Sunday, July 31, 2011

Counting Pennies

I know I have not written a blog for a while, but this posting has not exactly gone as planned. (More on that later.) In the meantime, I came to the realization that one must have enthusiasm if one is going to write a blog story. Today I finally I mustered enough energy to write.

Everyone is watching the world financial crises especially closely these days. Working in the Economic section in Berlin has given me a birds-eye view of all things involving numbers, percentages and ratios. I have learned new words such as bailout and haircut (and I don’t mean the thing you get at the barber). Not only is Greece failing but Portugal and Cyprus are not far behind. The financial state of my own country is becoming more abysmal and confusing with each passing day. Here in fiscally solvent Germany, the U.S. is enjoying an ever increasing reputation as being financially and politically moving in the direction of stupid. Why can’t our lawmakers make a decision? Why can’t someone stand up and do the right thing? I don’t have answers to these questions but I do have a theory about why Germany is so financially successful. It’s my own theory, formed over several months of living here and enhanced by momentary lapses in patience. When they say, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ I say, ‘A blog is born of frustration.’ Allow me to explain.

Germans love coins. Well, they may not love coins but they have a lot of them and they use them diligently. The Euro currency contains the following coins (largest to smallest in value):

2 Euro
1 Euro
50 cent
20 cent
10 cent
5 cent
2 cent
1 cent

Compare that to the U.S. currency most commonly used:

25 cent
10 cent
5 cent
1 cent

A quick glance will show you that living with the Euro means you have twice as many coins to carry around. If you remove the U.S. 1 cent (more commonly referred to as the penny) from the list, you will see the Euro coinage ratio increase even further. I removed the 1 cent piece from the U.S. list because people in the U.S. don’t really care much about a penny. You see pennies on the ground all the time and people don’t even bother to pick them up. People toss their pennies into the charity jar at the counter or tell the clerk to “keep the change” because they don’t want to bother with pennies. I have seen people in the U.S. deliberately throw pennies on the ground just to rid themselves of the extra bulk in their pocket. A penny has no real value in the U.S. anymore.

While Americans practice penny pitching, fiscally-secure Germans practice penny pinching. People treat their Euro pennies as valuable as bars of gold. In fact, all coins are treated with the utmost respect. How do I know this? Because at the cash register, customers spend eons of time counting the exact number of coins it takes to reach the exact amount over an even Euro. In fact, since the Euro is a coin and so is the 2 Euro, the customer actually counts out his reckoning from the nearest 5 Euro; all in coins. I have seen customers at the grocery store take out their tiny leather coin purses and dump what looks like a months’ worth of change into their hand and then carefully and methodically count their Euro coins. This procedure is not a problem for the store clerk; they expect it. This labor intensive practice is also not a problem for any other German standing in line. Secretly, they are all waiting so they, too, can rid themselves of as many coins as possible when it’s their turn. Being an American, however, I am steeped in the rules of efficiency over the rules of solvency. Anyone who would dare count out 99 cents in coins at the peril of everyone else waiting in line is someone we would admonish with furtive glances. We avoid this cultural no-no like the plague. Any customer taking longer than his allotted 25 seconds per transaction gets an evil glare from everyone waiting behind him.

Last night, during what I anticipated to be a quick trip to my neighborhood grocery store, I experienced the entire gambit of German coin counting and coin receiving. Because I was in a fairly long line wearing very sweaty running clothes and carrying my favorite order of fried rice, I had a lot of time for observation. About four people ahead of me, the woman paying for her groceries counted out penny after penny with such care I thought she must have been saving them for years and had formed a personal relationship with them. The next person in line had very few items and thankfully only about 10 coins to count out. The two customers directly in front of me created a whole new set of problems; this time for the clerk. The customers were young people who spoke a foreign language (probably tourists visiting Berlin for the day) who only had very large paper money notes. When the first order came to 20 Euro and 1 cent, the clerk asked if the customer had 1 cent to go with the 50 Euro note. Unfortunately, the customer had no change whatsoever. The clerk let out an audible sigh and grudgingly counted out the proper coins and gave them to the foreign tourist. The next tourist had the same problem; no coins to offer. The clerk could hardly believe it, two customers in a row with no coins! The clerk rolled his eyes and looked to the other Germans in line for support, as if to say, “Can you believe someone has the audacity to empty my cash drawer of all coins?” The foreign tourist knew there was a problem and kept apologizing in English.

Then it was my turn. By now I was certain everyone in line could smell my disgusting running clothes and I knew my once hot fried rice was no longer anything close to hot. I wanted to complete my transaction as quickly as possible and go home. Unfortunately, I too, had my difficulties. Since I had come to the store directly from running, I had only brought a 5 Euro note with me. Paper money is light and does not weigh you down when you run, nor does it jingle in your pocket—something I cannot tolerate when I run. I had carefully calculated the cost of my 4 items to ensure the total amount would be less than 5 Euro, When the clerk rang up my items, I realized the small bottle of water I thought cost .69 actually cost .98, The item must have been miss-marked. This oversight threw off my calculation and I ended up 11 Euro cents over budget. What a dilemma! In the U.S., someone in line behind me would have offered the 11 cents, but not in Germany. In the U.S., one could have even expected the clerk to write off the 11 cent loss and let me have my items in order to save from having to do all the over-ring paperwork. Not so in Germany. The clerk called the store manager to “bring the key” and the manager placed her magic key in the register to un-ring my last item, thus reducing my total amount owed to 4 Euro 17 cents. Of course, now the clerk had to give me more of his precious coins from a cash drawer already depleted by the foreign tourists. I felt a small measure of satisfaction as I jangled my way home.

When living in a culture different than your own, sometimes you learn to live with the differences, sometimes you lose patience with the new practices, and sometimes you just smile and feel happy that you discovered a new theory; in this case, The Theory of Penny Economics.