Going Dutch. It’s a popular phrase indicating that you’re splitting the bill, either equally or just paying for your own things and leaving the rest to those who have consumed it. It is a typical indication of how the Dutch manage money: never pay too much, and pay for what YOU owe. When it comes to the Dutch, they’ve got money on the mind! Now I am Dutch, and I study money. Payment methods more specifically, but I honestly find every aspect of money fascinating. Most of the research I read is based in America, based on American data and American people. And when it comes to how they handle money, my heart near stops beating. The consumer culture that is America is a far cry from the “normal is crazy enough” culture that represents the Netherlands. Let’s dive into the peculiarities of the Dutch when it comes to money, and whether they might be good quirks to base some of your own financial mindset on.
Hamsteren Yes, the animal “hamster” has been turned into a verb. This verb means exactly what you think it does: stuffing your face with food for later. Hamsteren is actually a slogan from popular supermarket Albert Heijn (AH). It refers to bulk buying, more specifically bulk buying with discounts. Think of 2+1 free (gratis) or 60% off if you buy more than 3 items of a certain brand, 2nd item 50% off etc. The Dutch live for this stuff. I’m not saying they are running to the store (close though), but they do know which store has which discount on, and where to go next for buying certain items. Within the grocery stores themselves discounts are clearly marked (can’t miss them, really you can’t) and people pay close attention to them. When it comes to grocery stores, I would argue the Dutch are more convenience and price loyal than they are brand loyal. Another discount method very popular in the Netherlands is the step-wise discount: 10% off when buying 1, 20% off when buying 2 etc. but this if often not seen with grocery stores. Another thing that aligns nicely with Hamsteren and the Dutch discount obsession: gratis. Nothing gets Dutch blood pumping like the word gratis (meaning free). A German friend of mine who has also studied in Maastricht (south east Netherlands) has learned absolutely no Dutch in his entire 4 years there, besides the word gratis. That is both a reflection of him and my country. People will literally leave their house to obtain something for free. It’s known within (behavioural) economics that the word “free” does things to people, but you’ve never seen what the word can do to a Dutch person. That’s pure magic.
Debit Cards Let’s dive into my “expertise” then: payment methods. What do the Dutch pay with? Cards. Credit cards? Nope. If you’ve ever travelled to the Netherlands as a foreigner with your MasterCard or Visa at the ready, it must have felt like you got hit in the face with a brick. Why? Because a lot of places in the Netherlands don’t actually accept credit cards. So if that’s your only mode of payment, well, I recommend you find yourself a cash machine which will accept the credit card and get some cash out. Otherwise, you won’t be able to pay almost ANYWHERE. We’re still one step removed from Germany, which still uses cash as it main method of payment, but we’re about fifteen hundred steps removed from the US, where the credit card is king, and consumer debt is soaring. If you don’t feel like going cash-based and want to have your expenses tracked for you, get into debit, and not beyond. Make sure your spending is concurrent: either through having the debit card or have a debit card in your phone payment app.
Conspicuous Consumption and Living within your Means Now I’m not saying the average Dutch person is debt-free. The Netherlands, like any other country, has people who have mortgaged themselves to the hilt and people still trying to pay of their student loans and debt. This is quite normal. They are the two most prevalent forms of debt and are often not fully seen as debt, with education being an investment and the mortgage being a payment scheme for your house. The perception of this is quite different from say, consumer debt. And this is where the Dutch’s disgust for debt shows. Consumer debt in the Netherlands is quite low, and that’s not just because we don’t use credit cards much or only buy things with discounts. It’s because the Dutch don’t do conspicuous consumption very well. This is also where the Dutch motto “just act normal, that’s crazy enough” (doe maar normaal, dat is gek genoeg) comes from. The blatant showing off of wealth is not very much encouraged, it can often be perceived as fake, ingenuine and as “trying to hard” which are terms the Dutch align themselves with as a very direct and frank people. The idea of being in debt to show off wealth, especially wealth that isn’t yours is a very foreign idea as such. The Dutch are prudent and are proud of being able to live within their means. And a reason for doing so, might be that the Dutch would like to think of themselves as quite self-reliant. Another thing, which I didn’t know and a Finish friend of mine who recently moved house told me, is that the Dutch government apparently makes it quite difficult to live beyond your means. They wanted to obtain a mortgage for their new house, and apparently the bank was quite aware of their financial situation. Like, abnormally aware. Every debt they had, including half a year of lease left on their car and their phone subscriptions was taken under the loop and counted in to determine the appropriate value settings of the mortgage. This is due to the centralized system that the Netherlands operates with, so lender beware!
Self-reliance Coming back to the point of self-reliance: most Dutch kids are taught how to handle money from an early age with “zakgeld” (pocket money). Often, if kids want something additional, they have to participate in the household (mow the lawn, wash the car etc.) to earn extra. This is quite common in a lot of countries. However, this attitude persists throughout. When I was a teenager I held jobs next to being in high school almost from the moment I started high school. And I’ve held jobs throughout my undergraduate as well. Most Dutch “kids” did. You ran paper rounds, worked in a grocery store (Hamsteren! I did actually work for Albert Heijn) or a different kind of store or you did tutoring if you were performing really well in certain courses. This is because you’re taught at quite a young age that you need to be able to take care of yourself, at least financially. It might be because the Netherlands is quite an individualistic society, but the idea that someone else is going to take care of you is not really present. Although parents do often help their children through their education financially (if they can), this is not expected to last beyond that stage of their lives. It might also be this belief that makes it so common for the Dutch to "go Dutch", or to pay for things seperately. You are responsible for yourself, and that's it. Moreover, it also means you don't owe anyone else money. There is no debt here. See how it all comes together? Lastly, a more recent belief regarding money is that there isn’t going to be any left by the time my generation retires. As such, there has been an increased pressure on younger generations to almost ignore the idea of receiving government retirement funding, and to just “sort it out yourself.” Again, this isn’t exclusive to the Netherlands either.
Drawbacks There can be drawbacks to the Dutch mentality as well. The Dutch used to be traders, and the era in which a lot of trade blossomed, often referred to as the Golden Age, is an era a lot of people attribute Dutch entrepreneurialism to. I’m not saying all that is glitters is gold, because a lot of the wealth obtained wasn’t done through legitimate or human rights upholding means (slave trade and exploitation) but I’m using it as the foundation for the Dutch entrepreneurial spirit. However, Dutch entrepreneurialism is very much curbed by fear of debt. Once you go bankrupt once, not many people would try again. This in comparison the somewhere like the US, where the average entrepreneur has run 3 businesses into the ground before striking gold (making a decent living). As such, the Dutch mentality towards money can stifle more risk-taking behaviour, which for a lot of entrepreneurs can make the difference between boom or bust. Moreover, although conspicuous consumption isn’t Dutch in and of itself, consumer debt is actually on the rise. The Netherlands is quite open to Anglo- and American influences and these influences are quite heavily grounded in capitalistic and almost mindless consumption. Despite consumer debt rising, the stigma on being in debt is still very much prevalent as it signals a lack of discipline and inability to live within your means, which, as mentioned before, is something the Dutch hold in high regards. Altogether not very helpful… It is unsurprising that with these attitudes a lot of foreigners consider the Dutch to be stingy or sometimes even downright strange when it comes to money matters.
I hope I managed to write this article in a somewhat entertaining and unbiased (who am I kidding?!) fashion. Let me know how you feel about how the Dutch handle money, and whether you’ve actually experienced any of this yourself!