Cashland: A Best Self Update

How moving to Berlin changed my relationship to money.

Photo credit: Artis Pupins, CC BY 2.0.

Last year, my New Year’s Money Resolution was to become a person who is good with cash, broadly defined. It’s fitting then, that in the intervening year I pulled up stakes and moved to Berlin, Germany, a city that operates more or less entirely on a cash basis.

Dreams of Being a Person Who Is Good With Cash

The only places that accept a Kreditkarte are chain stores like grocery stores and pharmacies. Everything else, from taxicabs to corner stores, demands Bargeld — cash. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Bar is a noun that can mean either “cash” or, predictably, “bar.”) Luckily, Berlin is a relatively inexpensive city, and its cash demands are low compared to the antimatter of pocket change in New York City. Venmo has yet to reach the continent, but it isn’t too great a burden to spot a friend or two a round at the bar — a beer will typically set you back between €2,50 and €4 at a bar, or between €0,90 and €2 at a Spätkauf, or corner store.

Even so, the cash-only learning curve has been steep, and made steeper by the fact that €1 and €2 euro coins feel to my callused American fingers like pocket change that is somehow, miraculously, sufficient for a coffee, or a Berliner, or a half-liter of beer. In the first few days, shelling out coins for actual goods seemed like an exchange-rate magic trick, but watching the euro bills shrink in size in my wallet, from a large, khaki €50 to smaller, Monopoly-blue €5s, the real weight of my apparent change becomes clearer.

In New York, much of the time, I operated under a private delusion of “cash” and “money” being somehow separate — the former in my pocket, the latter in my bank account — and Berlin’s aversion to plastic money has forced me to reckon with this contradiction. Day-to-day, I have very little access to the “money” in my American bank account; I bank with Bank of America, which is affiliated with Deutsche Bank, though apparently not affiliated enough to prevent foreign transaction fees. Additionally, Deutsche Bank is based in Frankfurt, some five hours southwest of Berlin, and Deutsche Bank–affiliated ATMs seem to me sparser here than other large national banks.

In order to avoid unnecessarily large foreign transaction fees, getting cash requires a special trip to an ATM a few U-Bahn stops away, and a touch of prospecting to hit the exchange rate on a good day. (When I first lived in Germany, during a semester abroad in 2009, the exchange rate was around €1,40 to the dollar; these days it’s closer to €1,10.) I usually make a trip on Sundays, when little else is open or going on. Once I leave the ATM, unless I’m buying toothpaste or groceries — for which I also have to pay foreign transaction fees — my cash is every cent I have. When deciding whether to buy something, or when settling up with the bartender, I’ve stopped thinking of any of the cards in my wallet — the money they represent isn’t an option, so they aren’t really real, sort of.

So far, I’ve managed to get by in Berlin on about €60 per week. I live a directionless, tourist-adjacent life at the moment, spending a few hours “writing” in a cafe, a few hours window-shopping, and a few more drinking cheap Pilsner with friends. I could of course be eating more, and even drinking more, but so far €60 has been a decent cut-off — less than $70 USD (as of this writing) and enough for groceries, the occasional Döner Kebap, and at least enough beer to make it through a few months of frigid humidity and 4 p.m. sunsets.

If I had any real money coming in, my self-imposed cash ceiling would be a tremendous financial boon — the realized aim of what a friend of mine calls “cash-only life,” and without the tempting bad habit of reaching for my debit card to spare an unbroken €10 or €5 bill. But given that my income is reduced to only what I earn writing (as here) or freelance editing, my €60/week has left me just barely in the red so far, albeit more comfortably than the rollercoaster of rent checks and direct deposits of my life in New York.

Like a flea in a jar, my good money behavior is a direct result of the constraints of my environment; I can only wonder whether the cash-only self-control I’ve attained here could survive a move back to a place with card readers on every store counter, cash back at the pharmacy and grocery store, and fee-free ATMs on every other corner. I’d like to think it could, but then I remind myself that cash-only living requires quite a bit more cash in other places. As palatable as it may be right now to commit to spending €60 in a week, I doubt pulling $160 out at my local ATM in Brooklyn — an initial $60 for the week, then another $100 two or three days later after I’ve run out of cash and still need to buy groceries — would afford me a similar level of buying power.

With enough practice, and enough impoverished self-restraint, maybe I could live on cash alone in any city. I could limit every cent of my spending money to cash-on-hand, and grant myself a glimpse into my larger financial reality just once a week, when I make my pilgrimage to the cash machine for a little more to live on. Or maybe I should just stay in Berlin.

John Sherman is a writer living in Berlin.

This article is an update to The Billfold’s 2015 end-of-year series, “Our Best Selves in the Coming Year.”

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