Is Everyone High And Other Questions About Living in The Netherlands (Part 2)

Mechanic in front of windmills

Tons of people responded to my last post answering questions about living in The Netherlands, and it seemed to spark even more questions. I decided to write a Part 2 to make sure I could answer follow-up queries. This time I’m tackling more stereotypes, some money management tips abroad, and other things I’ve learned as an expat from the United States moving to The Netherlands.

Mechanic in front of windmills
Mechanic in front of the windmills at Zaanse Schans

“Are the stereotypes true?”

Is it a rager every day? Are people high all the time?

“The Netherlands gets a bad rap,” says our tour guide. “What are the two words you associate most with Amsterdam?” 

Someone leans forward, “Weed and prostitutes!” The tour guide laughs, we’ve fallen right into his trap: “Not bicycles and tulips?!” Indeed, he says sex and drugs have the highest word associations with this city. Amsterdam used to be one of the largest ports in the world, attracting sailors from all over the world. This made Amsterdam one of the wealthiest cities, while attracting men who wanted to carouse in the few days they had on solid land. Today the hedonic nightlife is more under control: there are CCTV-cameras down the red-lit streets where barely-clothed women pose in windows. Prostitution and soft drugs are regulated and taxed. If you spend only a couple of nights in downtown Amsterdam, you may be forgiven for some sex-and-drug-related first impressions. However, when you spend more time in the rest of the country, or even outside just the center of the city, the bicycles, tulips, and canals make a bigger impression overall. You get what you come for.

Overall I wouldn’t say sex or drugs features much more in Dutch life as compared to anywhere else. In fact, with the taboo removed, it simply doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. I’ve met a couple of Dutch people who say, “Can you believe it, I’m Dutch and I’ve never touched weed,” but I do believe it. Once it’s available anytime, anywhere, the novelty isn’t there to drive the same curiosity. So my answer in general is no, people are not high all the time, at least not that I know of!

Are Dutch people as emotionally aloof as they’re portrayed?

No. At least, I wouldn’t say emotionally aloof, assertive fits better, as some people say. Another word I might reach for is practical. Maybe I don’t notice what many other expats complain about because I also tend towards practicality and appreciate directness over cushioned phrasing. 

Hey, guys, Jan Maas is not being rude. He's just being Dutch. - MagicalQuote
A quote from the hit show Ted Lasso

I’ve discussed this with a couple of Dutch friends. With one, we went shopping at a second-hand market together called IJ-hallen. I admired an outfit, and the vendor quickly pointed out a couple of holes and wear in the fabric, “I want to make sure you know what you’re buying,” she said. I tried it on, looked in the mirror and knew something was off, but didn’t know what it was.  My friend said, “It looks like you’re drowning in it.” That was exactly it! With relief I gave it back to the vendor. I appreciated the honesty from both of them.

Another Dutch friend says she thinks the honesty comes up more for things like personal preference. Saying you don’t like the food doesn’t have to be offensive, because everyone has different tastes. That’s just practical. There are many ways to be direct, but it just makes sense to be direct about things that are provable or something like your own preferences. Ultimately, being direct or practical doesn’t have to mean being rude. 

I certainly wouldn’t use ‘aloof’ to describe Dutch people. I think of getting brunch with my neighbor, who tells me about her dating life. I think of the delight of a pregnancy announcement with friends over nachos. I think of all of the strangers who trade smiles with me on the street, and those who turn towards me to chat while waiting in line. I think of Cheesy Finance, speaking quickly with a big smile. No, I definitely wouldn’t describe the Dutch as emotionally aloof.

Pregnancy announcements over delicious nachos, yum

Are the Dutch indeed freakishly tall and handsome?

Yes! Apparently the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, measuring an average of 6 feet (182.9 centimeters) for men and 5’5 feet (169.3 centimeters) for women. At my diminutive 5’4, 163cm, most people here are much taller than me. Oh, and of course the Dutch are extremely good looking 😉 

How difficult is it to learn Dutch? 

Many people claim Dutch is a tricky language to learn, but I don’t know if it’s so much because the language itself is tricky as it is because English is so prevalent. I’ve been learning Dutch bit by bit, asking cashiers what they just said in Dutch so I know for the next time, coworkers teaching me how to order from a restaurant and a Dutch friend quickly whispering, “Een tafel voor twee!” in my ear so I can ask for a table for two. My Duolingo streak has been dismal, but I get complimented on my pronunciation (“Wow, you didn’t butcher our language,” praises the bartender) every so often. 

Admittedly, I think I know more Nepali from my three months living there with daily lessons than Dutch after 8 months, but practice and daily effort is the biggest difference. I’d like to get a tutor but we’ll see if that actually happens. 

What is the overall cost of living difference between the NL and the western US?

When researching for this question, I found a nifty site called Numeo where you can compare cost of living for different cities. 

Consumer Prices in Santa Barbara, CA are 16.88% higher than in Amsterdam (without rent)
Consumer Prices including rent in Santa Barbara, CA are 26.50% higher than in Amsterdam
Rent Prices in Santa Barbara, CA are 42.52% higher than in Amsterdam
Restaurant Prices in Santa Barbara, CA are 13.91% higher than in Amsterdam
Groceries Prices in Santa Barbara, CA are 52.80% higher than in Amsterdam
Local Purchasing Power in Santa Barbara, CA is 3.07% higher than in Amsterdam

Personally, I find that the sticker price of things like groceries here is roughly the same, though of course euros are technically worth more, so things tend to be more expensive overall. I’m also paying significantly more in rent, but that’s mostly because I’m living alone in a desirable area. I believe I’m paying more in almost every category in Amsterdam than I was living in Portland, Oregon or Santa Barbara, California, but it’s mostly because my lifestyle has also dramatically changed.

Are there unique ways to save? (like Netherlands-specific, not just “look for local produce and a buynothing group!”)

Transportation

There are a few unique ways to save if you’re ‘in the know’. For example, one of the first things my friend helped me get was an OV-chipkaart, which you can scan to check-in and out of the trams and trains. There are deals you can sign up for using NS Flex, which allows you to get discounts on off-peak or weekend travel for a couple extra euros a month. You can also pay just €31 a month to have unlimited travel for the weekends, which breaks even with just one round trip!

I’m sharing this with the disclaimer that I never actually signed up for these discounts, because I wasn’t sure how much I’d be traveling during specific days. I likely would have benefitted from this but am procrastinating actually purchasing a Flex pass.

Entertainment

Another steal is the Museumkaart. For just €65 you get free access to over 400 museums in The Netherlands. Using the Museumkaart I’ve been to the Rijksmuseum twice, the Van Gogh museum, and Cobra, a modern art museum. The only place that hasn’t taken it so far was the Anne Frank house and MOCO (the museum of contemporary art– like Banksy). 

Mechanic at the MOCO
Mechanic at the MOCO

Driver’s License

I suppose the advice “Get rid of your car!” is not just Netherlands specific, but it’s much easier to get around without a car here. One thing to note is that getting a driver’s license here is costly and difficult, requiring many hours of training, thousands of euros, and often multiple test attempts. Luckily, those of us with U.S. driver’s licenses here as a ‘highly skilled migrant’ qualify to trade in our licenses for the Dutch version. So technically I’m saving money doing that as well. (I just traded mine in this morning for €50).  When do you need a car, there are car-sharing services that make it easy to take once-in-a-blue-moon trips.

Living Outside of Amsterdam

A related way to spend money is to commute into Amsterdam by train and live outside of the main city. I’m aware that I’m paying a premium right now to live in the city in an ‘expat apartment’ (i.e. one that comes fully-furnished). The Netherlands is a small country, so living in a neighbouring city like Utrecht, Hoofddorp, or Haarlem might mean just a 30-45 minute commute for significant monthly savings. 

Are the taxes worth it?

I remember walking with a friend and his dad who bemoaned the taxes he had to pay. “I’d much rather decide where my money goes than let the government handle it. I can give directly to people who need it.” I secretly wondered if he did give any money to those who needed it when given the chance. Now that I’m older I would like to think I’d ask him outright. 

Even with the 30% ruling that gives me a 30% ‘discount’ on my taxes, I’m still paying a significant amount of each pay check in taxes, much more than in the states. On top of this, I took a significant pay cut on my salary. So was it worth it?

It’s hard to directly measure all the benefits of paying more taxes, but one of the most significant is that I never see a collapsed body in a doorway in this metropolitan city, whereas in downtown Denver the streets are lined with people hunkering under dirty sleeping bags. Medical emergencies can bankrupt you at home, whereas it’s less than $150 a month to have complete coverage here. 

I’m glad I spent my wealth accumulation phase in the U.S. I think it’s much easier to reach Financial Independence with high salaries and low taxes, but it really only benefits a small portion of the population when the rest are saddled in college, medical, and credit card debt. The taxes here may be higher, but society feels more level and humane. Of course, everyone has their own opinions about this, political battles rage every day to balance individual and social capital. My own experience is that the higher taxes are worth the peace of mind that me and my fellow man will be cared for. 

What do you think?

Would you pay double the taxes if you didn’t have to go into debt for school or medical emergencies?

What’s the best way you learn languages?

Do you have any more questions about living abroad in The Netherlands?

Share in the comments below!

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Jackie Beck
11 days ago

I love this 🙂
And for me, the best way to learn a language is immersion. Which of course is much harder to do when everyone speaks English to you. Maybe try telling a group of friends you only want them to speak Dutch to and around you, even if you don’t understand at first?

Gov Worker
11 days ago

I loved this post! I would have never guessed you were 5’4 from your blog pictures. I assumed you were really tall like 5’10 or something.

I spent several stints working in Europe and they were some of the best times. I loved living in Copenhagen (although I was technically still employed by the US and a US resident so I didn’t have to deal with the sticker shock on the taxes). I’m super jealous any time you share photos or stories of Amsterdam.

On the other hand, I’ve got a pretty sweet work/life balance where I am now, so I guess I should focus on that rather than having FOMO and trying to apply for another international assignment.