How we afford to live in Europe

For most Americans, Europe is that once in a lifetime dream destination.  Vacationing in Europe is a very expensive trip that requires a lot of planning and saving.  So whenever someone from my hometown learns about where I live, her jaws drops.  She just can’t imagine the expense of calling Europe home, so I thought I’d share a few of the ways we pinch pennies so that we can happily live in Berlin, Germany.

how to afford living in europe

Despite the extra burden of expenses (such as 19% sales tax, water measured and billed by the liter, and power costing three times as much as we paid in the US), we still live on less even with the poor exchange rate.  A lot of our choices are directly related to our concern for the environment, and you can’t beat green choices that save a buck.

Here’s how we afford to live in Europe on less than we do in the US:


1. We go to museums for free. Every Thursday, the museums of Berlin open their doors for free during their last four hours of business.

2. We walk or bike. Gas costs around $9 a gallon right now, and the taxes for owning a car (which has to meet strict pollution standards in the city) are huge.  Public transportation is really great in Berlin.  But we’d rather bike than do either of those (Martin even biked 30 kilometers every day for an internship this fall).  I also walk a couple extra blocks so that I can buy reduced fare tickets when I go to German class. We get our exercise, explore, and don’t pay a gym membership.

3. We don’t try to live like we’re in the US.  We live smaller.  We’re keeping the dorm-sized fridge (which is the standard size here), and, of course, our 480 square foot house is super small by American standards, which means fewer utility bills, less property tax, and fewer spaces to fill with furniture and stuff that we’d have to buy.


4. We learn to live without American foods.  KaDeWe, Europe’s second largest department store, is in Berlin.  It has an entire floor of imported and exotic foods like microwave popcorn.  You can find American classics like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Betty Crocker Cake mix.  There’s canned pumpkin puree and Celestial Seasonings Tea.  Other than the tea, there really aren’t German comparables, so you can imagine the big ticket price for these foods.  Peanut butter is a rare find, and American candy is expensive. So we follow the When In Rome approach. We eat what the locals eat, not what you might eat in America.

5. We don’t order drinks at restaurants or we share.  Food is cheap at restaurants, but not the drinks.  Half of your bill can easily be from beverages alone.  Since Germans don’t like tap water, it isn’t provided at the beginning of your meal like in the US.  You can technically ask for a glass of free water, though it’s a major faux pas.  I just carry a water bottle in my purse wherever we go.  Then we grab a drink outside of the restaurant.

6. We eat little meat.  I’ve never actually bought meat at the grocery store, so I can’t say how much we’re saving.  But I’ve seen menus (vegetarian meals are always cheaper).  It’s just a personal choice, but it sure has kept a few more pennies in our pockets.

7. We don’t buy packaged food.  Okay, I admit that since I can’t read the instructions or ingredient labels on packages, it’s silly for me to buy them.  But we also don’t eat a lot of packaged food in the US.  I follow a theory that if my great-grandparents wouldn’t recognize something as food, then maybe I shouldn’t be eating it.  Plus these foods tend to be more expensive.

grocery store


8. Our top focus is energy efficiency. It’s better for the environment; it’s better for our pockets.  We installed energy efficient bulbs, and none of our appliances were picked for their aesthetics like the stainless steel rage is all about.  Our appliances were picked for their ability to do their job.  I read a lot of energy saving tips about washing all of your clothes with cold water, but we disagree.  We wash our clothes on a setting hotter than American appliances offer (German machines heat their own water).  By taking the time to pick an efficient machine, you can save money and have white clothes.  (Our top choice in the US is Bosch or Miele… both German companies ironically!)

9. We didn’t buy a dryer. We do it like Europeans and line dry our clothes.  It’s a huge pain when the air is cold and humid, but I’m really starting to prefer doing laundry this way.

10. Our building was designed for efficiency.  The Germans that we know call American houses “cardboard houses.”.  Do you ever notice your heat turning on a lot more as the wind picks up?  We always did in the US.  Cold air was blowing right through our walls!  Not now.  We’ve barely had to turn on the hot water heat because our windows and concrete walls are such great insulators.  In the afternoon, the front of our house is heated by the sun in the winter.  Efficiency is a top priority in German architecture.

So there you have it, ten of the ways we manage to keep costs down.  I’m still working on shortening those long, American showers of mine.

Craving a bit more European life?  Here’s how locals make fresh flowers last longer and spend a typical Sunday.