For thrift-loving Germans looking to salt money away, a pub in Hamburg’s red-light district can be just as good as a bank.
At Schlemmer-Eck in the St. Pauli neighborhood, Herbert Stender—a 75-year-old bartender with tattooed arms and a skull and crossbones on his black baseball cap—has guarded deposits paid in by regulars to the savings club they fondly call “Lawless Hill” since 1987. The association is reminiscent of the kind that once helped foster a culture of fiscal rectitude and propel Germany’s economic rebound after World War II.
Today, communal saving in venues such as taverns, pubs, or barber shops is a largely social affair as the tradition experiences a revival in cities like Hamburg and Frankfurt, the country’s banking capital. In an age of record-low interest rates that’s prompting Germans to spend more and save less, the clubs offer the engineers, lawyers, and students seeking to join a way to do both while upholding the custom started by their mostly working-class predecessors.
“Banknotes are the rule,” said Stender, who watches over the gray metal savings box with eight rows of five slots each that hangs between refrigerators and a poster of a Norwegian punk-rock band in a back room of his pub. “It’s just a great gift to have about 500 euros (US$543) left at the end of the year to spend on a vacation or as a last reserve to pay the power bill.”
Savings clubs have existed in Hamburg and other port cities on the coast since the second half of the 19th century. They spread across northern and western regions of the country after World War II, when banks actively promoted them as an antidote to the hyperinflation that helped usher in the rise of Nazism.
At a time when wages were paid in cash on a weekly or monthly basis, savings banks provided the boxes adorned with their logos for free. They supplied the envelopes to put the money in and sponsored recreational events as they tried to draw new customers in pubs, sports clubs, company canteens, and places where laborers gathered.
The clubs usually required members to pay in a small amount every week, with penalties applied to those who fell back on their contributions.
“People lost everything they had in the war and the economic crisis before,” said Sven Ulrich, managing director at Nordia Feinblech GmbH, a company that claims to have built the first sheet-metal savings box in 1922. “There was a political will to collectively save money.”
Nordia sold more than 10,000 boxes a year in the heyday of savings clubs between the 1950s and the early 1980s. When demand started to decline, the company shifted its focus to industrial clients.
It’s considering stopping production altogether this year after selling a mere 600 boxes in 2014. Ulrich estimates that half of the 850,000 safes Nordia produced over the years remain in use.
Most of the savings clubs in existence today still observe the traditional rules.
Each Monday, Stender jots down members’ contributions on a file card before taking the money to the local Hamburger Sparkasse AG, where he deposits the funds on one account. Those who forget to leave their part pay a 2-euro fine.
While the penalties pay for a year-end knees-up with a pork roast feast in December, some members still follow the tradition of buying Christmas presents for their loved ones with the rest of their hoard.
About 250 miles away in Frankfurt’s Nordend district, a similar club has taken root in the Piccolo winebar, where a blue savings box is shared by 24 regular customers. Klaus Krestel, a 59-year economist, owns one of the compartments. Although he regularly leaves some cash, his aim is to spend it, not save it.
“With the savings box here, one is happy to come to the bar, once a week, and have a beer or a glass of wine,” he said, while having dinner with a friend. “Actually, you save more by staying at home. But it’s a good reason to get out.”
Some of the savings at Piccolo go toward a communal party at the end of the year.
“For years after I moved to Frankfurt, my mother continued to pay my quota every week back home; I didn’t want to accumulate fines,” said Petra Loncar, 51, the winebar’s owner, who comes from the northern state of North Rhine-Westphalia. She was introduced to savings clubs as a child by her father. “Setting up a club here is a bit like feeling at home.”
She founded the club Krestel belongs to a year ago after buying her savings box at online auction company EBay Inc., where second-hand boxes trade for as much as 150 euros.
Another sign of high demand are the long waiting lists kept at Piccolo and Schlemmer-Eck.
“It’s not that we don’t take our money to the bank,” said Perry Diepes, 38, who shares a slot in the savings box at Schlemmer-Eck with his girlfriend Sina. “It’s just great fun to be part of the club.”