Home > 2011 > Personal Finance > How Mark Boyle Lives on $0 a Year

How Mark Boyle Lives on $0 a Year

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In these lean times, people want to reduce their spending. It’s easy to cut back on non-essentials like video games and restaurant meals, but once you eliminate discretionary spending you’re stuck with an essentials budget that’s hard to reduce. At least that’s what most of us think. Mark Boyle had different ideas. He’d been working as a businessman in the organic foods industry in England, and in recent years became concerned about his relationship with money. To him, money was a negative influence: “It enables us to be completely disconnected from what we consume and from the people who make the products we use.” He also believed money was largely responsible for environmental destruction and that banks spur this on by “pursu[ing] infinite economic growth on a finite planet.”

So, in 2008 Boyle decided to try living for a year without money. His self-imposed rules were simple: he would close his bank account and not spend or receive money (including checks and credit cards). He would live off-grid—that meant he would produce his own energy for illumination, heat, food preparation, and communicating with the outside world. He sold his houseboat and used the proceeds (a few thousand dollars) to set things up. This included buying a $300 solar panel to keep his laptop and cell phone charged (he accepted incoming calls, which he could do without subscribing to a cell phone plan.) He obtained an old trailer for free from a woman who wanted to get rid of it. He made a deal with an organic farm to let him park the trailer on the land in exchange for a few hours work each day. He built a compost toilet near his trailer to harvest the “humanure” for his gardening needs. He set up a solar shower, which consisted of a black plastic bag and a rubber hose to bathe with. For heating the trailer he bought a wood-burning stove made from an upcycled propane tank, and for cooking he built a “rocket stove,” designed to produce high-heat using small pieces of wood. A bicycle provided transportation.

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He started his year of moneyless existence on international “Buy Nothing Day” (the day after Thanksgiving, which is the biggest shopping day of the year). And he wrote about his experiences in his new book, Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomics Living.

Even though Boyle launched his experiment at the beginning of winter, when gardening and foraging for food was out of the question, he discovered that food wasn’t a problem. He found all he needed, and more, by dumpster diving for products that supermarkets were required to throw out after the sell-by date expired. In the summer months, farming and foraging yielded additional food.

Transportation became an immediate problem. His bike tires punctured so frequently that he soon ran out of patching material. He posted about the situation on his blog, Freeconomy, and, fortunately, a company that makes solid puncture-proof tires sent him some in exchange for a mention on his website.

Once Boyle got started, he fell into a routine. It was quite labor-intensive—he had to wake up early and, in the winter months, put wood into the stove to heat up the trailer. Then he would have to go out and fire up his rocket stove to cook his food. If he needed to go into town he had to hop on his bike and pedal 18 miles. He was busy from sunup to sundown.

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Summer was easier. In the book, Boyle recounts the pleasures of “long evenings walking in the woods, camping by the beach at the weekend, cooking food that you’ve grown and picked yourself, cycling, listening to acoustic music by a camp fire, wandering in the wild foraging berries, apples and nuts, skinny-dipping in the lake, and sleeping under the stars.”

At the end of the year, Boyle organized a festival for 1,000 people who came to enjoy free food and drink, made with the help of friends who foraged, dumpster dived, and bartered for the food, as well as fermented the beer and wine that was given away. The festival, along with his experiences over the year, prompted Boyle to make the decision to remain moneyless after the year-long experiment. He used the advance from the book to establish a trust to purchase a plot of land for a moneyless community.

I suspect that most people who read this book won’t want to go completely moneyless. But it could inspire them to think about ways to reduce spending. For example, you can prepare more of your meals at home from fresh ingredients rather than eat at restaurants. You can play board games at home with friends and family instead of going to the movies, and you can invite friends over for impromptu amateur music jam sessions instead of going out to concerts and nightclubs.

Before Boyle started his experiment, he had prepared himself by learning “carpentry, vegetable growing, permaculture design, medicine, clothes making and repairing, cooking, bushcraft, and teaching.” It turns out that these skills, while valuable, were of secondary importance to the “primary skills” for freeconomic living: “physical fitness, self discipline, genuine care and respect for the planet and the species that live on it, and the ability to give and share.”

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  • http://www.artasmoney.com Dadara

    As an artist I started a bank – the Exchanghibition Bank – in times when governments spend billions on banks but cut the budget for the arts drastically. A project which questions the value of Art and Money. Part of it is a blog about those values and people keep sending me stuff on the internet. This guy is pretty cool, but he’s not the only one: Recently we brought the bank from Amsterdam to Burning Man and had 6 ‘customers’ who hadn’t used money in many years……. Almost unimaginable for someone from the Netherlands. Though there is a famous example of a German woman who hasn’t used money for 15 years: http://blog.artasmoney.com/art-as-money/a-life-without-euros/

    Yours Bankingly


  • Andy

    That works just fine if you’re young and fit, but I don’t really think having senior citizens dumpster diving for food is a good idea.
    That sounds too “independent/bootstrappy/rugged” for my taste.

    • Jack Hoff

      My 98 year old grandfather dives twice a week. He has no problems at all.

      • deseed

        You’re full of sh*t and it shows. How does it taste? 98 year old men and woman can barely get walk up 3 stairs without getting out of breathe let alone dumpster dive. You don’t have to lie to make friends. That is a complete douche bag move.

  • http://www.trailofpapercuts.wordpress.com Nilofar Ansher

    This seems like a one-sided opinion piece, going so far as to ‘promote’ Mark Boyle’s way of living. Can we really stop / reduce visiting theatres, concerts, restaurants, shopping malls and banks? Millions of people who work in such establishments depend on customers – paying people like you and me – so that they can earn their daily bread and butter too. It’s a very insular world that Boyle has created for himself, alluding to the utopian ideals of ancient and medieval Europe and Asia, where barter system and craftsmanship was a way of life.

    Money is and will always remain a means of exchange, just as salt, stones, crystals and gems were means of exchange and barter. Blaming money as a root cause for economic greed and growth is like blaming computers and Internet for decreased attentions span. It’s not the fault of the mechanism or machine or service, it’s the way we use it that makes the difference.

    Lastly, the book that he published is a collaborative result and effort of the paper industry, publishing industry, printing industry, packaging industry, distribution and marketing industry, and the media. Were he to be a writer a millennium ago, he wouldn’t have the facility to even get heard beyond his ‘hamlet’ / town.

    One community going completely moneyless is great, but that would mean they depend only on local and regional trade, exchange and interaction for their living, sustenance and growth. What Mark Boyle really is against is globalization actually, and the point gets completely lost in the odes he pays to money-less living.


      way to play devils advocate. i really doubt these people need to fear of losing their jobs to “freeconomics”….more like lose their jobs due to the economy itself already. chill out and support something other than “the man”

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  • Jaxataxa

    You’ll note he funded his year of “money-free” living from the detritus of a productive society and the generosity of economically motivated companies (for his tyres etc). This type of living is not sustainable for the broader society as he produced nothing of value during this year. He was a consumer at second hand rather than at first hand and a producer of nothing beyond skinny dips and wild berries. A nihilistic and retrograde way of life that would revert society to our primitive past. His emphasis on physical fitness was important but not all of us are fit and well. Doubtless in his tribal utopia such people would be discarded as they still are in extant tribal society.

  • Rodrigo


  • http://www.photomiser.com Photomiser

    I admire the effort. But a year of going moneyless was enabled to a significant degree by starting out in good health and physical fitness, and by being fortunate he didn’t have a significant injury or illness. Life is not always so kind.

  • Kevin

    This would be fun, and its an interesting experience and thought experiment. But of course, it is impractical for the vast majority of us with children to raise and educate and other such obligations and more broadly, we have society to take care of.

    The “anti-money” movement has noble intentions, but is perhaps misguided. By not earning money, you’re frequently also not adding value to others. If you add value to others, people tend to throw some amount of money at you. There is nothing wrong with earning money, and I would argue that adding value to others is one of the core things that makes society a nice thing and that helps us survive as a species.

    Maybe the anti-money movement should simply be an “anti-greed” movement, or, a “live minimally”. I certainly subscribe to those movements, but there isn’t anything wrong with money, it allows us to compensate people for their value-added actions that are too intangible to allow for direct bartering. It’s extremely rare that I could trade witty-banter for tomatoes, but one transaction of witty-banter for money allows me to buy tomatoes for months.

    Money is actually a pretty useful tool.

  • http://uk.linkedin.com/in/jennykowalczuk Jenny Kowalczuk

    So many bah humbug comments here, I’m astounded.

    Most worrying perhaps is the idea that this only worked because Boyle was ‘young and fit’ and had he been ‘old and infirm’ then he would have suffered. Are we really so blind to the possibility if we listened to the message of this experiment, that living in this way might actually release the time that’s needed (that we don’t have at the moment because we’re all so busy earning ££) to support and care for the less able bodied and elderly among us? And we’d all be better off for doing that.

    How fantastic that someone is prepared to commit to living outside of this crackpot consumerist economy we’ve got going on. How unsurprising that there should be so much resistance to the idea that it can be done. Yes, our world works on pretty much a 100% financial buy sell model, but how would it be if some of the lessons in this experience were translated into less cash, more barter; less consumption, more intelligent reuse and recycling…It’s a challenging idea if you’ve never even flirted with it, but if you’ve played with these kinds of ideas at all then I think they allow us to see other ways of living are not only possible but potentially more enjoyable and enriching than the work work work mode we seem so addicted to.

    Money’s very useful yes, but I think what this says to me is that maybe, just maybe, we could all live very well with a lot less of the stuff and start collaborating/sharing/bartering with each other outside of the current buying and selling model. More of a mixed economy, less of the all or nothing.

    S’got to be possible. Might even be fun – for everyone – including the old and infirm and kids who need their education…

    • jaxa taxa

      We don’t need to do that experiment. It’s already been done. It’s called pre-history and modern tribal living. The average life expectancy is much less, child mortality is much greater.

  • Christopher Huber

    His lifestyle is incredibly impractical for the majority of society. I just don’t see this working with 350 million people in our country alone.

    I also have to ask why should we ask people to buy less? As I read before, buying less creates less value for someone else. Who is to say it’s wrong to own three different iPods, a desktop computer, 3 large TV’s, and multiple gadgets? What’s even more interesting is that it actually took some money for him to actually get started. What would he have done had he not been able to buy a solar panel?

    It’s a bit self righteous. His lifestyle is simply a lifestyle and I don’t find it any better then someone else. There are noble actions like recycling, city farming, donating time and money to causes, conserving energy…but I don’t see how not going to the movies makes your lifestyle any better or worse in society. I don’t want to sit home and play bored games, I want to go see a movie! If I have the means and time to go visit a movie, why shouldn’t I? By not going to a movie how am I making the world a better place or improving my life?

  • SteveP

    This makes me think he should just do the same thing, but somewhere warmer, where he won’t need to use so much energy for heating.

    I hear people actually have lived like this in Africa for Milena, though?

    • SteveP

      Make that millennia. Damn auto-correct :-)

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  • Margaret Clarke

    Try doing that lifestyle in northern Alberta, Canada. It would take 4 hours a day to keep warm. And you can only forage/glean 4 months of the year –unless you hunt.

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  • Stephen

    If we all go buy this book about how it’s bad to buy anything ever, would we just be giving in to double-secret reverse-backwards psychology?

    This self-righteous hippy nonsense is misguided and tedious.

  • Matt S

    Great article.

    I’m astounded at how defensive people here are. The guy is showing you that you don’t need so much money to be happy, and that you can find lots of fun ways of living with less. I read the book months ago and it is hugely inspiring – he’s humble, got a sense of humour and he’s definitely the kind of guy I want to hang out with if our economy collapses (which it looks like it might not to far away!).

    And to the issue of health, and people saying he’s just lucky he was fit and healthy – incredible! The fact that he is fit and healthy is a testament to his way of life, its not luck! Its only us obese Americans who sit all day at our computers who have such health problems.

    If you manage to let your defences down for 10mins, you might find this guy has something to teach you.

    Thanks to both Marks.

    • robert

      quote 100% matt s

  • Charles Mire

    Native Americans lived this kind of lifestyle. Why is it so hard to envision people in this age living in such a way? That being said, Jenny K. brings up a good point about fitness, health, and age. In modern society, if someone is sick or disabled, there are institutions who do nothing but care for such people. In a tribal society, care falls on the entire tribe in addition to all the other chores.

    While it is noted that Mark Boyle learned a bit of medicine, I doubt he would feel confident enough to treat himself for anything more serious than a typical camping/hiking injury. Being money free, how would he obtain care with modern medicine?

    I think many modern people would be reluctant to give up the security provided by modern medicine. Anyone care to give birth in a communal camp without a doctor present, along with sterile sheets, instruments, etc.? What about dentistry? Back when there was no choice other than tribalism, people often died from what are considered minor issues with modern medicine.

    And what of crime? People don’t suddenly start only being nice to one another if society is reduced to tribalism, and often the opposite can occur.

    So the deeper question is how do we make ourselves more self sufficient and still retain important modern social entities?

  • david

    he is from missouri and not married seems this kind of homes are all over missouri
    the people of missouri hate people who are indepent like this
    also there is one person in texas south of fort worth heard did this
    has a mansion that produces all he need to survie on
    (hot tub and ever thing)
    he has been money less for 10 to 15 years
    there another small block of people in chiacago that tried this for a long time
    dont know if there still doing it
    another was in new york even had a school that they were taking classes at
    there many people who do this ever year
    most dont family gets in the way

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  • deseed

    When I was homeless nearly 20 years ago I resorted to diving in dumpsters to find food was the only way to get anything to eat without pan handling and begging. I’ll be damned if I have to live my life like that again. It made me unhealthy and it caused all sorts of problems that arose later on. I don’t recommend doing it unless your life depends on it and even still I don’t really think it is good idea. It’s a dangerous way to live.

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