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‘€10-€15 more for groceries’: How price hikes are hitting consumers in Germany

Russia's war in Ukraine is driving up energy and food prices. While the German government mulls new measures to protect consumers, buyers are increasingly feeling the price hikes, reports Cecilia Filas.

A woman holds cash in her hand.
A woman holds cash in her hand. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

Consumer prices are rising in Germany – and people are noticing it in their wallets. In May, inflation rose by nearly 8 percent year-on-year, the highest level since the country’s reunification in 1990. First, it was the pandemic and the resulting disruption of global supply chains that pushed up prices, now, it is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that is driving energy and food prices to record high levels. 

Olaf Scholz’s coalition government launched a €30 billion plan to help German consumers, especially the most vulnerable. The measures included the €9 monthly ticket over summer; fuel tax cuts; energy subsidies; and a one-off €300 payout for all taxpayers, plus a €100 ‘Kinderbonus’ for children.

But while the measures provided temporary relief – in June inflation fell to 7.6 percent – experts fear another surge is around the corner. The numbers could get significantly worse in the coming months when some of the measures end and Germany will face the winter with a reduced amount of Russian gas – or none at all. 

READ ALSO: Who gets Germany’s €300 payout – and when?

Thinking carefully about bigger purchases

People living in Germany are feeling the pinch.

At the supermarket, a shopping bill that used to be between €70-€80 is “now €10 or €15 extra,” says Nicolás, an Argentine expat in his 30s who lives in Berlin.

Unlike in Argentina, where consumers are used to offers and different forms of financing to cover themselves against inflation, Nicolás says he has no strategy and has not reduced his consumption because of the rising prices, although it is impacting him. “You don’t need to pay in instalments (for items), but you do feel the difference. You save less,” he says.

Federico, another Argentina native who has been living in Germany for more than 10 years, agrees.

“It’s not that you have problems making ends meet, but that you save a little less,” he says. “Or if you have to make a big purchase, you might think about it a little bit more.”

He says everyday food products in Berlin have also noticeably gone up. 

“The most classic thing – to buy a kebab which is something everyone eats – you can see how much it has increased,” he adds.

“There is a lot of advertising on TV and radio showing you ways to save, and years ago there was no advertising or products with so many promos. Now, this has become more visible, as there is a much greater variety of bargains and people tend to go after that a little bit more than they used to.”

Fruit and veg being sold at a market in Oldenburg.

Fruit and veg being sold at a market in Oldenburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

‘Price shocks’

Chancellor Scholz has promised more measures in the coming months to cushion the burden, especially on lower-income families. The Chancellor plans to meet with employers, trade unions and the Bundesbank team in September.

Bundesbank President, Joachim Nagel, said recently that there is a risk of inflation remaining high in the medium term, and the German central bank is forecasting an average rate above 7 percent for 2022.

“For this year, we think that we can really manage the inflation headwinds we see on the energy side but also on the salary side,” Bettina Orlopp, CFO of Commerzbank told Bloomberg TV.  “Next years – 2023, 2024 – the story will be different, becoming more difficult”, she said.

But is Germany really experiencing an inflationary process? Dr. Silke Tober of the Hans Boeckler Foundation’s Macroeconomic Policy Institute (IMK) doesn’t think so.

“The inflation we are experiencing in Germany at the moment, and in the euro area as a whole, is not inflation in the real sense. What we have are price shocks”, she tells The Local. “What really makes an inflationary process is that wages and prices rise, and then you get persistent inflation.

“We are not at that stage. What we are really seeing instead is that the energy price hikes and the increase in food prices are pushing up prices.”

READ ALSO: When will Germany’s rising cost of living slow down?

Tober adds that there are assistance measures which make a difference.

“The government has put in place several transfer payments to households, especially low-income households, and other measures that reduce the burden of inflation,” Tober says.

She expects price rises to come down “substantially” next year, provided the war in Ukraine does not escalate.

However, Tober says: “If we have a gas embargo and no more gas from Russia, we will have another jump in energy prices, and then inflation will stay high next year as well. And then we have the problem that there may be second-round effects, meaning wage increases might be excessive and then will have persistent inflation.”

The expert from IMK says that rising prices are especially affecting lower-income households, who must “cut back on other expenses to pay for food and energy” because they tend to have fewer savings to fall back on.  

“Households with higher incomes tend to have wealth and a high savings rate, so they cope with it by reducing their savings rate or maybe even reducing their savings,” Tober says.

“But low-income households usually, in Germany at least, they don’t have a positive savings rate – that means they’ve already spent all of their money or most of it – and have very little wealth, so what they have to do is actually reduce consumption to deal with the current [price] shocks.”

READ ALSO: What is Germany’s new gas ‘tax’ and who will pay it?

Money lies on a radiator.

Money lies on a radiator. People with gas heating will face much higher costs. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Patrick Pleul

Ongoing concerns about price hikes

Indeed, June retail sales plunged 8.8 percent year-on-year, the biggest drop since 1994, according to Destatis. Non-essential items such as furniture, household appliances, clothing and shoes were the hardest hit.

On the other hand, to avoid passing on cost increases to customers and remain competitive, several companies are maintaining prices (or raising them at a very low rate) but reducing the content of their products, warned Verbrauchenzentrale Hamburg, a consumer advice centre. These are hidden price increases, generally referred to as ‘shrinkflation’.

With an interest rate of just 0.5 percent, credit or financing purchases in instalments might seem an attractive option to protect from inflation.  However, Verbrauchenzentrale Nordrhein Westfalen, the consumer protection association in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, says that there hasn’t been, at the moment at least, “increasing demand in our debt counselling service as a result of the current inflation, although we notice ongoing concerns about the price increases”.

“Normally excessive debts and consumer insolvency are not seen immediately but with a time gap -they follow a crisis,” the agency told The Local. “Therefore, it is just possible that in the end, we will see more consumer insolvencies due to these general price increases.”

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Why haven’t I received my €300 payment yet in Germany?

Many working people in Germany will have received their energy relief payment by now. But if you haven’t got yours yet, there’s no need to worry, here are some reasons why that could be and what you can do.

Reader question: Why haven’t I received my €300 payment yet in Germany?

The €300 payment – known as the Energiepreispauschale or EPP – is one of the German coalition government’s relief measures intended to help people with rising energy costs. It goes out to everyone who lives and works in Germany, including those in part-time and temporary employment, trainees and students in paid internships as well as freelancers.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s €300 energy relief payout

Those who have already received the payment as part of their September pay packet will have had an item on their pay slip marked as sonstiger Bezug (“other remuneration”) or “E” for Einmalbezug (“one-time payment“).

The EPP is subject to payroll tax, so only those who earn below the basic tax-free allowance (that means they don’t earn enough to pay any tax) will benefit from the full amount.

According to the Ministry of Finance, employees will receive on average €193 from the €300 allowance.

However, if the EPP didn‘t appear on your pay slip in September, here are a couple of reasons why that could be:

You have a mini-job

Mini-jobbers need to make clear to their employers that their mini-job is their main means of income, as often a mini-job is carried out alongside another job. If you haven’t received your €300 payment yet it’s best to discuss this with your employer and to confirm that it is your main job in writing.

A waiter carries a tray with used glasses and empty bottles. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jonas Walzberg

Your employer is not required to make the payment

There are some cases where the flat-rate energy allowance is not paid out by the employer at all. The Federal Ministry of Finance mentions the following exceptions, for example: if the employer is not required to file income tax returns, or the employee is employed on a short-term basis or is a temporary worker in agriculture and forestry.

In these cases, you have to file an income tax return for 2022 and claim the EPP there.

The payment may come later

The Ministry of Finance says that, if an employer misses the payment “for organisational or accounting reasons,” for example if you started your job in August and the payroll department missed you out, then the payment can be made later.

At the latest, however, it should come when the employer sends the Lohnsteuerbescheinigung (wage tax statement) – which is usually sent in December. In this case, too, it’s advisable to clarify with your employer or the payroll department why you haven’t received the payment yet. 

You work for a small company

Sometimes employers are not obliged to pay out the energy flat rate in September, but can still do so in October. This is the case if the employer submits its payroll tax returns to the tax office on a quarterly rather than monthly. Smaller employers, for example, who pay less than €5,000 in advance wage tax per year, only have to submit the advance wage tax payment once a quarter. This is not due until October 10th, so the employees concerned will not receive the €300 lump sum until October.

What other support will people get from the German government?

On Tuesday, Germany’s 16 state leaders are meeting with Chancellor Olaf Scholz to discuss which measures the €200 billion package announced last week should include.

READ ALSO: Germany to thrash out details of €200 billion energy support package

It’s expected that a Gaspreisdeckel – or a cap on the price of gas households would pay this winter – will soon come into force when the details are worked out, while plans for a cheap follow-up to the popular €9 ticket will also be presented later this month.

Benefit payment recipients will receive a one-off top-up to their existing benefit payments to pay for the higher cost of heating and pensioners will receive a €300 payment on December 1st. They do not have to apply for this, it’ll simply be added to the payments they receive from their pension insurance funds.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Everything Germany is doing to help relieve rising energy costs

A €200 one-off payment is also planned for students, although each federal state may end up paying the amount slightly differently in a process that’s still being defined.

From next year, parents will see an increase in the amount of child benefit (Kindergeld) they receive, up to €237 per month, per child, up to and including the third child.

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