40 German Idioms About Money & Work (+INFOGRAPHIC)

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      The importance of learning idioms

      Are you trying to learn German online and keep coming across idioms that you don’t understand? Just like in English, there are many idiomatic phrases in German that are regularly used in everyday conversation. However, German idioms are not always taught in German classes and are best picked up by talking to natives. Keep reading to learn all about them!

      German idioms about money and work: Young woman of German origin working on her laptop to earn money

      Defining ‘idiom’

      An idiom is a commonly used expression with a figurative meaning rather than a literal one. All languages feature idioms, and in English alone there are thousands of idiomatic phrases that make creative use of language to communicate a point.

      Learning idioms is very important for achieving fluency in a language for the following reasons:

      • Idioms are regularly used by native speakers: If you want to be able to communicate with natives effectively, you need a deep familiarity with a language that includes idiomatic expressions.
      • Idioms provide historical and cultural information about a language. Studying an idiom’s roots offers valuable insight that allows one to broaden their understanding of a culture.
      • Idioms are creative ways to express oneself. They offer a clever and often humorous way to communicate a point, making a conversation less monotonous.

      How idioms about money and work reflect the peculiarities of the German national character

      If you are learning German, you probably noticed that the language features many idioms about money and work. Idiomatic sayings like ‘Geld regiert die Welt’ (money rules the world) or ‘nach Geld stinken’ (to be filthy rich) are commonly used in Germany and it could be argued that they reflect the country’s attitudes to work and money. Indeed, while Germans are not boastful about money, they greatly appreciate working hard and saving money and their language has evolved to reflect that.

      While stereotypes are not always necessarily true, there are certain characteristics that have come to define the German people over time. Germans are known to be industrious, prudent, and thrifty. The fact that they are hard-working and have respect for rules, organization, and structure means that they are efficient, which manifests in all aspects of German society.

      Set expressions about money

      Earning your living

      1. Brötchen verdienen – to put bread on the table

      example: In der Praxis gucken sie dumm aus der Wäsche, wenn sie mal selber ihre Brötchen verdienen müssen. (Max v. der Grün. Stellenweise Glatteis)

      ‘Brötchen verdienen’ translates as ‘to earn bread’ and it is a phrase that can be used to colloquially talk about earning one’s living, i.e. working to earn an income, which allows you to put food on the table.

      2. von seiner Hände Arbeit leben to live by the sweat of one’s brow

      example: Mönch ist, wer von seiner Hände Arbeit leben kann. (Abendblatt, 2013)

      An idiom used to express that someone is living on the work of their own hands (Hände), this phrase implies that a person is earning their livelihood through employment and often signifies manual labor.

      3. Kasse machen – to make bank

      example: Betrüger versuchen derzeit im Internet, mit vermeintlichen Goldverkäufen Kasse zu machen. (Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung)

      ‘Kasse machen’ is an idiom that implies that a person is earning a lot of money. Literally meaning to ‘cash in’, this phrase is used to suggest that someone is making significant profit from their work.

      4. etwas auf der hohen Kante haben – to have some savings

      example: Paar lumpige Kröten haben wir auch auf der hohen Kante, davon könnten wir nicht mal ein ganzes Jahr leben. (Max v. der Grün. Stellenweise Glatteis)

      This colloquial phrase translates to ‘having something put away somewhere’, which, in the context of earning one’s living, means to have savings or put money aside for a rainy day.

      Laptop standing on the table and male hands counting money

      Cheap / expensive purchases

      5. etwas für ein Butterbrot kaufen — to buy something at a knockdown price

      example: Köster hatte den Wagen, eine Hochbordige, alte Kiste, seinerzeit auf einer Auktion für ein Butterbrot gekauft. (E.M.Remarque. Drei Kameraden)

      When you use this phrase, you are literally saying you bought something for the price of a slice of buttered bread, which is very cheap. Essentially, this idiom implies that you managed to get yourself a bargain.

      6. für etwas schwer bluten müssen — to pay top dollar

      example: Bist du sicher, dass du dieses schicke Abendkleid kaufen willst? Dafür musst du schwer bluten!

      The literal meaning of this idiom is ‘to bleed for something’. When used referring to a purchase, it suggests that it is so expensive that it will make you figuratively bleed – it will cost you and an arm and a leg.

      7. ins Geld gehen/laufen – to cost a lot of money

      example: In der Nähe zu arbeiten heißt auch, Transportkosten zu sparen, die ganz schön ins Geld gehen können.

      While literally this phrase means ‘to go/run into the money’, when it comes to purchases it means that something is very expensive. You can make use of this phrase to signify that the price of something is very steep.

      8. ein großes/gewaltiges/tiefes Loch in die Kasse reißen – to cost somebody a lot of money

      example: Das Jahr hat ein großes Loch in die Kasse gerissen. (Mannheimer Morgen, 2010)

      Meaning ‘to tear a big/huge/deep hole in a cash register’, this phrase is used to figuratively express that something is so expensive that it essentially ‘makes a dent’ in your savings.

      9. einen [schönen] Batzen Geld kosten – to cost a pretty penny

      example: Das hat uns einen schönen Batzen Geld gekostet.

      An expression that translates as ‘to cost a nice chunk of money’, it could be said that the English equivalent is ‘to cost a pretty penny’. This phrase is used to indicate that a purchase is quite pricey.

      10. hoch im Preis stehen – to be easy to sell for a good price

      example: Antiquitäten stehen zurzeit hoch im Preis.

      When something is referred to as such, it means that it can fetch a high price when sold. Use this phrase when talking about items that are in high demand and, therefore, expensive.


      11. gut bei der Kasse sein – to have a lot of money

      example: Heute Nacht wart ihr nicht gerade bei Kasse. (H. Fallada. Junger Herr - ganz groß)

      When this idiom is used in reference to somebody, it means they have a lot of money by implying that they are good at handling it.

      Infographic enlisting German idioms about wealth and poverty

      12. Geld wie Heu haben – to have money to burn

      example: "Hat er Geld?" – "Wie Heu", erwidert Karl mit einem gewissen Respekt. (E. M. Remarque. Der Weg zurück)

      This idiom translates to ‘having money like hay’. Hay is made up of innumerable individual stacks that are hard to count and, so, figuratively the phrase implies that somebody has so much money they could afford to burn it.

      13. im Geld schwimmen – to swim in money

      example: Auch im Geld zu schwimmen will gelernt sein. (Die Welt, 2007)

      Translating to ‘swimming in money’, this phrase, like its English equivalent, can be used colloquially to refer to somebody who is very rich.

      14. ein goldener Boden – a pot of gold

      example: Dieses Geschäft ist ein goldener Boden! Hier kann man gutes Geld verdienen!

      With the literal meaning of this German phrase being ‘a golden floor’, it could be said that its English equivalent is ‘a pot of gold’. It is used to refer to something that has a lot of earning potential or is very profitable.

      Spending money

      15. das Geld auf den Kopf hauen – to squander money

      example: Davon sind 20 Mark verdient. Die werden wir heute auf den Kopf hauen. (E. M. Remarque. Drei Kameraden)

      The literal translation of this German idiom is ‘to strike the money on the head’, but its meaning is ‘to throw money around’. It is used to express that somebody is squandering money.

      16. ihm rinnt das Geld durch die Finger – he is a spendthrift

      example: Auch den Junganlegern rinnt das Geld durch die Finger. (Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, 2008)

      Used to refer to a person who is spending money in an extravagant or irresponsible way, this idiom literally translates to ‘money trickling through the fingers’ of somebody.

      17. sein Geld auf die Straße werfen – to be a spendthrift

      example: Hat auch Karlsruhe Geld auf die Straße geworfen? (Kralsruhe News, 2015)

      Literally meaning ‘throwing money on the street’, this idiom is used to express that somebody is spending their money recklessly, wasting it by figuratively throwing it out on the street.

      18. sein Geld zum Fenster hinauswerfen – to spend money on unnecessary things

      example: Er wirft ja permanent das Geld zum Fenster hinaus.

      Very similar to the previous idiom, this phrase means ‘to throw money out of the window’. It can be used in situations where somebody is careless with their money, spending it on unnecessary things.

      19. sein Geld zum Schornstein hinausjagen – to pour money down the drain

      example: Jagen Sie kein Geld zum Schornstein hinaus!

      While this German idiom translates to ‘sending money down the chimney’, it can be said that its English equivalent is ‘to pour money down the drain’. Both these phrases signify the same: that money is spent irresponsibly and without a real purpose.


      20. keine großen Sprünge machen können – to be unable to afford much

      example: Vielleicht war das ja ein Zeichen der DDR-typischen Bescheidenheit, vielleicht aber auch dafür, dass man mit dem Geld keine großen Sprünge machen konnte. (Lausitzer Rundschau, 2003)

      The literal meaning of this German phrase is ‘not to be able to make big jumps’. It is used to express that somebody is not able to spend a lot of money, i.e. they cannot afford to make ‘leaps’ when it comes to their spending.

      21. bei jemandem in der Kreide stehen – to owe somebody money

      example: Vielleicht hast du schon bemerkt, es wird Frühling. Und ich steh bei dir noch in der Kreide. (G. Görlich. Autopanne)

      Translating as ‘to stand in the chalk’, this idiom expresses that you have an outstanding debt to somebody, i.e. you owe them a favor or, in a financial context, money.

      22. jemanden auf den Hund bringen – to make somebody go bankrupt

      example: Dieser heimtückische Geschäftsmann plant seinen Partner auf den Hund zu bringen und große Profite dadurch zu gewinnen.

      A colloquial phrase used in many contexts, this phrase means ‘bringing someone on the dog’ literally. Figuratively and when it comes to money, it means to get into very bad circumstances financially, i.e. go bankrupt.

      23. den Bach hinuntergehen – to go bankrupt

      example: Diese Firma gibt es nicht mehr, die ist schon vor Jahren den Bach hinuntergegangen. (Neues Deutschland. 1996)

      Even though this idiom translates to ‘to go down the drain’, in financial contexts it is used to indicate that somebody has gone bankrupt.

      24. nichts zu brechen und zu beißen haben – to tighten one’s belt

      example: Während des Krieges litten viele Leute an Hunger und hatten nichts zu brechen und zu beißen; trotzdem hofften sie aufs Beste.

      An idiom translating to ‘having nothing to break or bite’, it means having nothing to eat and signifies extreme poverty. In English, it could be said that someone in a hard financial situation has to ‘tighten their belt’ for the same reason.

      25. ganz blank sein — to be broke

      example: Solch eine große Summe kann ich dir nicht leihen. Ich bin ganz blank.

      ‘Ganz blank sein’ means ‘to be completely bare’. When it comes to finances, it indicates that somebody has absolutely no money and is, therefore, bare or, as we would say in English, broke.

      26. arm wie eine Kirchenmaus sein – to be dog-poor

      example: Früher war er sehr reich, aber nachdem seine Firma bankrott gegangen ist, ist er arm wie eine Kirchenmaus.

      A phrase that translates as ‘to be poor as a church mouse’, this idiom is a humorous German way to express poverty, the best equivalent of which in English would be ‘to be dog-poor’.

      Idiomatic phrases about work

      Hard work

      27. wie ein Pferd arbeiten – to work like a horse

      example: Der arme Bauer arbeitete wie ein Pferd, verdiente aber sehr wenig.

      Just like we do in English, the Germans use the phrase ‘wie ein Pferd arbeiten’ to talk about someone who works very hard, i.e. like a horse, to earn a living.

      28. mit Dampf arbeiten – to leather away on the job

      example: Wenn man mit Dampf arbeitet und seine Arbeit genießt, dann ist auch das Ergebnis gut.

      This German idiom translates as ‘to work with steam’ and is used to talk about working very hard, leathering away on their job to earn a living.

      29. auf Deibel komm raus arbeiten – to work one’s fingers to the bone

      example: Es ist ihm gelungen, dieses teure Auto zu kaufen, weil er das ganze Jahr auf Deibel komm raus gearbeitet hat.

      An idiom that implies someone is working like hell or until the Deibel (devil) comes out, it is used to mean one is working extremely hard, i.e. working their fingers to the bone.

      30. tief in Arbeit stecken – to dive into work

      example: Stör ihn nicht! Er steckt tief in Arbeit: er hat eine schwierige Aufgabe bekommen.

      A phrase that means ‘to be deep in work’, ‘tief in Arbeit stecken’ is used to express someone is buried in their work, focusing on it hard.

      Kid's hand on an open book


      31. die Treppe hinauffallen – to shoot up the ladder

      example: "Ein Mann mit Ihren Fähigkeiten allerdings wird in der Branch die Treppe sofort wieder hinauffallen<...>" (J. Reding. Phasen eines Plans)

      While literally translating as ‘to fall up the stairs’, it could be said that the best English equivalent of this idiom is ‘to shoot up the ladder’ as it is used when referring to getting a promotion at work.

      32. einen großen Sprung machen – to make a great career leap

      example: Er hat einen großen Sprung gemacht und ist hessischer Innenminister geworden. (Berliner Zeitung. 2000/2001)

      When used in the context of work, the phrase that means ‘to take a big leap’ means somebody has moved forward and advanced greatly in their career.

      33. sich (Dat.) Bahn brechen – to beat your way through

      example: Da er keine Verbindungen hatte, als er mit seiner Laufbahn anfing, musste er sich selbst Bahn brechen.

      When used in relation to work, the idiom that means ‘to break through’ acknowledges that somebody ‘beat their own way through’ to a successful career and carved their own path.


      34. blauen Montag machen — to skip your work

      example: Da er letzte Woche blauen Montag gemacht hat, bekommt er in diesem Monat keine Prämie.

      ‘Blauer Montag’ (blue Monday) in German alludes to the period in the country’s past when Monday was a work-free day for craftsmen. Today, ‘blauen Montag machen’ means to skive and skip work.

      35. auf der Bärenhaut liegen – to spend your time uselessly

      example: Warum liegst du immer auf der Bärenhaut, während alle arbeiten?

      A phrase that literally means ‘to lie on bear skin’, this German idiom has its roots in the XVIth century and means being lazy and wasting time by idling about.


      36. j-m den Stuhl vor die Tür stellen – to give somebody the boot

      example: Man konnte ihm doch nicht ohne weiteres den Stuhl vor die Tür setzen. (B. Kellermann. Totentanz)

      Literally meaning ‘to put the chair in front of the door’, it means to expel somebody. In the context of work, it means to dismiss them, i.e. give them the boot, firing them.

      37. j-m die Beine wegschlagen – to dismiss somebody

      example: Er denkt erbittert, ihm habe man die Beine weggeschlagen; ihm, der <…> drei entscheidend wichtige Produktionen in Gang gebracht hat. (W. Steinberg. Pferdewechsel)

      Another idiom used when someone is fired, this phrase translates as ‘to cut the legs off’ somebody. It colloquially expresses that somebody is dismissed from their work.

      38. ein blauer Brief — letter of dismissal

      example: Ganz unerwartet hat er einen blauen Brief bekommen.

      A ‘blauer Brief’ (a blue letter) is associated with bad news in Germany since the XVIIIth century and, so, in the context of work, getting a blue letter actually means getting a letter of dismissal.


      39. auf der Straße liegen – to be on the streets

      example: Ich habe dir doch schon mal gesagt, Vater, dass du auf der Straße liegst, das verdankst du deiner Partei. (Max v. der Grün. Flächenbrand)

      Much like its English equivalent, ‘auf der Straße liegen’ denotes that somebody is lying on the streets due to not having a job and, therefore, not being able to afford a roof over their head.

      40. in die Luft fliegen – to get the ax

      example: Ich habe Pflichten im Leben. Ich möchte nicht gern in die Luft fliegen. (E.M.Remarque. Arc De Triomphe)

      While translating as ‘to blow up’, in the context of work in Germany, this phrase means to get fired. It could be said that an English equivalent is ‘to get the ax’.

      Idioms are fun!

      Germany is famous for being an industrious nation, where professionalism, hard work, and being prudent with money are greatly valued. Unsurprisingly, the German language reflects these unique traits of the culture with its many idioms about work and money.

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