Carolien Hoogland: My Year of Living Without Money

When I was about this small, I decided that I wanted to help save the planet. I was one of those kids that would tear off the label of the tea bag and then put it in the waste paper and then think where I put the staple. So I also really liked the idea of becoming a comedian. But I ignored that and I went to university to learn how to help save the environment. Save the planet. And about 10 years later in a master’s degree, many classes, books, a PhD degree, I became an environmental psychologist. Several research projects, I found myself sitting in a room at a computer. And I felt that I wasn’t really helping to save the planet.

And then something happened. In a farm north of Amsterdam I took part in a master class for transition management that was organized, by the way, by an ex-colleague from the DRIFT Institute which is right here at Erasmus University. And in the master class it was January 2009 over dinner we discussed the crisis and are shock when talented people around us and friends lost jobs. And one of us — one participant [Liang Fu], she said, “Imagine. Imagine all of us would lose their jobs and we’d simply live”. And something happened inside me, I felt these happy hormones and I thought, oh, oh, oh, oh, I want to do that. I want to do that. I like the idea of getting up in the morning and going out and doing what I’m good at, doing what I enjoy doing and then society takes care of me too.

So she appealed to a very personal longing inside of me and the next day I wrote out a promise to myself and I said I’m going to do this. I am going to simply live without a job. And all these ideas came to me and I can work for him and do that with her and help her with the project. And so I was all inspired and I went home and told my boyfriend, and he said, “Oh great. That’s quite decadent. You’re going to live off your savings for a year”. But I said, “Well, I’m not going to let you pop my balloon, this is not about money. You know anyone can do this with or without money and, well, I’ll do without them. I will prove it to you”.

So let’s observe what happened. We have the pre-boyfriend conversation, sabbatical, you know that we’re all kind of familiar with. And then we have the post-conversation, crazy idea. And I knew it was a crazy idea. So I said to myself, calm down. Take a couple of months to see if the idea sticks, and it did. After half a year it was mid 2009 I was still thrilled, I had found my Mount Everest that I wanted to climb. So I went ahead and within half a year I arranged to set up seven barter deals for food and for staying in my apartment, for going out to dance, for having a work space. And throughout 2010 my bank balance remained stable without an income coming in.

I love adventure. I love adventure. I’m also very thorough person and I enjoy my projects most if I get to prepare them meticulously. So I drafted a letter, I had approved it by three of my friends whose creative writings I very much appreciate. It was a letter to my project with barter partners. I got my favorite stationery and I invented a whole new concept of the CV, added it to the letter and I sent it out to the barter partners and then I would call them up and see if they were willing to see me and have a discussion with me. And to my great surprise, most of them said yes. Even a big company like [Nickel], energy supplier said, “OK we’ll supply you with a year’s gas and electricity, and you will do a research project for us that will help us market our green products”.

And then there was Mika with her organic store at my local organic store and I asked her if we could barter something and she was a bit taken aback, and said I’m sorry — she’s really nice, so when she said no, I thought what’s going on. And she said I have to operate in such a tight budget, I can’t afford this. And then I thought oh, I have to do some extra explaining, so I baked a cake, went over, we sat down for coffee and I explained to her that I was not interested in what would me be fair in the world out there, that I was only interested in what she and I would want to share with the job and which she would be interested in. And so in fairness we, the two of us, had to decide on that and we ended doing was this. We installed a coffee corner every Saturday morning in her store and that’s something that I’d been sort of dreaming about for a couple of years, so I was super happy that we could do that.

I made one big exception and that was with health care. I had at that time a three-year old son and I did approach an insurance company — a health insurance company, and they turned me down and I decided I’m not going to put my health at risk or my son’s health so that that is one point where money is going to flow from my account to the health insurance.

And the last letter I sent out was to the tango school because I thought you know I need more than just food and shelter. I need to be able to dance and they also said you know we’ll think of something, just keep coming to the milongas, we love to have you there. And so that was it. And then it was New Year’s Eve. And I had a wonderful day because the Dutch Financial Times had printed a letter that I’d sent into them in response to a call and what is your career opportunity in crisis year 2009, write a letter about working without money for one year, and I was very proud and obviously I wasn’t going to write text messages for a year. So in the afternoon I splurged out this long text message to all my friends.

And then when it was midnight, I wrapped up my wallet in the newspaper and sealed it with gaffer tape. And then it was 2010. So what is life like people ask me, what is it like to live without money? I thought — at first I thought oh, I would be lonely and feel excluded and where can I still go if I don’t have money to spend. And then I found out that because I was working together in all these small projects, with all these people that my life was more social than ever before or after that year. And for instance to make up for not going to restaurants I would cook every Thursday for friends and you know, every week a different set of people would show up and they’d bring the drinks and this, that and you know my kitchen transformed into a salon like place where people like to come and eat and drink and discuss. And if I ever needed, this was [inaudible] on the roof. If I even needed anything in particular I’d send out an email to my network in Rotterdam explaining my requests, for instance, Max was three and he was learning how to cycle. So I wanted to get him a bike. And I would always get what I needed.

The tango and salons were important by the way in the social aspects because I now work for them, I fly it around town to market their classes and their milongas and I felt almost like a special guest coming to the milongas and I became more loyal to them than ever.

I also bartered for a workplace. The hub is a co-working space for people who are into sustainable development, and this is their garden. But the hub came to play a key role. Because before my year I had really thought about what money is and then coincidentally the hub screened the film Money As Debt which is a documentary about the money system. And this world opened up for me about what money is and that there are all kinds of critical people thinking about it and alternatives to money. And my jaw dropped not so much because of the facts that were presented in the film but much more because of my own naïve, I had lived and worked in this system for all my life at least for my working life and I didn’t know. I didn’t know how it worked. I thought that you take your savings to the bank and then someone else can come and make a loan and work with that.

And I don’t know, you are students from the Erasmus University, you have a great affinity to business but look at your neighbor and you can ask each other, who knows — who knows how the money system works because I didn’t. Maybe you want to interview each other after the talk.

Mind you I didn’t start my year because I was critical about money. I started it because just because I wanted to be even freer in choosing the work that I did. People asked me, ‘Did you ever want to give up?’ Well in fact I did.

In the middle of the year I was invited by friends to come along to Berlin and I’ve lived in Berlin for a while, so I have friends there too. I came along and I was there but I had no barter deals there. So I did go to organic stores and explain them my experiment and they gave me some food and I felt so vulnerable and I felt excluded and dependent on my friends and I realized that I had come to a limit of what I was willing to do and to experience. And after about two days of deliberation, I said OK this is where it stops. I went to this cash machine, took a picture, got out some money and bought ice cream for my friends.

And when I came back to the Netherlands, I picked up where I left off. And as the year proceeded in the beginning I had been very reluctant to tell people what I was doing, because I thought oh, God, a big crazy woman, I’m a freak living without money what’s she doing. And I noticed that I was sharing my story which I was of course all the time because I was doing things together with all these people and relying on my network. I realized that people were inspired and enthusiastic and curious how you do that. How do you do this and they were also — they seemed somehow relieved and happy that apparently there was a way around money and that money is no must, so I became more and more happy and confident to share my story.

And then with the end of the year and New Year’s Eve came again and I went back to that farm where I had first gotten inspired where the transition management master class would take place. And we had a beautiful ceremony with lots of yoga and tango and the next day Max helped me unwrapped my wallet and I was allowed to go out again and to spend money. And it was really odd. And I didn’t like it very much at first and I missed my barter deals because I had grown used to and I had grown appreciative of being dependent on these people that I knew and friend of mine calls it an economy of relationships and my own tiny economy of relationships had really given me this feeling of existential security.

Since then three years have passed and I’ve developed my own business and I make a living out of it. And that’s a direct effect of me trying myself out in that year. And in that year I gave up spontaneity, coffee and cake sessions, I gave up traveling to anywhere, I gave up run shopping, I gave up choosing my own perfume. And I got what I wanted. I now have work that helps save the planet. And I got more because I was working together with all these people and tried myself out from running a coffee corner in an organic store to writing — being a consultant for a big firm and working with all these people and interacting with them that really boosted my confidence, because I knew what I liked and what I didn’t like and I knew what I could do, and what I couldn’t do.

And I find now that I never really much worry about my career or where it’s going because I’m confident that I will keep on moving towards interesting challenges. And therefore I want to recommend it to all of you. You don’t have to do what I did but take a while off, be a year or a week or a month and do what you really want to do and work with the people that you like and who inspire you and I will promise you that you will be up for interesting certain difficult lessons and personal growth. And by doing so, by moving without worrying about your career or about money, you also do something else. You also contribute to the rest of us. And I quote Manfred Max Neef who says the economy is there to serve the people and not the other way around. If you start moving and doing what you are inspired you will help to do just that and you’ll create an economy where we do the work that needs to be done and we create new things and an economy that serves us.

Thank you.