Category Archives: Taxes

A taxing time

If you listen carefully, you can probably hear a vague wailing sound coming from the general direction of Germany; a sort of pained whine, interspersed with sobs of horror and confusion. It happens around this time every year. It’s the sound of new-to-Deutschland freelancers trying to figure out how, in the name of all that’s holy, they’re going to do their taxes by the 31st of May.

The funny thing about all of this is that I actually thought I was prepared. I’d kept every receipt, every invoice, every pay slip, and even compiled them into neat spreadsheet documents, which I’d not only saved, but also printed out, paper clipped, labelled, slid into plastic pockets and put into specific folders. (Just in case there was any doubt that I’m turning into a German.)

The even funnier thing about all of this is that Germany has actually tried to simplify the process by allowing you to do your taxes online. Yes, the Germans have created a lovely system, the rather ironically titled, “”, “Elster” meaning “magpie” – you know, the birds that love to steal your shiny things. I keep telling you Germans have a sense of humour…

Reliably informed by Sheila, the Half-Naked Aussie, that all we had to do was go to the Finanzamt and get a PIN number, I was confident that this was going to be a walk in the park. Of course, the idea that you had to go to an office to get a PIN to use in an online system seemed to defy logic, but well, this is Germany so…

We chose a time, met up, and then spent around twenty minutes trying to find a replacement bus for a train service that was actually running. You might think that this makes us total numpties, but with the underground trains in seemingly permanent disarray, and the overground trains on strike more often than your average German ends a sentence with “oder…”, it was a pretty easy mistake to make.

Now they're on strike indefinitely... (image from
Now they’re on strike indefinitely… (image from

We eventually got to the Finanzamt where we explained to the confused German lady what we wanted. After around thirty seconds, she handed us leaflets and told us to go online and register. She didn’t add “like normal people” but I believe it was implied. I asked her if it was easy and she assured me that it was. And off we went; the whole procedure had taken under five minutes.

The fairy tale castle where the Finanzamt people live
The fairy tale castle where the Finanzamt people live

Eager to find out just how “easy” it was, I sat down that afternoon and tried to register. Following the step-by-step instructions (in German) in the leaflet, I was amazed to find that it actually was easy. I received a password by email, confirmed that I had received it, and Step One was complete. On to Step Two… oh no, wait, this is where the German part kicks in. Now that you’ve completed Step One, you have to wait a week to receive a second password – by post. Sigh.

One week later, I received a rather flimsy paper envelope with the words “paperless and secure” emblazoned on it. Ha. The people in the Finanzamt must be chuckling all the way to the bank.

Proof positive that Germans are funny
Proof positive that Germans are funny

I logged on to elster again and, without even looking at the leaflet this time, completed Step Two. I was then able to download a security key in .pdf form, which enabled me to access the system. About to pour myself a glass of wine to celebrate my ingenuity, I first decided to have a quick look at what lay ahead. This was the moment my brain exploded.


So, I used the “translate” button at the top of the screen:


Now, the thing is that, in Germany, you can earn over €8,000 without paying any tax. As I only moved here in September, by the end of the tax year, I was nowhere near this figure. Therefore, I’m not actually sure I have to file a tax report at all. However, this being Germany, I don’t want this to come back and bite me in the “amt” at some point in the future. There’s probably a fine for “not filling in forms that you didn’t actually have to fill in but because you didn’t fill them in now you have to pay” or similar.

So my current plan is to just fill in as many boxes as I can. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I figure if the Finanzamt people come knocking at my door at some point in the future, I’ll just email them the number to a P.O. Box and then tell them that in a week’s time they’ll receive a document in the post. That document will be this online blog post in secure paper form detailing the reasons why I failed miserably to cope with their “simple” online system.

When in Germany and all that…

Losing my religion

Director of Studies: Can we have your observation feedback meeting on Friday morning? 

Me: Yeah, that should be… oh no, wait, I need to go and renounce the Catholic faith that morning, sorry. 

DOS: What? 

Me: Yeah. You know. Germany…

So, on Friday, I made my way to Möckernbrucke and easily located the exitingthechurchtoavoidpayingstupidtaxesoffice. For some reason, they had roughly the same amount of security you find at major international airports. Luckily, I’d left my knuckle-dusters at home that day – something I would later regret.

The security guard panicked a bit when he realised my German was limited so I was waved through with minimal hassle. He explained that the building is divided into different zones, each represented by a letter of the alphabet. I needed to find room A53. I thanked him and went on my unholy way.

Twenty minutes later, I was back in the same spot, having done a complete lap of the building and failed to find the elusive A53. He paled a little and ran to get a policewoman who spoke a few words of English. I now realised that the building was also divided into an old building and a new building and that the room I was looking for was in the old building. This was information that would have been useful 25 minutes earlier.

I set off again, up and down stairs, in and out of offices, round and round the labyrinthine series of corridors.


I think I asked five different people where room A53 was, all of whom gave me different directions. I found room A52 and room A54, but there was still no A53. Another 25 minutes later, I was sending up a last prayer that I’d eventually find the room and my way out of the building again. I figured God wouldn’t mind me having one last request.

At this stage, I looked like the wild woman of Berlin-eo. I was sweaty and wild-eyed, and my hair had worked its way out of a neat pony-tail and was now sticking out in all directions. I stopped in front of yet another indecipherable map that had room A53 on it. A similar-looking creature caught my eye so I asked her in German if she knew where room A53 was.

“No, I do NOT.”

Clearly, we were in the same boat and had both been wandering around this building for what seemed like years. Afraid of this girl attacking me in a fit of “exitingthechurchtoavoidpayingstupidtaxesoffice rage”, I left her staring glassy-eyed at the map and asked yet another security guard where the damn room was.

I followed where she pointed and Angry Girl followed me.

The maze of madness
Finally, in the depths of the basement, we found it. Opening the door, we were greeted by a little woman sitting behind a glass window. I let Angry Girl go first so I could see what she did and then copy her.

This, it seemed, was the room where we paid. Unfortunately for Angry Girl, she had assumed that they would take card. They did not. No problem, the lady assured her – she could go to the other room, fill in the form and then come back and pay later. I handed over my €30, she handed me a sticker and then we were both on the hunt for room F27.

As she had seemed pretty sane while talking to the lady in the hatch, I decided to risk striking up a conversation since we’d probably be wandering around together for a while. She turned out to be an American-German who’s dating an Irish guy so, in no time at all, I had an invite to a St. Patrick’s Day event he’s organising.

Naturally, the office we were looking for was all the way over the opposite side of the building (anyone would think they didn’t want you to leave the church), but we found this one quite easily. We took our numbers and sat down in the waiting room, chatting about Irish people, the insanity of German bureaucracy and whatever else popped into our heads.

Around twenty minutes later, my number was called. As soon as I sat down opposite the world-weary woman in the office, every German word I have ever known exited stage left. She fired a couple of questions at me; I panicked because I couldn’t understand one of them. I pushed my registration document and passport across the desk, hoping one of them might have the correct answer.

Kriemhild: NEIN!

Me: (tempted to run away and too scared to speak English) I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand the question. Do you speak any English?

Kriemhild: (in rapid-fire German) NEIN! The official language of the Amt is German and if you can’t understand German then that’s your problem. 

Me: OK, OK, keep your granny pants on. Can I get my friend? 

Kriemhild: (with much eye-rolling at the stupid foreigner) JA…

I stuck my head out the door and asked the now-not-Angry-at-all American-German to help me. She trotted in after me and we sat down again, waiting for the storm of bureaucracy to be unleashed.

Britney-Bertel: She wants to know which area you live in.

Me: Jesus, is that all? It’s right in front of her on the bloody form. 

Of course, with the confidence of having a sidekick, my German switched on again and I could understand pretty much everything from that point on. I answered questions, Kriemhild tapped away on her computer, and around ten minutes later, I had a printout declaring that I was no longer a member of the Catholic Church.

I then got a lecture on keeping this form FOREVER. The exitingthechurchtoavoidpayingstupidtaxesoffice only keeps a copy for ten years, so if the Finanzamt asks me for it twenty years from now and I can’t produce it, they can charge me twenty years of back taxes. Point taken.

As Britney-Bertel was next in the queue anyway, she thought she’d kill two birds with one stone and get her document too. NEIN. She had to pay the fee first – it was not possible to do it the other way around, despite what the lady in the hatch had said. Britney-Bertel resigned herself to coming back another day, while I notched up another victory against German bureaucracy.

As I left, I pondered the need for the lady in the hatch. Why couldn’t you just fill in the form and pay at the same time? Oh yes. This is Germany…



Pope on the ropes

I decided a day before my 37th birthday to leave the Catholic Church. But just the German Catholic Church, not the actual Catholic Church. Leaving the actual Catholic Church is impossible; leaving the German Catholic Church is possible for the bargain price of €30 in Berlin. Confused? So was I.

It all started when I received a letter in the mail with the catchy introductory sentence:

Festellung der Zugehörigkeit zu einer öffentlich-rechtlichen Religionsgemeinschaft

Trips off the tongue, doesn’t it? Even with my limited German, I could still recognise that the church was after me. Not for my shoddy attendance, but for cold, hard cash.

I’d thought they wouldn’t find me

You see, in Germany, if you’re a member of certain religions, Roman Catholicism being one of them, you have to pay church tax. The letter explained that I’d “forgotten” to tick the religion box when I first registered my address. Naturally I hadn’t forgotten; I’d been forewarned of this tax and advised to leave that box empty. But it seemed they were coming after me anyway.

I haven’t set foot in a church in years – I’d probably burst into flames if I did – so the thought of paying for something that was about as relevant to me as fly fishing rankled.

I joked with Hildeberta that I might look into excommunicating myself. Oh, how we laughed. Until I looked up the church tax online and discovered that they take around 9% of your annual income tax. NINE PER CENT. Jesus… Excommunication didn’t seem so ridiculous now.

Maybe I'd become Greek Orthodox instead
Maybe I’d become Greek Orthodox instead

I Googled “leaving the Catholic Church” and discovered that it is actually impossible to leave voluntarily – once you’re in, you’re in for life, whether you like it or not. It seems that a lot of people didn’t like it and in 1983, the Vatican brought in a law that allowed its members to defect.

However, in 2009, they changed their minds canon law and those defections had no legal standing.

Or Russian Orthodox
Or Russian Orthodox

I cranked up my internet searching skills and discovered that it is possible to leave the Catholic Church in Germany. They even have a nifty website that tells you how to do it. You “simply” have to make an official declaration at the local exitingthechurchtoavoidpayingstupidtaxesoffice. In Berlin, this costs €30 but it varies from state to state.

I weighed up paying 9% of my annual income tax for the rest of my time in Germany versus a one-off payment of €30 and the decision was made. Almost.

I just had to make a quick phone call to a higher power – Mammy O’Grady, not God. God’s wrath and maybe even a plague of locusts is mild in comparison to the wrath of an Irish mammy… Thankfully, Mammy O’Grady is a sensible woman and was equally outraged at this money-grabbing malarkey.

It was time for the chop
It was time for the chop

It seems we’re not alone either. More than 181,000 German Catholics left the church in 2010, and 126,000 the following year. In short, German Catholics are dropping like flies and the church is freaking out, sensing that its bottomless money pit might be about to dry up. Diddums…

You might think that I could simply tick the “no faith” box and send the letter back, or just ignore it. NEIN. This is not an option. If you’re from certain countries, the Finanzamt just assumes that you are a certain religion (Ireland = Catholic) and may just start charging you at some point in the future anyway. This had to be official.

It states on the home page of the website that “It is not possible to leave the church by means of a letter!” I guess they assume that most foreigners would rather tick a box and take the financial hit than go to a German office and deal with the nightmare that this usually involves. Well, not this foreigner.

The bell tolls for thee, church tax
The bell tolls for thee, church tax

Tomorrow, I will be hauling my 37-year-old ass down to my local exitingthechurchtoavoidpayingstupidtaxesoffice, filling in the form, coughing up the €30, and excommunicating myself. After all, as Herr Christ himself said, “It is written… My house will be called a ‘house of prayer’, but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.'”

I wonder what he’d make of the German church tax…



Article on trying to leave the Catholic Church in Ireland

10 facts about German church tax