, there are usually about two to three weeks in the summer of 90-degree weather. Yes, it’s hot and uncomfortable, but it’s not worth having air conditioning for just a few weeks per year. Here in Connecticut, we have a slightly warmer climate than Germany, but we still try our best not to turn on the air conditioning unless we’re really miserable. I realize this probably won’t work for the majority of the country, but it can save a lot of money to keep a house or apartment at 80 degrees as opposed to 65 in the summer.

Another trick we learned is to keep the TV and all its accessories plugged into a power strip, and turn the power strip off when it’s not in use. That way, you don’t have to unplug so many things after each use. It’s also good to make a habit out of unplugging all smaller appliances that aren’t currently in use. The same concept applies to lights. If you’re not in a room, turn the light off, and use natural light as much as possible. We’ve also found that the energy efficient light bulbs are well-worth investing in.

By doing all these small, money-saving tactics around the house, I’m happy to report that we keep our electric bill between $27 and $35 per month for electricity in our one bedroom, 800-square-foot apartment!

I also learned to be sparsam about my water consumption. Not drinking water, that’s fair game. I’m talking about doing dishes and taking showers. In the United States water is fairly cheap, so most people don’t think much about it. Water is more expensive in Germany, although friends in my generation and my parents’ generation tell me it’s not as expensive as most people in the WWII generation make it out to be. (That generation is usually the most stringent when it comes to being sparsam, and with good reason due to their experiences.) In any case, most Germans, regardless of what generation they’re from, are pretty sparsam about water usage, especially compared to most Americans. In the US, it’s pretty common to see people wash dishes or even load the dishwasher with the water running from the kitchen sink the whole time! In Germany this is unheard of. For one thing, they have these really heavy duty dishwashers that work incredibly well, so you don’t have to rinse everything off before loading it into the dishwasher like you do with most US dishwashers. (My dad used to joke that he had a “dish-rinser” at his apartment instead of a dishwasher.) When they wash dishes by hand, they fill the sink with soapy water, plug the drain, and wash the dishes that way, as to not use excess water. I learned from my host mom to wash lettuce in a similar way. She would plug the drain, fill the sink with about a half inch of water, and submerge each leaf of romaine lettuce under the water and gently shake it around enough to wash the dirt off. I didn’t like doing it this way at the time. I just wanted to run the water and let all the dirt run off that way. It didn’t seem like the lettuce would get as clean that way. However, I recently tried both methods one after the other, and now I think my host mom’s way works much better! I’ve also watched a few episodes of Julia Child’s old cooking shows, and she does it that way, too.

In addition to doing dishes, I see many Americans leave the water running when they’re brushing their teeth. If we take our dentist’s recommendation to heart and brush our teeth for the full two minutes twice a day, that’s four minutes per day of unnecessary water use, and that’s just for one person! Over a year that adds up to be just over 24 hours of running water for no reason. No one in their right mind would leave a bathroom sink running for a whole 24 hours once a year, so why should we waste the equivalent day to day? Remember, that’s only for one person. If everyone in a four-person household does it, that’s equivalent to running water from the bathroom sink for four days per year!

Showers are another opportunity to save water, although this may be an area where we see more generational differences. My first visit to Germany was a summer study abroad program, and the group of American students I was with stayed in a youth hostel for the first two weeks of the program. An older woman ran the hostel, and every morning during breakfast she came to the dining area to scold all of us Americans for using too much water when we showered. We really didn’t understand why she was upset until our professor explained to us that it is a big priority in the German culture not to waste water and that the woman probably expected us to turn the water off while we were shampooing our hair. I’ve since surveyed several friends to see if they actually turn the water off periodically in the shower. Some do, and some don’t, but they all generally try to take quick showers and be mindful of their water consumption. In addition to showering, some toilets have this neat function where you press the button once to start the flush and again to stop it. That way, you only flush as much water as you need to.

I learned so many wonderful and practical ways to save money from living in Germany. I’ve found that many Germans are expert money-managers, and I try my best to incorporate many of the day to day habits I learned there into my daily routine. What are some ways you try to save money? Leave your suggestions in the comments section!

[1] http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/residential/appliances/dryers.html, date of access 1/23/16

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