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.
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:
- The spending should be our own free choice: enforced charitable donations don’t make us happy.
- 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.
- 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”.
Boyle, Mark. ‘Living without Money: What I Learned’. The Guardian, 15 September 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/15/living-without-money-what-i-learned.
Daniel Suelo: Sundeen, Mark. The Man Who Quit Money. 2012.
Film about Heidemarie Schwermer: ‘Living Without Money’. Living Without Money. Accessed 2 October 2016. http://livingwithoutmoney.org.
Carolien Hoogland TEDx Talk: ‘Carolien Hoogland: My Year of Living without Money – YouTube’. Accessed 2 October 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2aPTJurm-g.
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. https://audioboom.com/boos/2595486-living-a-free-and-abundant-life-without-money-elfpavlik.
See also: http://moneyless.org.
‘Raising a Child More Expensive than Buying a House’. Accessed 2 October 2016. https://www.lv.com/about-us/press/article/cost-of-a-child-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. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-12935895.