Get shit for free

Something remarkable happened to me a few weeks ago. Thanks to the resourcefulness and generosity of my friend and spirit guide Documentally, a rather exclusive, high-end and indeed Swiss tech company sent me their new Punkt MP02 phone. For free. No strings attached.

I’ve written elsewhere about how everything is free, but I’ve never had the gumption to straight up ask people to send me stuff. But The Swiss Phone Incident has inspired me: never again will I spend significant sums of moolah, until I’ve first tried to get it (or do it) for nothing.

Of course, nothing is for nothing. I doubt Punkt would have sent me a free phone if I didn’t have some record (however modest) of writing about stuff on the internet.

The Swiss Phone Incident has made me realise that, although writing isn’t a terribly well-paid job, it does open up opportunities to supplement one’s income.

For example, some friends recently invited me to Love Trails, a running festival in Wales that sounded right up my alley – if it wasn’t for the £130+ price tag. So, in the after-glow of The Swiss Phone Incident, I emailed the organisers suggesting that I give a talk in exchange for a free ticket and travel expenses.

To my enduring surprise (I still think it was all a dream), they said yes. What’s great about this – aside from saving well over £130 – is that instead of merely going to the festival, I am the festival – or part of it, at least. My experience of Love Trails will be all the greater for not spending money on a ticket.

I have found this again and again: spending money is the simplest, but also the lowest impact way of acquiring a thing or an experience.

Hitch-hiking will always be more latent with possibility than buying a plane ticket. Skipping food from bins is so much more fraught with surprise and reward than is shopping at Lidl. Sharing tools and swapping skills with your neighbours opens up futures that are sullied by contracts and cash.

By spending a little time figuring out how we might get shit for free, we not only save money, but also become more engaged with the people and planet around us, learn new skills or practise old ones, and – above all – have more interesting stories to tell of our lives.

Digital minimalism is a niche topic, and I doubt many people can afford to spend £300 for a phone that doesn’t even take photos – but I hope that The Swiss Phone Incident inspires you to look for opportunities where you can spend a little less and live a little more.

For those of you who are interested in what I think of the Punkt MP02, the review is here.

#15: We all live moneyless Most of life is made up of spider's web networks of cashless exchange, favours and gifts

For Mark Boyle, who lived without money for four years, money is a wedge that separates us from the consequences of our actions – and he’s not just talking about material goods.

“For the first time I experienced how connected and interdependent I was on the people and natural world around me. More than anything else, I discovered that my security no longer lay in my bank account, but in the strength of my relationships with the people, plants and animals around me.”

I’ve only been living moneyless for a week, and in a very limited fashion, but I felt exactly the same. As Mark says, “My character replaced sterling as my currency.”

The Moneyless Life

Mark is far from alone in living the moneyless life. Other people who are living or who have lived without money include Daniel Suelo living in a cave in Colorado, retiree Heidemarie Schwermer in Germany, academic Carolien Hoogland in Amsterdam, squatter Katherine Hibbert in London, and computer programmer Elf Pavlik, who ranges all over Europe but whom I met in Austria.

But there’s one person I must give special mention to – you. There’s one area where we’re all guilty of moneyless living: with those we love.

Indeed, we’d be utterly outraged if anyone tried to give us cash in exchange for the dozens of acts of loving kindness that we perform for our friends and family every day. Research by LV has estimated the average cost of raising a child born in 2016 at £231,843, but any parental attempt to recoup the bill from their children would be monstrous.

The fact is that most of life is made up of spider’s web networks of cashless exchange, favours and gifts. Yes, I spend money six days out of seven, but I am reliant on friends and neighbours for almost every single moment – certainly all the most important ones.

Debt versus Obligation

Thinking in this moneyless way has profound consequences.

In his critically acclaimed book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber explains the difference between a debt and an obligation. Obligation is what I feel towards my neighbour after he invites me to dinner, lends me his power drill or looks after my (hypothetical) kids for the evening; debt is what I feel towards the bank for my loan-funded education, towards work after taking the pay check, or towards Shylock after losing his money in an ill-fated mercantile venture. Obligations bond human beings; debts divide them.

As Graeber writes: “The difference between a debt and an obligation is that a debt can be precisely quantified. This requires money.” It follow that, if we remove money from a transaction, it becomes not a debt to be paid but an obligation:

  • an unspecific generosity,
  • of similar but crucially not identical value,
  • to be performed not immediately, but at some appropriate moment in the future, according to the unique needs of the recipient and resources of the obliged.

In this way, exchange by exchange, we could move from the waste economy of destruction to the gift economy of connection. We could move to a society where we treat each other more like family by exchanging gifts, sharing food and doing favours for the love, not the lucre.

Prosocial Spending

If you do have money, the best way you can spend it is on other people. In a 2010 working paper, an international team of psychologists reported on a series of experiments, including a survey of over 200,000 people in 136 countries worldwide, as well as more detailed and controlled experiments comparing selfish and prosocial spending in Canada and Uganda, and Canada and South Africa. Their results were clear:

“Human beings everywhere may experience emotional benefits from using their financial resources to benefit others … [I]ndividuals report significantly greater well-being after reflecting on a time when they spent money on others rather than themselves”.

Two of the psychologists involved in the study, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, have collected dozens of studies into the impact on our happiness of how we spend money and have concluded that effective prosocial spending should satisfy three criteria:

  1. The spending should be our own free choice: enforced charitable donations don’t make us happy.
  2. You should feel a strong connection to your gift or donation. Who you give to (a close family or a stranger?) and how you give (in person or remotely?) both profoundly affect how we feel about our spending.
  3. It should make a positive impact. It’s hard to see the impact of a £10 donation to a huge global charity, but spending £10 on lunch with a lonely neighbour will have a clear and immediate positive impact.

Happiness is the Opposite of Selfishness

This experiment in moneyless living has changed the way I see the world for good. Money solves problems, but only problems of distribution: the abundance is already out there, waiting for collection. Spending money, therefore, distances us from the source of our needs and becomes a direct correlate for waste. Indeed, financial transactions between humans creates debt and alienates us from each other in ways that are damaging to our personal health and the health of our communities.

There are two clear alternatives:

  • We can spend more time in our moneyless economies by treating more people as we already do our family and friends, relying on obligation rather than debt to balance our affairs.
  • We can do much more prosocial spending. According to the research, around 10% of our spending is prosocial. Could this be higher?

In the end, I’m reminded of the motto of fêted schoolmaster and biographer Sir Anthony Seldon, “happiness is the opposite of selfishness”.

Further Reading

Boyle, Mark. ‘Living without Money: What I Learned’. The Guardian, 15 September 2015.

Daniel Suelo: Sundeen, Mark. The Man Who Quit Money. 2012.

Film about Heidemarie Schwermer: ‘Living Without Money’. Living Without Money. Accessed 2 October 2016.

Carolien Hoogland TEDx Talk: ‘Carolien Hoogland: My Year of Living without Money – YouTube’. Accessed 2 October 2016.

Katherine Hibbert: Hibbert, Katherine. 2010. Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society. Ebury Press.

Elf Pavlik: ‘Living a Free and Abundant Life without Money @elfPavlik’. audioBoom. Accessed 2 October 2016.

See also:

‘Raising a Child More Expensive than Buying a House’. Accessed 2 October 2016.

David Graeber. 2012. Debt: The First 2,000 Years. Melville House Publishing. p21

Aknin, Lara B., Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh, Elizabeth W. Dunn, John F. Helliwell, Justine Burns, Robert Biswas-Diener, Imelda Kemeza, Paul Nyende, Claire Ashton-James, and Michael I. Norton. “Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104, no. 4 (April 2013): 635–652.

Dunn, Elizabeth W., Lara B. Aknin, and Michael I. Norton. ‘Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness’. Science 319, no. 5870 (21 March 2008): 1687–88. doi:10.1126/science.1150952.

These rules for prosocial spending are taken from the excellent Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton. Chapter 5: 105ff.

Chance, Zoe and Norton, Michael I. ‘I Give, Therefore I Have: Giving and Subjective Wealth’. Working Paper, Yale University.

‘Anthony Seldon: Five Things I Have Learned’. BBC News, 23 April 2011, sec. Education & Family.


#14: Money is Waste

After a week of living moneyless, I’ve decided I need a new definition of money. The current economic system in the UK, and many other places around the world, creates an abundance, an excess of all kinds of consumer products, from food and clothes to technology and even shelter. All these things are created for sale and you can buy them with money.

But because of the excess, you can also acquire these things for nothing, by intercepting them at the point of waste disposal, either after the consumer has tired of them or before they reach the market simply because they are part of that essential excess built into the system.

That excess is created because money under capitalism is a right to demand. As consumers with money in our pockets, we feel a fundamental right to exchange that money for whatever good we desire, and there is no greater crime for a supplier than to fail to meet that demand.

I’ll show you how this works with a classic skipper’s example: chain sandwich shops. Sandwiches are cheap to make, but office workers will happily pay a triple mark-up for a sandwich from a shop like EAT. What are they getting for their money? Not the mere sandwich commodity; the real product being sold is convenience. But that convenience only works if they can get exactly the sandwich they want.

A City Solutions Consultant wouldn’t pay a triple mark-up if the only option was bread and butter, or if the shop persistently ran out of his favourite wild crayfish and rocket. If either of these things happens, the consultant takes his business elsewhere (or starts making sandwiches at home).

The consequence of this is that the sandwich shop’s business model is obliged to over-produce sandwiches; they cannot afford to sell out every day for fear of shedding customers to their rivals. The result: waste, in the form of bags of sandwiches dumped on the side of the street at the close of business. This is well known to scroungers in areas densely populated by chain sandwich shops, like the City of London.

Urban scavenger Keziah Conroy showcases such sandwich shop hauls on her blog: a jalapeño chicken wrap, an all-day breakfast buttie, sourdough toasties, a chicken sunshine salad, and a beef and tomato baguette.

So what is money, if you can satisfy all your material needs for free by changing the way you acquire stuff? Well, now I know: money is just one way of solving a distribution problem. That’s all.

My Solutions Consultant pays money so that EAT will bring together all the ingredients and labour required to make, package and store his sandwich. All he has to do is turn up at the conveniently located shop and hand over his money.

This also explains why the sandwich shop business model demands total saturation of an area. There are eleven EAT sandwich shops within a quarter of a mile of Bank Underground station in the middle of London’s business district: money is a distribution mechanism, nothing more, nothing less. It reduces the friction of our lives, making our lives easier by “greasing the wheels”.

Positive constraints like No Money increase friction, and my argument is that this is a good thing: friction helps us engage our imaginations, learn how our world actually works and come up with alternative solutions. If we don’t want to spend money, then we have to work out different ways of solving the problems of distribution, whether that’s by squatting empty buildings, cycling and hitch-hiking, or skipping from waste bins.

However, without the “right of demand” that comes with money exchange, we must also expect less than perfect distribution solutions and be more flexible with what product we end up with (although that often means much richer variety, as I found with New Covent Garden).

The truth is that, if money is a solution to the problems of distribution that creates vast systemic waste, then the expenditure of money itself is a correlate for that same waste. Because there is already excess and waste in the system, every time I spend money, I am being profligate, draining natural resources, contributing to pollution and environmental degradation, wasting labour and energy, and tossing more and more garbage into land fill sites and waste incinerators.

I cannot hide from the knowledge that spending money actively contributes to a wasteful society. My new definition is this: money is waste.

Mark Boyle, who lived moneyless for four years, has written extensively on the implications of our use of money and would agree with this new definition.

“If we grew our own food, we wouldn’t waste a third of it as we do today. If we made our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior decor. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we probably wouldn’t contaminate it.”

We don’t because we spend money to reduce the friction in our lives by distancing ourselves from these labours. And to serve us our frictionlessness, we conspire to waste on a collossal scale.

Further Reading

‘Binning = Winning’. Binning = Winning. Accessed 1 October 2016.

Boyle, Mark. ‘I Live without Cash – and I Manage Just Fine’. The Guardian, 28 October 2009, sec. Environment.

#13: Money is not Generosity

I first heard of London’s New Covent Garden Market five years ago. A couple of people I lived with sometimes cycled there on their way home after all night raves, coming home with heaps of free fresh food and stories of being run down by pallet truck drivers and robbed by security guards. They laughed, cleaned up their wounds, and made huge hangover soups and smoothies with all kinds of blemished, bruised and half rotten fruit and vegetables. I’d always wanted to go with them, but it had somehow never worked out and they left the house pretty soon afterwards.

In the five years since, the idea of “skipping”, as it’s known, had occasionally popped into my head, but with the convenience of my excellent greengrocer just over the road, why would I ever change my habits? I was always put off by the early start, the five mile cycle, my nervous inexperience, and of course by the security guards. But that’s the great thing about positive constraints: they force me into doing something different.

So I did what I always do when faced with a daunting challenge: I searched online and found a French blogger who had tried to start an online directory of the best place to skip free food in London. The website hadn’t really got off the ground (scroungers are understandably secretive about their grazing grounds), but there was one piece of information that surprised me: the bin men for New Covent Garden Market arrive around eleven in the morning, five hours after trading ends. The Frenchman recommended I turn up any time before ten – so much for the early start!

Emboldened by my Gallic guide, I set off on my bike at eight the next morning, garbed in workman’s fluorescent high-vis, an old trick to escape the attentions of security guards, hiding in plain sight. My first difficulty is finding the market. The area is pockmarked with construction, “the greatest transformational story at the heart of the world’s greatest city” according to developers. Cranes and steel support the groundwork for towers of five million pound apartments, interiors designed by Versace. And I’m here to swipe a shopping basket of land-fill fruit.

Cycling around the new soon-to-be American Embassy, I finally spot the drivers’ entrance, slip past the barriers, dip down under the railway and emerge into the market, a complex of warehouses, lorries, vans and pallet trucks zipping around. I feel out of place on my bicycle, but at least my high-vis fits in.

The market is based around three double-width delivery boulevards, onto which more than two hundred businesses open their shutters. New Covent Garden is the largest fruit, vegetable and flower market in the UK and according to their website it apparently supplies 40% of the fresh fruit and vegetables eaten outside of the home in London, catering for restaurants, cafés, schools and hospitals, as well as retail markets. And skippers.

I see a few other people on the prowl. One looks like he’s been printed out from stereotype, dressed all in black, tattoos crawling up his neck and bits of his face pierced to other bits of his face. There’s also an ordinary-looking guy rummaging through the bins, and one very elderly woman pushing a trolley, leeks poking out of the top.

My favourite, though, is a Vietnamese woman, crouched over a slush of cardboard and trodden in lettuce. She beckons me over. “You need lemon?” she asks. “Lemons? Lovely!” She wafts a hand over the other side of the boulevard: “Lemons, lot of lemons.”

I thank her for her help and cycle dutifully over to the stacks of crates she’d indicated. I turn over the rubbish thrown on top to reveal a dozen fresh melons. I laugh and pop a couple into my pannier, one honeydew and one bright yellow canary. The skin is a little discoloured and the top of the honeydew is slightly bruised, but when I crack them open later, the flesh is perfectly ripe, amply protected by the hard skin.

After my success with the melons, I toured the rest of the site, chatting with cleaners and shopkeepers, asking what was waste and what was waiting to go into vans. If you’re imagining me climbing head-first into skips and rubbish bins, picking through mouldy tomatoes and cigarette ash, then think again. At the market, waste is carefully separated, with plastic and cardboard recycled, and organic peelings and cuttings going into huge vats. The good stuff, the stuff that could be eaten by you and me, is piled relatively neatly on the roadside, there for the taking.

The stories my friends had told about aggressive security seemed very far-fetched. Everyone I spoke to was friendly and seemed well accustomed to the scroungers who made what they could out of produce that could never be sold. One energetic Eastern European fruit packer came out to help me pick through a couple of crates of bruised satsumas and apples. He had a good eye and I wondered whether he was himself a skipper.

My bags were filling up quickly: two heads of broccoli, tomatoes in green, black, yellow and red, lamb’s lettuce from Italy, a monster cucumber, horseradish from Austria, parsnips, a swede, pak choi, yellow peppers, an aubergine, ginger root, some limes, a dozen bananas, packed organic rocket, two melons, russet potatoes, green chillies, red onions, four artichokes, eight avocados, a box of lychees and a pomegranate.

On my way out, I stop to flip over a heavy box that had obviously fallen off the back of a lorry: full of spring daffodils. A young worker passes by as I’m wondering whether the daffs will survive the ride home. “You’ve come too late,” he comments. “You should be here at five, six o’clock, then there is so much stuff.” I stare at him in amazement: “But my bags are full, what more could I carry?” He laughs and we chat for a while about the waste he sees every day. “These are for luxury hotels and restaurants, so the vegetables must be perfect, absolutely perfect. For example, fifty boxes of aubergines, if there is one aubergine with one tiny scratch – ” he shows me a minuscule blemish on his index finger for reference – “they send the whole fifty boxes back to us, and we must put them out.”

I’m shocked. This is all good food; its only crime is to fall short of the standards demanded by mindless perfectionists. I ask him if he ever takes the thrown away food home with him, but he shakes his head. “No, it’s against company policy. Sometimes they give us a bag of grapes or whatever. It’s nothing for them, but for us it’s very nice. We’re like a family.” I’m shocked all over again. Here I am with enough fresh fruit and veg to feed a family of seventeen for a week, and he goes home with the occasional bag of grapes? It serves to remind me that taking food from bins is still, staggeringly, classed as theft.* I offer him a daffodil, but he just laughs and walks on.

Farmers of the United Kingdom grow astonishingly vast crops every year. Tragically, much of that crop ends up in landfill, or ploughed back into the land. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, up to one third of all food grown globally goes to waste. Some of that waste is unavoidable; by definition we must create more than we need because just one ounce less and someone goes hungry. However, we waste by orders of magnitude more than necessary, and people are still going hungry. According to WRAP, the average household in the UK throws out about 6 meals’ worth of food a week, and supermarkets are big wasters too: Tesco alone chucked out 119 million meals’ worth of food in 2015.

On my way home, I stop to give some bananas to a homeless man living on the footpath under Vauxhall railway bridge. He hadn’t realised he was sleeping two minutes from a nutritional gold mine and didn’t seem to believe it was possible. There’s definitely something weird going on here: we either don’t have the will to sort out these logistical problems, or we are complicit in deliberate attempts to keep people from a good meal. I’m really not sure which. In February 2016, France became the first country in the world to make it illegal for supermarkets to throw away or destroy unsold food. It’s a step in the right direction and Arash Derambarsh, the municipal councillor who inspired the change in France, is hoping to make it EU law.

Back home, the first thing I do is pile all the produce onto the table, cut away the melon bruises and bin the too-far-gone cavolo nero. I weigh everything and do a price comparison with Sainsbury’s online: this “shop” would have cost me over fifty pounds in the supermarket. Then I spend a couple of happy hours cooking for me and two friends, with more than enough left over for my housemates to take a bowl when they get home: a delicious broccoli and potato soup, an enormo-salad with peppers, tomatos, lamb’s lettuce and cucumber, and a spicy potato curry, all washed down with a banana and melon smoothie.

Far from bludging from my friends on this week of no money, I have more than contributed my share, and have to give away fruit and vegetables to everyone I meet. The benefits go far beyond saving money, though. Because I can only take what I find, my diet is much more colourful and varied. I’d never normally buy broccoli or parsnips, and until today I didn’t even know that earthy black tomatoes existed. I can feel good about my environmental footprint: the lamb’s lettuce travelled a thousand road miles all the way from Italy, only to go straight into the bin without getting near the chef’s table. That’s a tragedy and my interception felt worthwhile for everyone.

Best of all, though, skipping such a prodigious quantity of food means that I can “afford” to be generous. Not only that, but I positively must be generous, otherwise the food would rot away in my fridge before I could eat even half.

It’s surprising that living without money has showed me how easy it is to be generous. Before the experiment, I used to feel that I couldn’t always “afford” to be generous, but that has been exposed as a dog-in-the-manger mirage. If I’m able to be generous without spending money, then generosity has nothing to do with financial clout. Like any character trait, generosity is a matter of habit. I just wasn’t being imaginative enough to see how I could be generous with what I had. Now I can.

Scrounger turns provider, and my cupboards end the week far better stocked than they started it. Win-win.

Further Reading

* The law in England and Wales is that “[a] person commits theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.” The grey area lies in whether the goods have been abandoned (finders keepers) or discarded (theft) by their owner.

‘Food Loss and Food Waste’. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed 29 September 2016.

‘Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK 2012 | WRAP UK’, 5 November 2013.

Wood, Zoe. ‘Tesco Food Waste Rose to Equivalent of 119m Meals Last Year’. The Guardian, 15 June 2016.