Comparing Apples to Äpfeln

At the beginning of 2015, I started tracking all of my grocery expenses. While checking out at the grocery store, I started saying “yes,” when asked if I want to receipt. I take the slip home and sum each item into a category: bakery, fruit, vegetables, dairy and eggs, meat and seafood, dry and canned goods, prepared foods, juices, sweets and junk, flowers, and household goods. I also list the grocery store. And I add the items mentally, because brains need exercise, too.

Yes, in this digital age, I track paper receipts in a spreadsheet. (You’re hearing from the guy who tallied his coins, his cash, and his savings on three separate pieces of paper through his teenage years. Yes, his coins.) Why the paper receipts? Truth be told, I drank a lot of orange juice. I wanted to know how much money I spent on orange juice compared to other groceries. The answer: consistently 8-10% of my monthly grocery expenses were orange juice (until I overdosed on sugar in October 2015, but that’s a story for another post.) I also felt that I was losing conscience awareness of my spending habits when declining the receipt, swiping my card, and walking away. Despite using mint.com to track my finances, I wanted more granularity. Not “how much do I spend on groceries each month?” but “how much do I spend on vegetables compared to bread?”

I continued with my pile of receipts and my spreadsheet through 2016, building 24 months of records. Having answered my question, I took a break in 2017.

Earlier this year, a new question surfaced: is Berlin really less expensive with regard to cost of living than Boston? Anecdotally, the answer is an inarguable “yes.” You can get a whole meal – a döner – for 3-4 €. Paying more than 20 € for a meal is kinda “woah!” A beer costs just a few Euro. Rent is far more affordable. But what about Stephen’s groceries? I needed data.

Berlin loves cash and loves to hate card payments. EC (debit) card? Maybe. Credit card? In your dreams! (Germans are rather risk averse, and why accept money that may not exist.) So, in this city, cash is king, and carrying cash is my first point of advice to anyone who visits Berlin. Though groceries can often be bought mit karte, my card payments are few and far between. Most of my expenses are cash, and it’s hard to track any sort of categorical expenses without the complete digital data.

Behold, my “grocery expenses” spreadsheet has returned to life. I started saying “ja, bitte” I wanted my receipt. (I still don’t know the word for receipt, but I know when to say “yes, please.” (Bitte is actually “you’re welcome,” but the fact that Germans say “you’re welcome” as another form of “please” is another situation for another post.))

So, in the spring, I decided to collect my own data, and I have monthly grocery totals for May, July, July, and September of 2018.

Grocery Minimum Grocery Maximum Grocery Average
2015 $171 $348 $250
2016 $142 $271 $183
2018 153 € ($176) 213 € ($245) 179 € ($205)

A few considerations:

  • In each year, I’ve had lunch provided at work on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays.
  • I’ve excluded calendar months which I traveled for more than one week.
  • 2018’s bakery (bread) tracking is off, because I willingly go downstairs to the bakery in my building for fresh bread/rolls on many weekend mornings. I’ll pay 0,60 € for a fresh Kartoffelbrotchen every day, because yes, potato bread! (I’ll also buy you one if you come visit :).
  • In 2015 and 2016, I know my average expenses allocated to restaurants were $170 and $133, respectively. I have no clue how I spent significantly less on both groceries and in restaurants in 2016, compared to 2015. Maybe I mooched more. Maybe I was more fiscally efficient with food. I don’t have restaurant expenses tracked for 2018.

So, how much did I spend on orange juice compared to other groceries, prior to October 2015? 8-10% Is Berlin more affordable to live than Boston? My grocery expenses would argue “no, the cost of living is the same.” Perhaps I’ve upped my standards… doubtful, because I did most of my Boston grocery shopping at Whole Foods (hey! I could literally see it from my bedroom windows! and I totally don’t endorse/support them after the Amazon buyout) and I shop at a variety of Berlin supermarkets from low-end to mid-range.

I really can’t explain why my grocery bills average and range similarly. I need to compare the categorical breakdown between countries and months and years, because I don’t know where the money has shifted. Every time I go to the grocery store, I’m surprised at how much food – especially fresh product – I can get for so little money. e.g. today I purchased a three pound pumpkin, fresh ginger, a package of fresh plums, an avocado, blackberries, 3 fresh figs, a jug of multivitamin juice (I’ve been sick!), and a half-dozen eggs for a whopping 8,96 € ($10.37). So, yes, Berlin is cheap, but I’m still figuring out what’s eating my juice budget.

More research is in order. Perhaps I’ll make the same recipe in Berlin and a future visit to Boston, and we can compare apples to äpfeln.

Welcome, Home.

“So, here are the keys: two for the door, one for the mailbox, and three for the cellar storage.”

Nope, I didn’t buy a house. Yep, I’m renting my own flat in Berlin now.

When I moved here in October, I settled into a WG (a shared flat) with a lovely couple of guys and their yippy Dachshund. I experienced far better luck – or better strategy? – than most in the Berlin housing market. Within a week of my arrival in late October, I enjoyed my own large room with a balcony overlooking the park. We shared two toilets and an average size kitchen. When a friend occasionally visited, the guys let me borrow the spare “Schlafzimmer” (sleeping room), which functions as a guest room when needed. While it wasn’t my home, it was home for the time being, and I’m grateful for the soft and welcoming landing pad.

When the Formlabs office was slated to move to the far east side of Berlin at the end of May, I started eyeing other neighborhoods and considering a place for myself. While I thrived in a social home with 3-6 roommates in Boston, my first months in Berlin demonstrated that I valued alone time more than I realized, and a single-room or studio apartment is within my budget in Berlin.

Many newcomers and long-time Berliners have horror stories of the weeks and months that they jump between short-term rentals and desperately pursue a place where they can settle in.Can you imagine what my colleague endured, with this many people viewing a single apartment? Honestly, I’m not sure what made my search different, but I’m fortunate that I didn’t struggle. The WG where I lived for the first seven months was the first and only flat I visited on my arrival, and my recent search was nearly as simple.

I limited my online search to Friedrichshain, and contacted a handful of landlords whose listing descriptions and photos I liked. I visited one ground floor flat; though described as luxury and probably above my ideal budget, I applied and was rejected. The second flat I liked was nearby. I arrived on Thursday evening for the group viewing. Fear not, reputation of Berlin, I was ready to compete with dozens of people mingling on the sidewalk to see a flat. To my surprise and delight, me and one other guy waited outside until the English-speaking (lucky me!) landlord’s agent came to the street to let us in. Within a few seconds, I could see the apartment was exactly as described and shown: – a main room – a bathroom – an “equipped” kitchen – all clean and well-maintained – on the second (third, by an American perspective) floor – not on the street and not with a balcony – with decently-sized windows overlooking the garden courtyard.

The other prospective tenant looked around, asked for the application, and went on his way. Without much more to explore, I figured I was interested and may as well introduce myself. Hell, if it’s just me and him with equal credibility in our applications and paperwork, I automatically win by saying hello to the landlord. So, I talked with Frau Schroeder for a few minutes to explain who I was and what I was looking for. Then I was on my way “home” to compile the paperwork.

By now, the process has come and gone. They offered me the contract, and I accepted. I arranged to move my belongings on a Saturday morning. Friends referred me, and i contacted a guy with a moving van. With immense gratitude to a handful of close friends who helped me, we carried boxes, bags, and dismantled furniture up and down flights of stairs. We loaded the van, drove 10 minutes, and unpacked the van. Within an hour and a half, I was home again.

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Homemaking is a craft that takes time and patience. After a week, I received my refrigerator and washing machine by home delivery. I needed several weeks to make time to purchase a table and chairs. I’ve yet to procure a wardrobe, relying instead on two perfectly good clothing racks and a less ideal assortment of clothes piled into open duffel bags. Sure, there’s appeal to move into a fully furnished flat. I’m happy to accept the challenge to make my own home, especially when the doors sits between a bakery and a plant shop.

Still Here & Holidays

When I blogged in Denmark, I aimed to write a post every or every other week, and I succeeded. That’s the life of a student, I guess. You deal with assignments, and it’s easy to assign yourself one extra piece of prose, especially when the rest are optional engineering problem sets.

Fast forward six years, as a working man, the pace of life is a little different. I have plenty of writing and communication to do at work. With traveling and spending time with loved ones at Christmas, I don’t prioritize blogging, though it’s good for me. So, I figured I’d list a few discoveries through my life in Berlin at the holidays.

  1. Christmas pickles probably aren’t really German. Several years ago, my mom bought me and my siblings each a pickle-shaped ornament. Other than looking like a pickle, it’s a normal, beautiful ornament. Oh, and it was complete with a story about the tradition of German Christmas pickles. The parents hide it in the tree and the first kid to find it gets an extra gift. Years ago, I mentioned this to a German friend. He gave me a puzzled look, and a quick Google search led me to believe this is a fabricated tradition. I can confirm that it is perpetuated in Germany. You will find Christmas pickle ornaments in the German Christmas markets – Weinachtsmarkt or Cristkindlmarkt – but most Germans do not know about this German “tradition.”
  2. New Years Eve is not for the faint-of-fireworks. Berliners have permission to ignite fireworks on New Years Eve and New Years Day. Stores – including grocery stores – sell the pyrotechnics a few days beforehand, then the people light them off as much as they please. New Years Eve was on a Sunday. I heard the first firework on Friday evening. They were steadily lit starting midday Sunday. At midnight on my balcony, the sky was illuminated in every direction. I went for a run on Monday afternoon, still saw or heard several going off and the sidewalks were littered with debris. One site suggests that the tradition of fireworks on New Years Eve goes back to the medieval ages, when they wanted to ward off evil spirits. Assuming this is true, with the number of fireworks in Berlin, it will be a long time before Trump’s spirit reaches Germany. 😉 (His behavior is understood to be both childish and inhumane by the general populous that I’ve witnessed.)
  3. Christmas trees are for the curbs. In the days following Christmas, especially after Epiphany / Three Kings’ Day “Dreikönigstag,” everyone tosses their pine trees to the streets. Eventually, the trees disappear. I guess they get picked up by the city. (I’m not sure why, but I also noticed that my own Christmas tree lasted longer without needles dropping, even once it was on the street without water.)

Now that you’ve enjoyed my memories from last month, please enjoy some semi-related photos of my life in the Christmas season: