Happiness is: a life without money in rich Germany

Sixty-nine-year-old German Heidemarie Schwermer never thought she could go so long without money, but what begun as a 12-month experiment became a unique lifestyle 15 years ago.

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.

Schwermer gives her pension of 700 euros ($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.

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Sport
David Silva, Andy Carroll, Arsene Wenger and Radamel Falcao
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers



    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service Engineers ...

    Recruitment Genius: Project Director / Operations Director

    £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an incredible opportunity for a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Administrator is requir...

    Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

    £23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'