Dutch culture tends to be pretty opposed to credit cards and debt, but why is that exactly? Since there’s never just one easy answer to this type of question, here are seven of the top possibilities why Dutchies don’t do debt.
If you’ve visited the Netherlands, you’ve likely run into problems trying to pay for something. You probably came to the country expecting to pay a few foreign transaction fees, and maybe to withdraw some cash for smaller purchases. You had your Visa or Mastercard with you, so you were sure you’d be fine.
Paying in the Netherlands
The Netherlands is a special place. It has special architecture, special landscapes, special shoes, and special payment systems. The country has its own unique banking system, largely revolving around Maestro and iDEAL.
Basically, the Maestro bank card is a must-have in stores, and iDEAL is the only method for many online payments, and it requires that Dutch bank card. Since they don’t just hand these out upon arrival at the airport, travellers often find themselves in a payment pickle.
See, your Visa or Mastercard, whether it’s debit or credit, will be treated as credit. This gets confusing when the grocery store employee tells you they only accept debit, while refusing to accept your debit card. What they’re saying is that they only take the Dutch version of a debit card — generally Maestro. If your card has the Visa or Mastercard logo, it’s unlikely to work.
The difference is the way the credit card machine reads your card, and how the banks communicate with the merchant. Only Dutch bank cards go directly to the merchant without an intermediary, so it costs less to the business. Of course, nobody is explaining this in the checkout line.
What’s so bad about credit cards?
So what are travellers supposed to do? Why the resistance to credit cards? Why don’t the Dutch just doe normaal like the rest of the world?
Quite simply, the Dutch tend to be very debt-averse. They don’t place much trust or value in the credit system in general, and many hold strong beliefs in opposition to it. For a bit of context, here are the facts at a glance:
- 55% of Dutch consumers hold a credit card.
- Of those cardholders, 62% only uses their credit card when abroad.
- Of the Dutchies who do use their credit card in the Netherlands, it’s usually reserved for online purchases and hotels.
- 30% of Dutch people WITH a credit card don’t consider it a safe and reliable means of payment.
- The Dutch are largely satisfied with credit card acceptance in the country. Only 18% feel that the amount of credit card payment points is insufficient.
Why the Dutch don’t like debt — 7 possibilities
So where did this debt-aversion come from, anyway? Well truthfully, we can’t say for sure. But we can dive into some of the leading theories. The following are some of the popular beliefs held in the Netherlands about debt culture and credit cards.
7Debt means guilt
Bring up a conversation about debt in the Netherlands, and the first response you’ll hear is that the word ‘debt’ in Dutch is schuld, which also translates to ‘guilt.’ Great significance is placed on this small, guttural word in Dutch culture.
Schuld isn’t your run-of-the-mill homonym. Unlike how kussen means both ‘to kiss’ and ‘pillow,’ schuld‘s dual meaning holds deep cultural weight — for the Dutch, you can’t have debt without guilt. So whether or not the linguistic relativity truly affects their borrowing habits, society is running with it.
6A culture of frugality
There’s no sense in beating around the bush (they certainly wouldn’t), the Dutch have the reputation for being…well…thrifty. They’re known for keeping their hard-earned euros close to the chest. So it only makes sense that this particularly pennywise culture would also be cautious around debt.
Spending money they don’t have
Ask a Dutchie why they don’t use credit cards and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you quite plainly, “I don’t want to spend money I don’t have.” The Dutch way is to live practically and within their means.
But even though a credit card purchase doesn’t necessarily have to transfer to debt (it’s as simple as a few clicks between accounts, of course) there’s a cultural stigma against it in the Netherlands. Credit card use is often viewed as irresponsible or foolish. If the Dutch want something, they buy it with money directly from their bank account, even if it means waiting until they’ve saved enough.
Cost to businesses
Merchants pay more for credit card transactions — generally around 1.8% of the purchase amount. While this isn’t exclusive to the Netherlands, the merchants’ aversion toward paying those processing fees is a bit more uniquely Dutch. After all, schuld has Germanic etymological roots, and the same reluctance toward debt is thought to be shared in Germany. However, unlike the Netherlands, credit cards are widely accepted there.
But, just like their breakfast sprinkles and swear words, the Dutch do it differently. In spite of the amount of international tourism, many businesses in the Netherlands opt to save on transaction fees by limiting the types of payment they accept.
5Credit card companies operate differently
If you’re coming to the Netherlands from a more debt-accepting culture and looking to get a Dutch credit card, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. By design, they’re less appealing to the consumer.
In some countries, like the US and UK, so many credit card companies are competing for your business that it’s easy to find one with a nice welcome bonus, no annual fees, and airline miles. With responsible use, you can use your credit card to actually save money!
In the Netherlands, options are far fewer and much less enticing. You won’t find the same variety of rewards programs, travel perks, or discounts at your favourite stores. Perhaps if there were more kortingen associated with Dutch credit cards we wouldn’t be having this discussion at all.
Interest? Not interested
Few credit card options in the Netherlands are cost-free. Interest rates and annual fees are not appealing to anyone, particularly the most spendthrift. Dutch credit cards typically offer an APR (annual percentage rate) of around 14%, which is the maximum rate set by the government. Comparatively, that’s not bad! But if there’s even a whiff of unnecessary money to be paid, you’ve already lost a Dutchie’s attention.
Never mind that credit cards offer consumer protection for online purchases or the peace of mind that if an emergency comes up money won’t be an issue. Mention a €30 annual fee and your Dutchie will be cycling away faster than you can say, helaas pindakaas.
The Dutch government wants to protect its citizens from dangerous consumer debt. So by law, lenders are required to include a credit warning when advertising for credit services. They have to be clear about all the details, costs, and interest rates. Also, in the true nature of Dutch straightforwardness, ads need to include a specific warning statement and symbol like this one:
If you do want to get a credit card in the Netherlands, in spite of all the deterrents, don’t get your hopes up too soon. Not just anyone can qualify for one. You’ll have to pass a background check with the BKR (the Dutch credit registration office), and your excellent credit score back home will be irrelevant. They’re only concerned about your credit history in the Netherlands.
Credit scores in the Netherlands are different, too. Unlike other countries, you don’t need to ‘build’ your credit by borrowing money to prove you can pay it back. Credit card approval does, however, require you to prove that you have a steady income and earn enough money. Generally, you’ll need to be able to show your employment is secure, which, naturally, is a barrier for new expats. Your credit can also be negatively impacted if you’ve held temporary or short-term jobs.
A little advice: if you’re moving to the Netherlands and want a credit card for international purchases or emergencies, make your life easier and hold onto your credit cards from back home.
The Dutch aversion to debt can be traced back centuries to its roots in Calvinism in the 16th century. Calvinism emphasised a strong work ethic, tolerance, egalitarianism, straightforwardness, and of course, frugality. Not coincidentally, these are some of the prominent ideals that shape Dutch society today. Their very practical, sober relationship with money is less about being stingy, and more about being principled.
John Calvin himself said in a sermon, “We possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition, that being content with a frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain.” The religion is geared toward living a simple life and condemns the flaunting of wealth. It would be entirely indecent to make extravagant purchases, especially without the means to pay in full. While the religion didn’t stick, the way of life certainly did.
3Cultural identity and social norms
If it hasn’t been spelt out already, credit card use and living in debt goes against social norms in the Netherlands. It’s just not the Dutch way. Quality of life is emphasised over material items. The Dutch saying goes, ‘Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg,’ essentially meaning to do things practically and modestly.
And it’s not just a mindset, it’s backed by the government. Where the financial systems in other countries will allow you to purchase what you want, whether or not you can actually afford it, the financial system in the Netherlands aims to keep people from spending what they don’t have. If you don’t have money in your bank account or wallet, you don’t get to buy your biertje.
It’s something they start learning about as kids — many Dutch schools even implement financial literacy programs to teach kids about responsible spending from a young age.
2Historical economic differences
While credit cards spread like wildfire in the US from the 1950s onward, things happened much more slowly in the Netherlands. The country didn’t adopt the Diners Club Card (which required the full balance to be paid each billing cycle) until 1957, and credit cards didn’t come into the picture until 1967, two decades after the US — and even then they never picked up much steam.
So while the US was busy establishing their ‘buy now, pay later’ culture, the Netherlands was still steadfast in their ‘save now, buy later’ mindset, which they’ve managed to hold onto to this day.
Now, remember we’re talking theories here. Australia adopted the credit card even later (1974) and they currently have the highest household debt to GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ratio, so this idea is up for question. At any rate, many believe the Netherlands’ late adoption of the credit card impacted their modest use of it today.
1Comparison to other countries
The last point is a bit of a strange one but must be included because every conversation around debt will ultimately circle back to it. Why do the Dutch disapprove of credit cards and debt? Because of the US.
The US is often used as an example for arguments against credit card use because the relationship with personal debt is the extreme opposite there. And indeed, it’s quite tragic. Although, saying that credit cards are bad simply because the debt culture in the US is flawed, does seem rather dismissive. What about all the other countries who are managing their credit just fine? (Looking at you, Japan, Austria…well, it’s a long list).
Riddled with schuld
Now, here’s a curveball for you: the Netherlands ranks fourth-highest in the world for private debt. What?? The whole wide world. For a country so averse to debt, they’ve certainly gotten themselves deep into it.
To be fair, in the Netherlands, personal debt is largely linked to home mortgages. In the Dutch fiscal system, interest paid on a mortgage can be subtracted from taxable income. Higher mortgage loans mean lower taxes (is that a korting I smell?).
Recent data also indicates that, in spite of their reluctance, credit card use is on the rise in the country. Travel and online subscription services are the main culprits behind the shift. Nobody’s surprised by that — Dutchies do love their travel and everybody likes Netflix.
When it comes to the Dutch and debt, the more we learn, the more we wonder. But if there’s one thing that holds, it’s that they sure don’t like it.
What do you think about the debt culture in the Netherlands? Have you had trouble trying to use a credit card? Let us know in the comments below!
Feature Image: DutchReview
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in September 2020 and was fully updated in December 2020 for your reading pleasure.