A History of Saving in Austria

Possessing a savings book or a savings card is taken as a given these days. However, it has not always been easy to tuck away funds in a little nest egg, or to take one's savings to the bank. It was only at the beginning of the 19th century that the first saving banks were founded.

The first savings book in Austria

The very first savings book in central Europe was issued on 4 October, 1819 in Austria. This was deposit book no.1 from the Erste Oesterreichische Spar-Casse the first of 100 savings books that were given to, “worthy children of the lower class, between 12 and 15 years of age,” in the year 1819. Little Marie Schwarz became the bearer of this first savings book. The donated amount of 10 gulden – equivalent today to around 140 Euros – and the interest accrued thereon was not allowed to be withdrawn until her twentieth birthday. In 29 years no extra capital was added to this fund, apart from the six-monthly interest payments. Finally, when she was 45 years old, and in the year of revolution of 1848, Marie Schwarz withdrew her deposit. With an average interest rate of 4% p.a., her initial fund had grown by over 30 gulden. In the years after this, she continued to save and also make withdrawals, until in January of 1896 she made her final transaction, with 5 gulden and 33 kreuzer remaining on the savings book.

Saving in the 18th century (Sparen im 18. Jahrhundert)

For the majority of people in the 18th century, saving meant making provisions for possible difficult times in the future. The population stockpiled wheat and cereals and conserved food to keep for themselves and their families. Capital did not have any monetary shape or form. The precious few coins that people did possess were kept in stockings, in hope chests, or were sewn into waistcoats and skirts.

Saving in the 19th  century (sparen im 19. Jahrhundert)

This all changed in the 19th century. Old orders dissipated and social structures began to evolve. The estate owners and lordships started to lose their importance. They had limited the freedom of the people on their lands, but they had also provided them with security. At the same time, the workers' guilds in the towns and cities - who had been offering their members financial support for old age and sickness – also lost influence. Consequently, the idea of making personal provisions for one's own future well-being became more and more important.

Demand for the savings banks as an institution then crystallised in the larger towns and cities. Attracted to the possibility of earning more, countless people, mostly from the poorest social strata, left the land for the city. And since there was no form of social security – state-wide national health insurance was first introduced in Austria in 1889 – people who experienced illness, work incapacity and old age often faced the bitterest poverty.

Founding of Savings Banks in Central Europe (Gründung der ersten Sparkassen Zentraleuropas)

Relief for the poor lay in the hands of the church and monasteries. It is therefore of little surprise that a priest was one of the founding members of the first savings bank of central Europe. Johann Baptist Weber initially set up a priest's fund, which offered interest-free credit to needy citizens. In the year 1819, in the parish of St Leopold in the suburbs of Vienna, he founded the Erste Oesterreichische Spar-Casse with a total investment of 10,000 gulden – equivalent to around 140,000 Euros today.

At this time, customers of the banks were essentially made up from the state, large companies and wealthy bourgeois. Small retailers, craftsmen, day labourers, factory workers and servants had to make their way through their lives relying almost exclusively on cash and liquid exchange. However, even they were able to set aside some small amounts of money from time to time. Father Weber considered his savings bank a 'bank for the little people'. Here they would have the chance to save whatever humble amounts they could muster, with the goals, as the principle of the savings bank stated: “to establish a better provision for the future, for endowments, for support during times of sickness, old age, or for the achievement of any worthy purpose.”

Father Johann Baptist Weber (1786 – 1848)

Even in the first years of the saving bank’s operation there was insufficient room in the rectory at St Leopold for the growing number of savers. 1823 saw the operation move to a house on Graben street – the very same place that today marks the centre of the Erste Bank, which meets the city centre of Vienna and is in direct proximity to the St Stephen’s Cathedral.


The great social problems that accompanied industrialisation did not escape Austria. Having developed strongly prior to the year 1848 – at this point there was wealth totalling more than 32 million gulden sitting in around 150'000 accounts – Erste Bank contracted greatly at the beginning of the unrest in the year of revolution with people withdrawing in huge amounts and thus deposits stagnating.

The period around 1870 was noted as one of increased speculation and economic growth. Since the Franco-Prussian war, large amounts of money had gotten in circulation. This was because the French were in a hurry to pay back their reparations to Germany as quickly as possible. All of this money had to be managed and the Viennese stock exchange offered its services to this end. The savings banks with their renowned conservative approach to money management suffered from the stock market fever that took hold. A growing proportion of saving deposits were channelled through bodies called Maklerbanken for speculation. It was only after the stock exchange collapse of 1873 that investors returned to the saving banks.

The founders of the Erste Oesterreichischen Spar-Casse also took it upon themselves, “to confront increasing mass impoverishment.” According to its founding principles, the Erste would contribute money for charitable and communal causes upon making profits in excess of 3 million gulden. Between 1819 and 1908, around 10 million kronen (ca 41 million Euros) were made available for social, as well as cultural projects – the first being instrumental in the establishment of the Wiener Musikverein.

The First World War did not only cost millions of people their lives; it also destroyed societal order and eroded faith in the state and the economy. From 1920, the years of hyperinflation were followed by a short upshoot in the economy and then the world-wide economic depression. Although the schilling had replaced the krone, the economy picked itself up slowly. Civil war and the authoritarian corporate state had contributed in changing Austria into a small state in the aftermath of the First World War, with its unstable economic relationships. The apparent economic boom which arrived with the partnership and – later – the Anschluss with Germany was nothing more than the result of mobilisation for another war.

With the accession of Austria to the German Reich, the Austrian savings banks became a part of the German saving banks organisation. As a part of the conditions applicable in law at that time, staff were relieved of their duties on the basis of their race and political sympathies, and monies were expropriated from the accounts of targeted individuals.

The national socialist regime made saving a duty for all “Volksgenossen” and diverted a significant portion of private savings into armament and war funding.

In 1945, large numbers of saving deposits managed by the credit institutions were in now worthless treasury bonds and debentures of the Third Reich. The nominal value of Erste's assets in 1945 stood at 750 million schillings. However, the actual worth – measured from purchasing power – lay around just 4 – 5 million schillings. In 1955, every Austrian banking institution produced a Rekonstruktionsbilanz (statement of finances following reconstruction), in which the last ten business years could be put together to see the balance for the period. For Erste, their liquidity was encouraging: 41% of total assets were kept in liquid form, and 15% in securities. On the liabilities side, the portion of savings deposits reached 61% of the balance sheet once more.

The Rekonstruktionsbilanz was not just the reflection of a strengthened economy, but also a document which put the faith of savers back into the credit institutions. The share of savings deposits was diminished over the next few years by increasing cashless transactions and, from the 1970s onwards, by the growth in checking and payroll accounts.

The first cash machine at the head office at Graben, 1968

The duty to promote a willingness to save in children has long been seen as the responsibility of parents and teachers. Saving was done as a class in school – school savings days are still popular today, where they enjoy great popularity, particularly in the countryside – or in home saving boxes under the supervision of parents, which would be given over to the bank clerks in a respectful manner.

A stop in a savings bank should also have a fun side to it, however. The Sparefroh has been around for this purpose since the mid 1950s, with his red hat and shoes. But the Sparefroh isn't just confined to encouraging long-term saving. He worked in a Punch and Judy show, appeared as an entertainer with his own Sparefroh songs, as a bookmark and as a sweet dispenser.

The prudent saver, a seminal figure of the post-war years, has now come back to the fore given the current economic climate. With him also comes the yearning for security and the ability to avoid risk. But saving is much more than just handing spare money over to the bank. Saving is attitude, strategy and a question of trust. The founding idea of the Erste österreichische Spar-Casse was based on the principle of communal integration and social responsibility. To this day, this remains a crucial element in the business of Erste Bank, as well as the duty for the future.