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Living without money

Caitlan Reeg Apr 20, 2012

Adriene Hill: I suppose those Girl Scouts could come to the decision that money just isn’t worth all the fuss. Why not go without?

A woman in Germany has been doing just that for years. Getting by without spending a single Euro.

Caitlan Caroll tell us how.

Caitlan Carroll: Else Scholz opens the door to her small, vine-covered house in Heidelberg, Germany.

Else Scholz: This is a very old house. Heidelberg is a very old town.

Scholz has someone staying with her at the house temporarily. We find her house guest sipping tea in the living room. She doesn’t look like your typical couch surfer, more like someone’s grandmother.

Heidemarie Schwermer: Hallo! I’m Heidemarie Schwermer and I live without money since nearly 16 years. And I am in the house of Else and we are sharing things together.

For the past 16 years, Heidemarie Schwermer has lived off the kindness of others. The 70-year-old woman house-sits, cleans or does readings from her self-help books. In exchange, she gets a place to sleep and eat. She finds new places through word-of-mouth. Schwermer says her adult children thought she was crazy when she decided to hit the road.

Schwermer: In the beginning, they were very sorrowful and thought, “Oh, our mother will go to the street.” But never, never, never I think “Oh where can I sleep?”

Schwermer developed a mistrust of money at an early age. She was born in 1942 in East Prussia, now Lithuania. Schwermer’s family left all of their wealth and came to Western Germany as war refugees.

Schwermer: I was a small girl, but I was thinking, “How can it be that a person who has no possession has no value?” We didn’t change in any kind, but we hadn’t any value anymore.

Schwermer started her path towards a money-less life in the nineties. The former teacher and psychotherapist founded Germany’s first “Give and Take Exchange.” It was a group of people who bartered with their skills instead of money.

Schwermer: And I began to notice, “Ah, I don’t need so much money anymore.” And there came the idea. Ah! Always wanted to live without money.

Schwermer’s lifestyle has attracted a lot of attention. She’s been featured in a documentary film and on a number of talk shows with others who are trying to live without money too. She says some people really like the idea. Others just see her as a freeloader.

Schwermer: For me, they say I am taking. I am a schnorrer. In Germany, there is an expression “Like a beggar.”

Thomas Druyen takes a kinder view. He’s a sociologist who studies the effects of money on society.

Thomas Druyen: I admire these people. They prove something, but maybe it’s just an arts project, ja?

He says people like Schwermer prove that it’s possible to live with less. But he thinks this way of life is more of a novelty than a template for society at large.

Druyen: The solution can’t be that people should get used to live without money. They should get used to live with a job, with a family and with values.

Some people in Germany are trying to have it both ways — to have the job and home but to also rely less on money. That’s why give-and-take exchange groups are proliferating.

In Frankfurt, an exchange group meets once a month at a pizza place to trade skills and stuff. Nicole Galliwoda’s been a member since 2004. She and her husband offer services like bike and computer repair in exchange for babysitting.

Nicole Galliwoda: Things are getting more and more expensive so I cannot do everything without money but if I can do a lot without paying money, that’s perfect!

Heidemarie Schwermer thinks that’s the perfect balance. She knows her lifestyle isn’t for everyone.

Schwermer: I don’t say, “Oh, money is so bad!” but I think I say money makes a separation between people.

And she says if people can come together to give and take what they need, then everyone feels richer.

I’m Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

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