A cashless economy? Where’s the catch?
August 4, 2015
An empty purse may not mean an empty stomach for those who can make lifestyle adjustments around having no cash. Photo: blank
The unbridled capitalism that drove the Pope to demand a new economic order may seem unavoidable, but some Australians live gladly on almost no cash.
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Rachel Newby and Liam Culbertsonin the doorway of their shack. Photo: Simon Schluter
“We enjoy the feeling of being able to choose what we do regardless of money,” says cashless economy pioneer Rachel Newby, 24, who lives with her partner Liam Culbertson, 26, in a Gippsland shack.
“We don’t have to worry about rent or plane tickets or food or fancy clothes,” Newby says, adding that instead they focus on learning valuable skills such as propagating fruit trees and woodworking. They also have ample free time to read books, travel, play music, have good conversations and meet friends.
Rachel Newby and Liam Culbertson live on a friend’s plot in Gippsland, taking jobs periodically and keeping an emergency fund. Photo: Simon Schluter
Newby and Culbertson live on a friend’s plot, without paying rent or rates, based in a cabin they built from salvage. To avoid running out of living resources, the pair volunteer at a goat farm and orchard among other places, in exchange for goods including apples and yarn.
Plus, they take jobs periodically and keep an emergency fund. This year, their biggest expense was $300 in dental work for Culbertson. Otherwise, their biggest expense is either the train fare to Melbourne when they cannot be bothered to hitch, or hot chips.
Food also comes from dumpster dives, which are fruitful wherever you go, according to Newby, who forages two luscious dumpsters at local supermarkets that refrain from pouring bleach on ditched produce.
Rachel Newby and Liam Culbertson with their ducks. Photo: Simon Schluter
The biggest benefit their makeshift sharing-economy lifestyle brings is the freedom to spend the hours and days as they will. The biggest drawback is stints during which they feel unsettled because of lack of shelter, or hungry because of lack of nutrition, or cold and wet because they are hitch-hiking in a snowstorm in the middle of a Canadian winter. “And no one can see you, much less pick you up.” However, the hardship makes for great stories, according to Newby, who has lived in random tents.
Originally from the top of the middle-class “privilege pyramid”, she and Culbertson get on well with the neighbours, who barter various goods. Other locals are apparently supportive.
“Older folks seem to love the idea of us doing what they used to do as kids, or in some cases, as young hippies,” she says. She and Culbertson just might burn out, she says, but in the meantime they are enjoying the moment.
Another fiscal free spirit, Michele Kwok, 51, moved to rural Perth 12 years ago to escape the British rat race she describes as a race to the grave. The former veterinary surgeon has an annual taxable income of just $35,000, from rental properties. “That is plenty for me, as I can easily survive on half,” Kwok says.
Most of the money goes on rates, income tax, land tax and insurance – the rest supports causes she believes in, she says, adding she donates up to 30 per cent.
Since retiring at the age of 39, without debts or dependants, she has felt free. “Also having a low-maintenance lifestyle helps; I don’t have a TV or a smartphone,” she says.
The low-tech, can-do Ocean Reef resident tries to be as self-sufficient as possible, growing food on permaculture lines. Garden waste is treated as a resource, recycled into the system to feed the soil.
Likewise, she plants self-seeding crops, including fennel, chives and nasturtium, which require no work, meaning more time to free-dive in the Swan River, where she catches crayfish, crabs, prawns and more.
Plus, she keeps bees for honey, having taught herself how to catch wild swarms, she says. Then there are her four generations of chickens born on site and the pigeons she also catches and fattens on chook feed and garden snails.
The homesteader wedded to clean food, clean water and clean air drives a converted electric ute. Naturally, her house – converted in 2008 – is solar.
Other post-capitalism cashless economy exponents house-sit or couch-surf – sleep on associates’ sofas for free. One couch-surfing activist in his 30s, who calls himself Temu, says he has lived most of his adult life on an income Australia ranks below the poverty line – just $1000 a month.
“And my main conclusion is that the poverty line is ridiculous,” Temu says. His negligible income obliges frugality, he says, “but it’s really not as hard as the sob stories I often see in the media”.
Sometimes technically homeless, besides crashing on couches he lives in cheap share houses and works part-time, supported by a small passive income – interest on savings from the days of having a well paid, real job. After deciding that time mattered more than money, he dropped out and learned to live with less.
Often he stays in Asia, which makes the dollar go further and provides perspective: the sight of real poverty makes it hard to cry many tears over Australians who can afford fast food and a box of cheap wine, or “goon”. In his thrifty world, less is plenty more than enough.
Despite its hippie vibe, the lifestyle seems hard. Adherents must be resourceful, handy, energetic, inventive, outgoing and indifferent to how mainstream society sees them.
Many are publicity shy, even borderline paranoid and hostile to the media, apparently anxious about being pegged as counter-culture ne’er-do-wells: dope-smoking anarchists or scroungers.
Either way, the price of freedom from the tedium of monetisation seems high, but nobody could deny two major virtues: freedom and a low carbon footprint.
Bartles and Bunyas
Few people other than Jain monks literally live on zero cash. But the easiest way to commit to the ultra low-cost cashless economy may be to join a branch of Lets (Local Energy Trading System).
Lets means swapping goods and skills for a Lets local currency rather than banknotes, although cold hard cash may supplement transactions.
Australia’s first such system surfaced in 1987 in Maleny, Queensland, founded by community activist Jill Jordan. Jordan took a cue from the Scottish Canada-based economist Michael Linton, who came up with the concept, which spread everywhere from Norway to South Africa.
In 2014, Australian Lets groups traded 830,542 credits (roughly equivalent to Australian dollars). About 23 Australian groups actively trade, according to organiser Annette Loudon. Lets currencies include Bunyas (Maleny), Operas (Sydney), Bartles (Tablelands, Queensland), Tokens (Warranwood, Victoria), and Sapphires (Bega Valley, New South Wales).
On paper, the community currencies can be used to fund big-ticket purchases. In 1994, one Bega Lets member, Avril Fink, built a house on the back of no more than 30,000 Sapphires.
A former minister of social security in the Keating government, Peter Baldwin, encouraged Lets systems as a way of letting welfare recipients borrow against their welfare entitlement for urgent personal needs or to become established in business.