On Boyle, creative frugalism and my approach

Posted on March 21, 2010


A friend passed on a Guardian article by Mark Boyle a few months ago, this character had spent a year living without money. He had previously studied economics, was a writer and hung onto his laptop during that time. His article late last year sparked a fury of interest – polarising the audience largely into those who thought it was a great project but perhaps not for themselves , or others who were strongly opposed to this experimental way of life.

I found it quite interesting to read the article then and again recently reprinted in a permaculture magazine. There was several simlarities which I could find in my lifestyle from my year without.. well without much money at all but certainly not zero (perhaps i’ll calculate it one day, an eager friend recently worked it out to be $10/week at one point – but thats not a rule as such).

There is a video where Boyle explains to a reporter how his toilet works, pointing to a shanty town structure with a hole dug into the ground. Boyle says his ‘composting toilet’ works by just covering your deposit with soil each time. Ive no problem with shanty-town structures but there seems to be a few missing links in his design! See Jenkins basic guide here for more info.

Some other simlarities include that I too have discovered that running an ethical business (sustainable event management) would never be enough to satisfy my needs for ecological connection on this earth, or my day-to-day want to contribute, learn and grow.

So –  Boyle sketches out his basic lifestyle approach which made me realise I haven’t yet detailed mine. Here goes.

Food. He summaries his approach :

There are four legs to the food-for-free table: foraging wild food, growing your own, bartering, and using waste grub, of which there is loads

Waste grub of course includes the pro-active approach of dumpstering (AKA dumpster diving, skip dipping or simply skipping which is proving a fun an Australia-relavent term for me lately) but i would argue you could add the fifth leg ‘shared food’ as one. Many of my meals tend to be home shared ones and just lovely. I think its not necessarily barter but more the act of generosity, sharing or giving. Ive noted many people (myself included) go through the skipping path to enlightenment which usually involves:

  1. Getting really excited about the abundant bounties available and keen to capture it all ! Feeling great about near zero grocery costs.
  2. Having sugar sickness, too much to compost, then getting more refined and practical in what you take
  3. Developing more of an interest in barter food, permaculture and/or self suffient home grown produce
  4. Tending to rely less on skipping for food and put more energy into other things..
    [It can still be excellent for domestic items, like dish liquid and such. Even a balance of growing + sourcing dry goods like rice, flour, bi carb can still equal a almost no-cost food supply.]

Which basically sums up my journey with it over the past year. I now mainly rely on barter, homegrown, shared and other sources, usually in that order. I have in some cases paid for food (shock horror!) but this has usually been pay-as-you-feel places, donation food or some rare instances where I needed a feed and didn’t have any supplies or energy to go sourcing (from being sick or over tired).

My approach to Shelter has of course featured Urban Wwoofing, not-so-urban or rural Wwoofing, family homestays and some short social couch surfs with friends. My urban wwoofing has been a response to feeling uncomfortable with extended couch surfs so I tend to have a mini-urban wwoofing helper approach to my short couch surfs (ie: be useful or helpful in the house in some way). As well as a form of housing, being an urban wwoofer can lead to many a great answer to the old “so what do you get up to?” style question. Ive been pleasantly suprised what a wide cross-section of people can quickly understand then also show genuine interest in this unlikely concept. Having a whole alternative housing style communicated in two concise words has been great for getting the word out there and as a result ive experienced an abundance of housing offers which has inspired me to document the concept more and help with networking others to be able to experience the same trade. Stay tuned for more on that one. [update: checkout the Urban Wwoofing page]

A frugal existence doesn’t have to  mean being cut off from the world so for communication i have kept using my simple old phone in combination with a cheap online-based txting service. I had experimented with Virgin mobiles Bean Counter pre-paid plan which had attractive call rates , but after just a few months the crappy reception has driven me to another provider. Ive now gone for Exetel mobile which is delivered through the Vodafone network. Ideally i’d be on the telstra network for clear reception and wider coverage but that’s a thrifty compromise which ive had to make, ive had great experiences with setting up and using Exetels VOIP broadband services so I figured they’d do a decent thrifty mobile service too. They have similarly attractive call rates to the virgin plan [update, exetel wasn’t so good, i ended up on a plan ?!? I think im going to try out kissmobile]. With all the communication streams opening up to us all the time,  ive found you can’t beat just picking up the phone and speaking to someone. No checking messages or connecting to the net, just talking in that very moment (invaluable). Even better than that is maximising your communication in person! amazing but true. Perhaps we would value that physical contact a little more if there wasn’t so many ways to quickly communicate with people. For my email I use a basic, simple and size limited service provided by the radical tech-collective Riseup in the states. I stopped using my gmail account as I was getting way too excited with list mail and it was filling up with crap. I still have a gmail account but only use it if someone wants to send me big files. Having a limit on my inbox is great for keeping it nice and lean, I tend to have just email from real people and not list mail which is great. Like many people, I still have the balance struggle when it comes to computers – which is often manifested in non-updates to this blog! I also try to make the most of VOIP landline phones and organise to chat from landlines as much as possible, people are often more relaxed and the call cost is an order of magnitude cheaper than mobile to mobile. How often are we talking to each other on mobiles in buildings with perfectly working landline phone systems ? It sure makes the mobile telco’s happy. My two cents is VOIP call rates are the white elephant for telcos, as switched on folk we can make smarter communication choices and resist the convenience of our handsets. C’mon, I believe in you !

Anyway where was i.. I think I might do clothing next. similar to Boyle, I did a pre-shop on many things. I wasn’t neccesarily planning on the whole frugal thing it just seemed to happen and I kept it up. We wouldn’t end up back in the caves if energy elapsed tomorrow, there would still be lots and lots of resources and materials which we haven’t yet buried back into the ground. similarly theres abundance all around us to ‘harvest’. Ok, thats a little too much of a big picture but its close to my approach to sourcing things. Looking around at the supplies everywhere, it can often take just asking “Does anybody use this?” to acquire a nice bit of clothing or other bits of kit. I trimmed my small collection of clothing in half when i got back from bike touring and 5 months VIC travels last year. I go for things mostly for their function purpose, after being close to the VIC bushfires last year ive slowly gone about phasing out as much synthetic clothing as possible which has involved a few special op shop trips for cotton/wool replacements. Other options tend to be:

  • informal cloth swaps and hand-downs ( can i have it?, swap it? for this piece of clothing or helping out in your garden?)
  • abandoned lost property items left at festivals or similar (cheeky one). Also generally keeping eye out for choice roadside items especially on freeways, eg: wide brim hats
  • gifted items. sometimes unknowingly or sometimes you can magnetise things your way with a bit of positive intention
  • when needed, op shop purchases for special items: eg overalls for wwoofing/bush fire contingency

A friend, the same lovely friend who sent me the article actually, had recently completed one year without buying any clothes. She used some of the same approaches with the obvious added challenge of being a woman and a change from the amazing turnover which tends to happen (even if its op shops).

For transport an early cornerstone which has been part of my lifestyle for years has been commuter cycling. Can I recommend this enough? Perhaps not. The simple act of your two feet pedalling yourself around at possible 4-6 times walking speed is .. revolutionary, so-to-speak. Perhaps theres more to the lineage of the meanings of that word than we would otherwise think (linguists/writers help please?). I hope I don’t have to tell people but im excited now so here goes anyway. Riding your bike embodies freedom in our concrete jungles, realising your potential to transport yourself over short, medium and then long distances is among the most empowering of experiences. Youre free to roam down some unknown path, meander along a creek or take that speedy secret shortcut to get somewhere in a hurry. You get rock-star parking just about everywhere you go, youre exercising, creating feel-good endorphins and transporting yourself with your own renewable energy  – all at the same time. For many many more reasons, commuter cycling is the go. Dust of your old bike from the shed, brush up on some basic repair skills then hit the road – you will not regret it. Now, since were all on our bikes the next step is long commutes and cycle touring. Could this be the ultimate form of travel? any touring cyclist will happily rave about the joys of truly experiencing youre travelling through (hills and all of course) and the unlikely part is how locals, strangers or any other folk relate to you. Sure you get a few honks on the road (some of them are trying to say hi !) but I find that people really relate to the sense of vulnerability which cyclists naturally have on roads dominated by cars. This often translates into tremendous generosity and care from strangers wherever you travel, I can’t quite describe the feeling but it’s one worth checking out. cycling is a great compliment to train networks, perhaps not so much at busy periods but a train can give you the magic carpet ride to a different region and your legs can do the exploring from there. Ive heard various people say differing things about which transport mediums are the most fuel efficient etc – but as I understand it – you just can’t beat trains. The age-old design of steel wheels on a steel guiding track still simply kicks, and is the safest form of transport in the world, even in India with folks hanging off the carriages. I’d particularly recommend considering trains over tempting cheap domestic flights, the experience is so much better, short haul flights have a particularly intense fuel consumption (similar to cars), train tickets reflect a truer cost of the travel and other options such as trains are readily available when compared to international travel. Thats my overlanders manifesto in a nutshell. Hope you liked it. God this turning into a long blog post  (*have i got any readers left ?*) . .

Hmm, next tooooo.. Ahh social stuff. Let’s call it leisure shall we. At a recent festival which was closely tied in with my old events collective scene, I was happily and consciously broadcasting that I was “a man of leisure” at the event. As in, not working; not doing stuff for a change. The other night as i was explaining a bit of my lifestyle to a new friend the other I was asked “Oh so you don’t go out or anything?” Well, not really I guess. It was at a friendly little dinner (corn harvest!) party on a weeknight – which in itself I considered to be a sort of “going out”. Ive had a long decline in drinking interest over the years which has trickled down to no interest in even free drinks for a couple of years now. So the idea of “going out” as being “going to dark places where we pay elevated prices to lower our uptightness in attempts to socialise widely” – is  not really my cuppa tea, in fact i’d prefer a cup of tea and so would by throat (cold drinks, loud music and shouting conversations – who designed such ‘social environments’?). ‘Going out’ for the large part for me is sharing meals at friends or extended-friends places, its garden-parties, picnics, festivals and opportunities to dance to sunny reggae tunes outdoors. Theres a lot you can do for free, or perhaps if you know the people you can barter your way in. Give it a try. To get back to leisure even as a frugalist wwoofer with almost no bills, you can still get caught up in the cycle of doing things and being productive. Luckily this lifestyle leads you to be closely connected to serving your basic needs of food clothing and shelter – where you can realise that you don’t have to slave away all day and busy all the time. Plodding along slowly and consistently can lead to great yields and strong elements of leisure are not just possible but an essential element of maintaining the lifestyle.

My wwoofing host wants to use the computer, I like that shared computers give you external prompts to get off the damn things ! Ok lets wind up. Hope youve enjoyed it.

For some further reading.. Ive sniffed around and compiled the Guardians history of articles on Boyle. Starting with two stories from his overland walking trip in ’08

14/02/08 – Step this way for an alternative economy

01/03/08 – Passage to India curtailed in Calais as language barrier trips campaigners attempt

Then a flurry of articles about his year with no money.

28/10/09 – I live without cash – and I manage just fine

02/11/09 – The cashless man responds to your comments

09/11/09 – My year of living without money

and finally a video from early this year, 14 months in..

25/01/10 – The No Money Man

wooh ! Ive also seen the article cross-published in a UK permaculture magazine.