Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Paper or Plastic?

A week or so ago I was, for some reason, talking to my husband about credit cards in America.

"You know, they don't come out of your bank account." I told him. "You can charge and charge and then just pay a small monthly payment."

"What??", he said. I had to explain it to him several times before he could even believe what I was saying....

Yes, it is true that people in Germany have less debts, but one of the main reasons is because it is just not as easy to get them. It's not that easy to get a credit card and, if you do get one, the money comes out of your bank account every month. Only certain shops accept credit cards and you can basically never use them in a restaurant, let alone at the movies, etc. Living extremely above your means just isn't really possible, or at least you'd have to work very, very hard at it.

There are two reasons that people sometimes might assume my husband and I have money, these reasons being a) he is a count and b) he is a lawyer. But having the title of count might sometimes get my husband better reservations in restaurants and there are also always a few military history geeks who recognize that he is related to Alfred Graf von Schlieffen (a fact that my husband finds more irritating than interesting...), but his family never really had much money; after the war, his grandfather (who never got his arbitur=high school diploma) worked as a school janitor. As for his job, he is a free-lance criminal defense lawyer which is not nearly as well paid- but far more interesting- than business law (where the firm expects you to work like a dog. He has friends who work 14 hour days and also often on the weekend. Yes, they may earn a lot, but that's no life....) Right now I'm not working but when I do all I can offer is my artsy/writing stuff (which makes little to no money) and my teaching job at the technical university (which pays enough money for a modest, single person lifestyle in Berlin, but certainly not for a family...) Anyway, to make a long story short (opps....too late!) we may not be rolling in the dough, we may not really be saving enough, but we do have one thing that I consider very important: absolutely NO debts.

I listen to NPR everyday on the little radio in my kitchen. Since the financial crisis, they've, of course, been talking about consumers and there habits. Everyone seems to be feeling guilty and/or pointing the finger at people who took out all these loans they couldn't afford. Newsflash everyone! People in the U.S. were living above their means! Well, duh. Not only has it been easy to do so in the states, it has also been actively encouraged. People get their first credit card at 18 and, if they don't default, are then offered another and another and another (and it's basically impossible not to get one because if you don't, you have no credit history which means you probably can't rent an apartment, get a loan, buy a car, etc....) For a while there, it seems people could even send their unemployed chimpanzee with a criminal record to get a loan for a new house at the bank. People are also taught to always be blindly optimistic: "I just know I'm so going to get that big promotion, that big deal is just around the corner, it's all going to work out great. Let's go buy a new plasma t.v. and just not think about it." I heard a man being interviewed on NPR a couple of days ago and you could tell he was just racked with guilt about his former spending habits. But in some ways this makes me angry: yes, the consumers have been stupid and yes, it's good that some of that might be changing, but there should also be protection. These big companies and banks just should have never even been allowed to pray off of people's weaknesses, especially ones they have been encouraged to have.

I wouldn't say that I'm a person who is especially "good" with money, but luckily I seem to have been born with an inner voice that told me "don't get into debt!" (not a voice that has necessarily been shared within my family....) I've never had more than one (American) credit card at a time. I went to an expensive private college, but I got some scholarship money and then lived at home and worked full time so I could take out the minimum amount of loans. Yes, it was a sacrifice and yes, I did miss out on "college life" (what with working and studying full time and then spending the rest of my time in the practice room, I didn't really have much time left over for anything social...) but in the end, it was definitely worth it.

Granted, universities in Germany are basically free (they wanted to start charging some money- a thousand Euros a semester I think, or may 500- but people freaked out about it...), but they are also somewhat of a pain in the ass. I studied a few years at Humboldt Universit├Ąt here in Berlin and I didn't like it at all. The classes were overfilled with students (though they become less and less as the semester progresses.) There were two types of courses you can take: a) a Vorlesung, which basically means a professor reads some boring text in front of you and you just listen and take notes or (prefereably) get your friends to sign you in so you don't even have to go, and b) a Seminar where you either write a paper or give a presentation. Always the same dull model every time, with some exams in the middle of your studies and at the end. But if you don't finish and finally get your Magister or Diplom (master's) (which probably takes about 7 years) you have nothing to show for it because there is no bachelor's degree (this they are also maybe going to change, though people are resistant to the idea.) The idea that a professor should make a subject interesting and accessible and/or be in anyway "there" for you is also a foreign concept: Professors usually have an office hour every two weeks for forty-five minutes and, when you get there, 15 desperate students are lined up at their door.

Anyway, the unversity system may be a bummer here sometimes, but hey- it's free. Not what you can say about the U.S. I've often toyed with the idea of getting an MFA in creative writing. You can do a low-residency program where you go there only a month to six weeks out of the year (two blocks) and the rest of the time is spent writing. I recently looked at the program at Bennington and guess what? It costs $15,000 a year!! There are undoubtedly programs that are not quite that expensive but still; what would I get out of an MFA? A chance to concentrate even more fully on my writing, a chance to hone my skills, a chance to meet fellow serious writers. But is that worth over $30,000? No. I'd rather just stay on my own. And besides I couldn't do it even if I wanted because that would mean seriously living above my means which is something I never want to do.

4 comments:

dieklugehausfrau said...

The famous Schlieffen-Plan! I remember that from history class; funny – the things that stick in your mind…

By the way: They did introduce the international BA/MA system at universities in Germany a couple of years ago, which probably made things worse… and still nobody cares if you get your degree or just jump off a bridge – my professor just came back from her vacation of 2 months and even failed to show up for her 1 (in letters: o n e) office hour she offered for the whole month of August and September. I won't go on, but university in Germany isn't too much fun – at least in the humanities; I've heard that things are different in sciences…

Schaufensterbabe said...

Yeah, not too expensive but also not too much fun. Guess you can't have everything!

Laura said...

Nice post, I completely agree. It's amazing how in the US you get offers in the mail for new credit cards and the companies are always swarming the university campuses. Hello, studnts have little to no income, run up a debt and then the parents must bail them out. Laura in Ludwigsburg

Schaufensterbabe said...

Yeah, it really shouldn't even be allowed when you think about it. Talk about teaching people irresponsible spending, but then I guess that's the whole point...

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