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XX: Money. My first 1000

July 1990. The West German Mark becomes our official currency. This is thrilling. I eagerly trade old aluminium coins for weightier change made of cupro-nickel, brass plated steel, even silver. The new paper money looks different too. It’s bigger, has security strips and features different faces. Our old currency looks like communist play money in comparison. Game over for Marx and his buddies whose faces I’ll recognize for the rest of my life.  

The currency exchange seems like a miracle since the East German Mark is practically worthless outside the East. Graciously the West offers a 1:1 exchange for eastern marks with predetermined limits: 4000 for each adult and 2000 for children. Seniors are allowed to exchange up to 6000. We’ve adopted another brother which means our family of 6 can exchange up to 16000. I don’t know how much money we have, it’s not for kids to know nor polite to ask. It does not matter now because if we had more money it would not help. 100 million unused marks will end up getting destroyed, it’s the only way this will work.

My parents don’t complain about the exchange. I doubt we have a lot of money since mother doesn’t hoard anything, least of all money. She spends their earnings on practical things and gives the rest away. Dad mostly lets her do what she wants, reprimanding her occasionally for throwing our money out the window with both hands. My father is disturbingly frugal but does not run our budget. Instead his saving efforts revolve around turning off lights, eating left overs, taking one-minute showers. Water costs will be going up rapidly, dad informs us. The East heavily subsidized living expenses, meaning a lot more of our new shiny money will need to be spent on the basics now.

At least no one in my family has any debt. Most of us rent and pay cash for cars. Education is free, so are sports and activities. But it’s not just our currency that is changing. Our whole value system is being turned upside down. The stores are slowly filling up. My friends acquire nicer TV’s with large screens. My family refuses to keep step. We’ve never owned a functioning TV, not counting a tiny black and white specimen with one dial knob. It works occasionally. We could use a new car though since the old one does not fit our whole family. Not surprisingly the first business to move into former East Germany is a bank.

It’s time to figure out my own finances. My grandparents deliver a brand new money box. It looks like a fancy, old fashioned book. The front has a lock with a tiny key. My name is engraved in gold on the cover along with a family favorite quote: “Ohne Fleiss, kein Preis.” (no diligence, no reward) I am frugal by nature but appreciate the reminder. A crisp 10 western mark bill quietly rests in my box. I promise it won’t be lonely for long. I will fill my box and keep it filled.

Our parents now offer allowances. I receive about 10 DM a month, which seems more than fair compared to my friends. Some get nothing. I carefully count and keep track of my cash. My box is filling up. I keep it hidden and locked. My older sister does not seem to have a money box, she usually carries her money around. I quickly learn to appreciate this habit, as well as her generosity. If we are out and about, she will buy me small things I want, like an ice cream cone. If I owe her anything, she will forget. I also babysit, but most of my jobs are volunteer positions. The neighbor baby loves me and I can’t charge for loving her back. Her mom drops her off at our house several times a week. There are people from church who need help and I happily serve, receiving money only occasionally. My grandparents slip me a little cash here and there.

I carefully record each new amount, even drawing a visual graph on checkered paper. Each month my total increases, requiring additional paper to be taped above the old. When kids turn 14 our church holds a special ceremony for becoming part of the youth group. I receive so much money that my graph runs up and off the paper. I now have a thousand marks which makes me richer than most of my friends. I’ve turned into a capitalist. My teacher often told us capitalists are corrupt, greedy and selfish. I decide I’ll be a nice one when I grow up.


 This is part XX of “Behind the Wall & Under the Steeple”, a collection of personal essays about growing up Christian in former East Germany. Some of you think these stories are worth telling. If you agree, subscribe to my blog or bookmark this page. If you are receiving this post by email, any reply goes straight to my inbox.  Thanks for reading! 

2 Replies

  1. Tara

    Well isn’t this a lovely romp of a post?! You are a pretty nice capitalist. Mission accomplished. 😉 XOXO

  2. Kathy Davis

    Thanks for sharing your story Astrid. I love reading about your life in Germany. You are a special lady & generous with everything!

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