Why You Should Behave Less Like an American and More Like a German

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Gasoline, food, and all manner of consumer goods cost more in Germany than they do in the U.S. So why is it that the average German consumer spends significantly less than his American counterpart?

Raoul Wintjes, a transportation consultant from Berlin who recently lived in Texas for a couple of years, has quite an interesting perspective on the matter. Wintjes is featured in a Dallas Morning News story that offers some curious statistics and insights.

In 2007, the average household in Dallas spent a bit over $54K, including housing, transportation, entertainment, and all-encompassing “shopping.” The average German household, by contrast, spent a bit under $34K – a difference of more than $20,000. Gasoline costs double what it does in the U.S., but on average Germans spend far less on fuel than Americans ($1,447 annually vs. $2,559 in Dallas), mostly because Germans use public transportation more often. Likewise, there’s a gap on household expenditures eating out at restaurants: $1,226 annually in Germany, $$2,662 in Dallas. Overall, while a German household saved 16.7% of disposable income, a Dallas household saved 5.2%. (A neat BillShrink infographic compares more recent stats about worldwide saving: In China, for instance, people save 30% of their income.)

So what gives? Wintjes thinks that the spending gap is caused simply by cultural differences: Americans spend more mainly because they’re accustomed to spending more, and because (until recently at least) they’ve been pretty much able to spend as they please. Also, acquiring things and dining out at restaurants is more exciting than hanging on to one’s money. In other words, Wintjes observes, Americans go out and blow money all the time mostly out of boredom:

“I think the common root of both eating out and shopping is being bored.”

There is also a key difference when it comes to the German or American approach to shopping:

In Germany, he said, shoppers go out in search of a specific product and stop when they find it. Americans shop to shop.

Wintjes doesn’t think he is better than any other consumer, German, American, or otherwise. When he lived in the U.S., he quickly adopted the local mindset and enjoyed the step up in consumer culture, and often found himself in North Texas malls.

He loved how inexpensive the goods were compared with his home country. So what did he do? Naturally, he bought lots of stuff. And perhaps that’s another key reason why Americans tend to spend more: Things are more affordable, and so we feel like we’re getting a better deal on the merchandise. Americans also have more opportunity to spend the money they earn—because it’s not taxed nearly as heavily as incomes are in Germany. In Germany, a much bigger portion of income is taken away by the government before the local consumer has a chance to spend it.

What have we learned here? Why do Americans spend more and save less than other cultures? We spend because it’s less boring than not spending, because we see other people spending and feel like we must follow suit, and also simply because we can (or we think we can) handle this sort of spending financially. The credit card culture has helped us feel like we can handle almost any sort of spending.

But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. Here in the U.S.A., we’re lucky enough to have many, many options in terms of variety and sheer number of consumer goods. We also have the option to ease off the consumerism and impulse shopping, and to save for something worthwhile and meaningful. If you head out to the mall with no particular goal in mind—if you’re just shopping for the sake of shopping—well, then you’re pretty much guaranteed to never reach any financial goals you hope to reach.