Debit and debt free: making sense of going Dutch

The Dutch hate debt, credit cards, and anything associated with it — and they’re not shy about it, even for foreigners. 

One of my first visits to the Netherlands was to the grocery store. I went to Albert Heijn, a grocery chain store. After spending a good 20 minutes choosing, I picked my bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon for €7.99 — based on the €8.50 in change I had jangling around my pocket.

But when I went to the register and tried to pay, the clerk said “geen contant geld.” I had no idea what that meant, so they pointed at a sign that said “No Cash Accepted”.

I took out my Visa credit card and she shook her head and wouldn’t accept that either! Flustered, I just left. Of course, this was a pretty embarrassing experience. I was puzzled, why was it so difficult for me to pay, don’t you want my hard-earned dollars?

Shouting your mates? Nope, not here

The attitudes towards finance are quite different in Holland, “Going Dutch” after all, is the opposite of the Australian tradition of “shouting your mates.” The Netherlands has an extremely debt-averse culture.

On the surface, this culture may seem frugal. However, a deeper look sheds light on a refreshingly different mix of free-market capitalism and socialism.

It’s well documented that the Dutch were the innovators of the stock market and the multinational corporation. It also wouldn’t be an understatement to say that capitalism developed in a large part thanks to the activities that were going on in Holland during that time.

It’s a surprise then that what has resulted is a semi-socialist system in contrast to the consumer mindsets that we see in places like the US and Australia where it’s all about consumption.

Sorry, no credit cards

Besides resulting in the normal social behaviour of spending 20 minutes to sort out your individual tab in a restaurant or bar this has also caused the lack of credit card services generally.

READ MORE | Transaction declined: why don’t my bank cards work in the Netherlands?

Coming from the land of negative gearing where debts and credits cards are more commonplace, not being able to pay with cash or credit somehow offended my free-market sensibilities.

This isn’t like the local Chinese takeaway without credit services to avoid a surcharge. This was major corporates like the main railway operator NS and institutions like the Dutch immigration department refusing to accept credit cards.

There are some exceptions: some Albert Heijn’s in Amsterdam will take credit cards for example, but in general, it’s cash, debit card, or nothing.

A higher standard of living

The flip-side is that, generally, everyone here enjoys a higher standard of living. This is made possible through social policies we’d consider extreme — the highest income earners are taxed at a staggering 52%.

The idea is that everyone has roughly the same amount to spend at the supermarket on a kaas en broodje. Simply not being able to use a credit card and the idea that debt is bad also forces people to live within their means and to take part in an age-old practice called budgeting.

READ MORE | 7 reasons the Dutch don’t do debt

Cashless Societies

But what about cash? Well, the Dutch are moving towards a more cashless future. The idea is that an electronic point of sale will be safer for the vendor and the consumer. There will be no midnight robberies or hold-ups, and a more efficient form of exchange with instant digital transactions.

So where does that leave me with my apparently rhetorical question: why don’t you want my money?

Well in Australia, the supermarket will say something along the lines of “Yes! I want your money and I’ll make it as easy as possible for you to pay too.”

The banks will also jump in and say “wait a sec, here’s a credit card as well so you can pay for your groceries if you don’t have enough money.”

But in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn would be saying  “Nope: cash, debit card, or nothing.”

What have been your experiences with debt and credit cards in the Netherlands? Tell us in the comments below!

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2016, but was fully updated in February 2021 for your reading pleasure.
Feature Image: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

10 COMMENTS

  1. Oh this must be a very old article (or old experience). Albert Heijn started to accept credit cards (visa and MasterCard) a couple of months ago. Consequently, its friends, including Etos and Gall and Gall all take them too. Other supermarkets like Jumbo even takes AmEx. Yes, civilisation has finally come upon us.

    While the Dutch might still have 1980s mindset of credit card = debt = bankruptcy, I feel that they love using cash, to the point love counting little euro coins. I think there was a report by the Dutch central bank saying that 30-40% transactions are still made in cash. (Surprise surprise). This is a much much higher proportion than say in Denmark and Sweden.

    • You remind of when i was busking in Holland in the 80’s and an ‘oul fella on the tram asked me how much money i made. After I told him he freaked out and said,” In Guilders? Dutch Guilders? Give me those Guilders.” Now that does seem to be a mean as shite attitude, and likely was, but at the same time he probly was suffering from early onset Alzheimer. Still a bit sad tho.

  2. I think that you might have gotten in the ‘pin only’ line at the Albert hein. It’s a faster line because everyone pays by debit card. Credit card companies charge shops a lot of money per transaction so most shops won’t have it. Paying with a debit card has become e so easy in the last few years, it’s even avaliable at the street markets.

  3. You do know that the Dutch have one of the highest total private debts in the world, don’t you? 😉 I think if the shops would offer credit card payments without extra fees (like it happens in some other countries, maybe in Australia too), then this “tradition” could change. But… why would they? So basically, we cannot really talk about what the Dutch consumers want, because they are not given this choice. And if they don’t have enough money, they will still have to buy food, they will just “go read” and pay crazy percents to their bank. Sounds nice… for the bank.

  4. Holland uses the Maestro payment system, and not Visa. It is the same in Germany. Travel to Europe, and ask your bank for a card that is Maestro compliant. I know that in the UK some banks have these for their clients. Might be possible in Australia too.

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