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Finding happiness without money

The Local · 18 Aug 2011, 08:47

Published: 18 Aug 2011 08:47 GMT+02:00

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With only a touch of makeup, a light pink cotton sweater and string of fake pearls, the elegant pensioner with a warm smile says she can hardly remember the last time she spent a cent.

Instead, since 1996, she has lived by a unique scheme of swaps and barters she says has held her in good stead.

Not a religious ascetic or a commune dweller, Schwermer is an urbanite living in the heart of a materialistic society and says she has no plans to go back to the world of euros and cents.

"Giving up money gave me quality of life, inner wealth and freedom," she says.

Turning one's back on consumerism in Europe's top economy, particularly now in a period of relative growth compared to its neighbours, has a radical charm rooted in a tumultuous life history.

Born during World War II in what was then East Prussia, Schwermer as a child joined the flood of refugees expelled by Russian forces. Her family arrived in Germany penniless.

"I saw how you were considered to be even less than worthless if you did not have possessions or money," she said.

In the late 1960s, she spent a year in Chile, and "I saw extreme poverty there."

Back in Germany, she had two children, divorced and moved to the western city of Dortmund in 1982, where she opened a psychotherapy practice.

"I wanted to understand what is going on in the minds of human beings. But that was not enough, I wanted to do more for the world," she explains.

Thus the idea was born in 1994 to start a swapping network for people short of cash - a groundbreaking notion. Pensioners and students answered the call in droves.

Schwermer began to housesit in exchange for payment in kind. She quickly noticed that she could take care of almost all of her material needs without ever stumping up.

In 1996, she took the decisive leap: she quit her job, moved out of her rented home, gave away all her possessions, closed her bank account, cancelled her health insurance and threw herself into what was planned as a year without money.

Those closest to her were baffled. "My daughter was worried to death, my friends nearly cried. Now they're behind me."

Schwermer flopped on sofas where she could and started writing a book about her experience, which has also been translated into other languages.

"I earned a lot of money with that book," she confides. "I gave it all away to passersby, in five-mark bills", Germany's currency at the time.

She has appeared on television, moderated seminars and been the subject of a documentary film.

Now she is editing her third book in a house in the northern seaside city of Wilhelmshaven where she is crashing for a while. In return, she takes out the trash and mows the lawn.

Story continues below…

Schwermer gives her pension of €700 ($1,000) per month to "acquaintances who need it" and refuses to think about old age or go to the doctor.

She found a health food store in Dortmund that gave her discarded produce, and now in Wilhelmshaven a friend sometimes hands her vegetables from her garden. If need be, she occasionally seeks the help of a soup kitchen.

"Of course I worry if there is nothing in the fridge," she says. "In the beginning I was afraid all the time but what I love above all (about the lifestyle) is not knowing what will happen tomorrow."

Schwermer said she is not seeking disciples but perhaps "to help people reflect on their way of life and their relations with others."

In two months, she will take out her small suitcase, which holds all of her earthly possessions, bound for Destination Unknown.


The Local (news@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

13:01 August 18, 2011 by Eastard
Good show... Interesting challenge of principles versus comfort. Seems the principles won... Be careful that the capitalists don't find a way to tax non-monetary existence... Best of luck from the US...
15:39 August 18, 2011 by padrian2
omg... I think Richard Stallman should date Heidemarie.
19:22 August 18, 2011 by mobiusro
Interesting concept, but from my point of view it's major flaw is the fact that one is actually relying on people who do use money - to pay the rent for the apartment where she sleeps on a couch, to buy stuff and then give it away, to pay for the patch of garden where vegetables are being planted. So indirectly she is using money...
20:22 August 18, 2011 by vulturesquadron
Good for her. Having said that I bet she's a pain the arse if you're down the pub with her.
09:46 August 19, 2011 by verbatim613
So she eschews the economic infrastructure of civil society and the open market system, yet she's happy to benefit from their bounty and success?

She should be a productive member of society.
13:59 August 19, 2011 by LecteurX
I agree with those saying that it only works because others around her spend some money...

@verbatim613, she's 69, for Chrissake, she receives a 700€ state pension each month (which she chooses to give away), because, erm, she used to work. Until when are you supposed to be "productive"? Right until you're lying on your deathbed? Get a grip.
17:06 August 19, 2011 by Flauterfiddle
All she is doing is using an alternative money system, namely that of services and barter.

You might as well praise a leading stockbroker who suddenly decides to sell their investments and tries to live entirely using (a very large suitcase of) cash. It's the same thing: just simply changing one system for another.

Not many centuries ago, half of humanity probably lived like she does now: getting by through making use of tribal and familial grace and favour.

On the other hand, they were probably considerably more self-sufficient.
18:22 August 19, 2011 by Jack Kerouac
She relies on those close to her, basically making them feel burdened for even knowing her, and she takes advantage of the food, housing, and utilities which others bought with THIER money. She is still contributing to the capitalist system she thinks she has turned away from. Typical leftist German notion, that being poor is trendy and good for the individual. It doesn't seem so good for the people you take advantage of! Get a clue. (by the way - what can she possibly have to barder in her so-called 'barder-system'?)
20:46 August 19, 2011 by Netzwerk
I like money very much :)
22:57 August 19, 2011 by MarkOnline
There are various levels of financial freedom and this lady shows us all how financial freedom works at its most difficult level. The sooner we all start to shun consumerism the better... for us, for our families and for the Chinese slave laborers who assemble the bits of plastic we so desire!
11:46 August 20, 2011 by dorman143
There is much more to Ms Schwermer's story than is presented here of course. Maybe try... http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/article6928744.ece
20:44 August 20, 2011 by PierceArrow
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
15:53 August 22, 2011 by alanborky
Those on here who're criticising Heidemarie Schwermer're missing the point.

It isn't her who's taking advantage of others - it's others who instead of having to pay hard cash to have their houses minded, their lawns trimmed, etc., get a 'free ride' for food they'd've thrown in the bin anyway, for a lift in a car in a journey they'd've made anyway, etc., etc.
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