Friday 24 November 2017

Adventures in simple living: How to live without money

This time last week I was having a cup of low-impact tea with a woman who has simplified her life in an intriguing way, a way I'd only read about before (in The Moneyless Man by Mark Boyle): she lives without money.

Jo and her "little blue wagon"
Jo Nemeth, aka JoLowImpact, doesn't live on savings or welfare payments or income from a rental property or a husband and has been since April 2015. Not because she's anti-money (she's not), but to minimise her impact on the world.

"Climate change made me do it," she says. (More on this later.)

When I found out she was living less than an hour's drive away, I knew I had to meet her.

I find her "little blue wagon" (a shed on wheels) in the backyard of her friend Kim's house in Lismore, northern NSW, where she's been living for six months. We'd only spoken on the phone before meeting, but she greets me with a warm hug. She looks earthy, healthy, happy.

Then she gives me a tour of her domain: her wagon has a bed inside, plastic tubs of clothes, photos pinned to a bit of clothes line, and not much else.

Inside her tiny home
The whole set-up is off-grid; Jo lives without electricity, has no running water (just rainwater). She's made a composting toilet and uses a camp shower. There's a solar panel she bought with the last of her cash in December 2014. She grows some of her own food; the rest is excess or waste donated by friends, and she accepts only food that is environmentally and socially low-impact.

She's built a small porch on one side - that's where she boils the kettle over a twig-fuelled "rocket stove" made of bricks (one of the most efficient and least polluting ways to cook, she says) and we settle into cane chairs while Kim's cat sits nearby in the morning sun.

For two hours we talked, rambling over common ground related to living simply, connecting to nature, minimising one's negative impacts on the planet.

Here's the abridged version, a spoonful of "How to live a moneyless, low-impact life" according to Jo Nemeth:

Jo's eco-efficient "rocket"
Where did the idea for your "no money" experiment come from? 
It was my birthday, in February 2014, and I was sick in bed with the flu and Mum and Dad sent me this book - Changing Gears by Greg Foyster. My Dad's a cow cockie turned greenie [Jo grew up on a cattle farm in central Queensland] and both Mum and Dad are incredibly frugal people; they run on the smell of an oily rag, they're just amazing.

But the book set everything in motion; it's about a couple who cycle from Melbourne to Far North Queensland trying to simplify their lives and meeting interesting characters along the way. One of those people lived without money. That was my lightbulb moment.

What happened next? 
I was working in Casino at the time [as a community development officer] and feeling pretty messed up about the climate and environmental impacts and supply chains, and all of that was starting to affect me.

I actually didn't have a choice, because I'm alive in this particular point in human history when we have these particular things going on and I'm the kind of person I am and I want to help and make a difference. I just decided that this was what I needed to do, so in November 2014 I quit my job, I got rid of my car in December and I was living without money by Easter 2015.

Why was it important to go "no money" and not just live with a little money?
I’m not doing it because I’m anti-money; I do this because I want to be low-impact, reduce my environmental and social impact. Having a little bit of money and having no money are really different states of being, I think.

If I had any little bit of money, firstly it would change the dynamic between me and the people around me where I would feel more obliged to be paying rent, for example, so I’d have to earn money. And secondly, I don’t trust myself to not buy stuff that has an impact. Maybe some people could do this with money, but I know I can’t. So I’m consciously limiting my choices.

What are the "rules"? 
The composting "ensuite"
The main rule is: minimising my impact. I'm always asking myself: what would have the least impact? Just because I’ve got no money doesn’t mean that my impacts are automatically minimised. 

For example: people offer to buy me stuff all the time. I’ve had friends offering me their cars with a full tank of fuel – they say, "Why don’t you go for a holiday somewhere, take my car?" [Jo doesn't fly.] I’ve had people offer me gas cooking equipment. People are so generous and want to help, but I’ve had to decline many offers because it would increase my impact. 

I also try not to use any new resources for me - so if someone is driving somewhere already, I can hitch a ride. Or if someone needs me to drive them somewhere, I'll do that, as service. Because I can't help people if I'm saying no to everything. And sometimes staying with people I'm serving them by helping them to live with less impact - by inspiring them to eat less meat, say, or use their washing machine during daylight hours.

What do most people get wrong about the way you live? 
Every now and again I meet someone who'll say, you're just bludging off other people, you're not really living without money. It started with the ABC North Coast TV interview I did in 2016; when it went online there were lots of "you're just using everybody else" comments. I've developed a thicker skin, but I also realised we're actually all dependent on each other, interdependent, and on the earth, for everything we need. Using money can distract us from that basic fact of life.

Sun-warmed water on tap
It's been almost three years now, what do you miss? 
In a practical sense, hot running water and a washing machine - if I don't get on top of my handwashing, it takes me all day! On another level, I miss my partner terribly [Jo and Keith, her partner of seven years, went their separate ways when Jo began this project] and it's difficult to find people who want to live this simply, to find my "tribe". But I have a really strong support network, my friends that are here, my daughter's here.

Do you give yourself any treats? 
Powdered milk is my weakness [Jo doesn't have a refrigerator]. I really like hot, sweet, milky drinks. I haven't given that up yet and somehow I've managed to keep myself in a supply of different milks from different places. Mostly waste, but there was one occasion when a friend bought me a new packet of powdered milk and[I feel bad because] it is a high-impact product - converting it from real milk and the dairy industry in general. 

What about technology? 
No power bills...
I had my laptop when I started the experiment. My last big purchase was $1000 on a solar panel, a battery and an inverter so I could run my laptop, my phone and a light. I also started with a phone; that one died but people have phones lying around everywhere, I've been offered so many phones. I have a prepaid plan with Optus that gives me minimal credit - it basically lets me receive calls and texts and keep an active number for $10 a year - and it's due for renewal every December so I can make it a Christmas present. And I can use Facebook and WiFi to talk to people and send messages.

What have you gained? 
It's been really beautiful to slow my life down. I started off calling this the "slow life", then I listened to Ethan Hughes talk about his Possibility Alliance farm in Missouri and he said this isn't the slow life, this is the normal life. Everybody else is just living the fast life. And he's so right. 

Words to live by
My life now is the normal pace of human life, I believe, what's healthy for us and the way people have been living for most of human existence. And it's really been a pleasure to live this earth-paced life. 

I hitch, I walk a lot - I didn't see myself as someone who would enjoy it but I love walking places, seeing the world close up, noticing things I never would have noticed before. Even riding a bike is too fast! Though I do ride for efficiency sometimes, and I'm fitter and healthier than I was before. 

What about planning for the future? That's one big reason people earn money: for security.
If we look at human history what keeps us secure is community and living this kind of life is good for building community connections, so in a way I feel safer and more secure than I did before when I [was earning money but] didn't have time to be part of a community. I see my future as being involved in a community that's really strongly bonded and reliant on each other. I think that's the way we all need to go. So I'm not worried about my future at all. [Jo parks her wagon on friends' land in exchange for helping them in various ways, such as working on their organic vege garden.]

"I have a great life," Jo says.
What do you love about the way you live? 
I appreciate things more now. I can't buy books of course, but I put in requests when it's my birthday or for Christmas. 

On my last birthday, my friends came over and we planted some trees, shared a meal then walked to the movies. They each put in a dollar and shouted me a movie ticket. It was wonderful. I really appreciate things like that now. 

I love that when I wake up in the morning I often don't know what I'm going to be doing that day or who I'll see. But the best thing is that there's a huge sense of relief from having your values and your actions align, it feels very powerful and like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. 

What have you learned? 
My mum told me when I was a kid to differentiate between wants and needs: do you need that, or do you just want it? There's a big difference and just by going with what we need, we can make massive changes to the environment, to our lives. It's a good reminder that what we actually need to survive, and be happy, is very little.

From little changes, big ideas grow
What's next in the "no money" experiment? 
I really want to help other people live low impact. Inspire others to live more sustainably, on a bigger scale.

But I don't want to go under the radar. I want to challenge the system, the council and state regulations that make it almost impossible for people to live simply and sustainably, that force people to chase their tails just to keep a roof over their heads. We really need to change the way we do things. 

Doing this one-off thing, as one person, is just the first step. The next step is to find some land, even just the corner of someone's property, close to town - because to be low-impact you need to be able to walk or ride a bike or a horse - and a bunch of people who want to help make a demonstration site. That's the dream.

[For more about Jo and tips on how to live with less money and, more importantly, less impact, visit her blog: She's also working on a book, stay tuned...]


  1. This is a beautiful story, thank you so much! I can't imagine going anywhere close to this low, in my impact, but is certainly a wake up call, for me to think about what I can do, and what I can do without ...

    1. Thanks Carolyn, me neither! But glad of people like Jo to inspire and open windows to different ways of living life and being in the world :-)

  2. Totally agree and on the mood... But living in community would be part of the plan to be lower impact people...dont you agree?

    1. Hi Cristina, yes I do agree, and I think Jo does too - her plan is to set up a community where she can live and teach others to live a simpler life. Happy simple living :-)