Living Without Money…but Not Really

A recent article in the Yahoo! Financially Fit column called our attention to Heidemarie Schwermer, a 69-year-old grandmother and German citizen who, it’s proclaimed, has lived a happy and healthy existence for the past 16 years without money.  She was quoted in the Austrian Times as having become “irritated by the greedy consumer society” she saw all around her, and wanted to drop out and away from all of that.  She has a long-held empathy for the homeless community, and while she has written three books about her experiences, she has given away all proceeds to the less fortunate.  As for her day-to-day existence, she gets by on trading a variety of services…gardening, cleaning, and even therapy sessions (she is a psychotherapist by trade)…for the goods and services she needs to live.

It is, however, this very exchange of work for goods and services that calls into question the integrity of the notion that she is getting along completely without the use of money.    

To say that one is living without money implies that one is also living without the benefit of commerce of any kind.  I can say that I’m living “without money” because I am not paid in cash for my work, but if I can somehow exchange that work directly for a house and a car, I am hardly, in spirit, living “without money.” 

Also, the article does a poor job of filling in the blanks of how this person is living an apparently-modern lifestyle in a metropolitan area without the benefit of money of any kind.  If she had relocated to a remote part of the country and was living entirely off of the land, that would be much closer to the idea of living without money.  Clearly, the “sizzle” of this article is meant to be the idea that you can live a non-remote existence in the 21st Century “without money,” but that is not really the case.

The biggest, most overriding issue is that people who claim to live without money often have a pretty direct reliance on those who do.  Let’s say I trade my labors for a place to sleep – that place to sleep was built/bought with money at some point in the process.  If I avail myself of any place with utilities, the processing of the electricity, gas, whatever…into a usable, end-stage consumer resource was accomplished with money.  The list goes on.

There is also, cryptically, a reference to Germany’s “social safety net” in the article, suggesting that if Ms. Schwermer REALLY gets jammed up, she can rely on it.  That is not, however, living without money.  That is living on everyone else’s money.

Let me be clear about this, lest anyone accuse me of being a heartless ogre – there is plenty of evidence that this woman is more loving, more giving to her fellow man, than a whole lot of the rest of us, and I do not want that fact lost in my screed.  Her personal struggles as a refugee during World War II are those of which I cannot even conceive.  I doubt not for one moment her sincere love of her fellow man, and how wonderful would it be if more of us had the same sorts of charitable, heartfelt inclinations that clearly guide nearly all of what she does, apparently.  Bravo.

All of that said, it is terribly misleading to state or even suggest that her life is not characterized by the facilitation of commerce, or even the outright use of money…even if she doesn’t happy to carry any euros in her pocket.

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