Former teacher Heidemarie Schwermer has lived without money in Germany for 13 years. Our writer finds out how she does it

Twenty-two years ago Heidemarie Schwermer, a middle-aged secondary school teacher just emerging from a difficult marriage, moved with her two children from the village of Lueneburg to the city of Dortmund, in the Ruhr area of Germany, whose homeless population, she immediately noticed, was above average and striking in its intransigent hopelessness.

Her immediate reaction was shock. "This isn't right, this can't go on," she said to herself. After careful reflection she set up what in Germany is called a Tauschring - a sort of swap shop - a place where people can exchange their skills or possessions for other skills and possessions, a money-free zone where a haircut could be rendered in return for car maintenance; a still-functioning but never-used toaster be exchanged for a couple of second-hand cardigans. She called it Gib und Nimm, Give and Take.

It was always Schwermer's belief that the homeless didn't need money to re-enter society: instead they should be able to empower themselves by making themselves useful, despite debts, destitution or joblessness. "I've always believed that even if you have nothing, you are worth a lot. Everyone has a place in this world."

But the homeless of Dortmund seemed not to take to Schwermer's plan, few ever turned up to the Tauschring. Some, they told her angrily to her face, felt that a middle-class woman with some education would never be able to relate to the circumstances of the dispossessed. Instead it was mainly the unemployed and the retired who began, in snowballing numbers, to flock to the Tauschring, their arms full of things that had been lying around their homes unused for years, or skills that they possessed but no longer exercised: retired hairdressers volunteered to cut the hair of out-of-work electricians, who would wire their kitchens in return; retired English teachers gave language lessons in return for the services of a dog-walker. The point was, not a single pfennig changed hands.

© Unknown
The Tauschring grew exponentially, was written up glowingly in a couple of local papers and turned into something of a Dortmund phenomenon. Its success also prompted Schwermer to ask serious questions of herself and her way of life. "I began to realise that I lived with so many things I didn't need. So I decided that I wouldn't buy anything without giving something away. That's how it started. Then I began to really think about what I needed, clothes for example, and noticed that I could easily get by with what I could hang on ten coathangers. Everything else I gave away. I had so much stuff in the house that was superfluous. Getting rid of it was a relief."

After a while even her vast collection of books began to assume an excessive presence in her home and one day Schwermer marched to a second-hand shop with her entire library. "The woman in the shop was upset. But I felt that giving them away was a good thing. I love books but I knew I had to get rid of them. I didn't miss them, which surprised me. I just wanted to pare things down to their essentials."

What had, in part, led Schwermer to her conclusions about "stuff" was a year of psychotherapy after the breakdown of her marriage in the mid-1980s. It was a difficult year, she remembers: "I was in floods of tears nearly every session, but at the end of it I felt so happy and decided that I wanted to live more simply. I also wanted to pass on what I learnt in therapy to other people, and that's when I began to train as a psychotherapist."

Other things changed. She took up meditation and began to realise how dissatisfied she was in her job. "I was always ill with flu or had backache and never realised the connection between my physical symptoms and my unhappiness at work."

In the wake of setting up her Tauschring, she began to experiment with other sorts of jobs on the side. "I was working in a kitchen for ten deutschmarks an hour and people were saying to me, 'You went to university, you studied to do this?' But I thought, well, every person has an intrinsic value, why should I be valued more for being a teacher or a therapist than for working in a kitchen?"

The more ascetically she lived, the happier she became. By 1995 she was deeply involved in the Tauschring, house-sitting for short periods in exchange for cleaning or light maintenance work. She was buying virtually nothing: "When I needed something, I found that it would just come into my life. My glasses, for example. There was an optician who was a member of the Tauschring and he gave them to me in return for some therapy sessions."

It was in 1996 she realised that "I had to go farther" and took what would be the most radical decision of her life: to live without money. She gave up her apartment and teaching job and resolved to live nomadically, an "extreme lifestyle", she admits, moving from house to house, in return for menial work. Her new way of life was intended as a short-lived thing: she had given herself 12 months. But she found herself enjoying it so much that it never really ended.

Thirteen years on, she continues to live according to the principles of Gib und Nimm. "Life became much more exciting. More beautiful. I had everything I needed and I knew I couldn't go back to my old life. I didn't have to do what I didn't like, I had a more profound sense of joy, and physically I feel better than ever. Living without money was just the first step. I realised that I wanted to change the world and I wasn't going to do that by looking after someone's cat while they were on holiday."

She still lives - a week at a time - in the spare rooms of members of the Tauschring, cleaning or working in return for accommodation. Only very occasionally has she had personality clashes with her hosts and she tries to resolve any tension within herself "by going for a walk". She has emergency savings of €200 (£180) and any other money that comes to her she gives away. "I decided it was OK to collect my pension but I give most of it away, except for what I need to pay for train tickets."

She has no health insurance because she didn't want to be accused of scrounging off the state. Instead she relies on what she calls the "power of self-healing. When something hurts, I put my hand on it and say to myself I have the power to heal myself and the pain goes away." What if she becomes really ill? "Cancer? Then I suppose I'll die. I've already prepared myself for death several times - times when I thought, 'This is it, it's over'. But then I got up the next day and everything was fine."

Her entire material world is now contained in a single black suitcase and a rucksack. No photographs because, she says, "I don't need them".

In the flesh Schwermer is charming and engaging as well as lively and youthful-looking with strong jutting teeth and eyesight that she says she has halfway managed to correct herself with exercises she has picked from the people she meets. She is well dressed, neat and tidy and, it may come as a surprise given her lifestyle, 67 years old. Her two children - now a music teacher and a therapist - support what their mother does although the family don't spend Christmas together. Though single, she has relationships every now and again, but is adamant that any love affair will always come second to what she calls her ideological work with Gib und Nimm. "I can imagine having a serious relationship with someone who is spiritual and who believes in what I'm doing, but not one where I live in a nice big house. I can fall in love but I can't imagine living with someone. "

© Unknown
Given her constant roaming about the country, it is almost impossible pinning her down. We met in the Greenpeace offices in Münster, near Cologne, where she was to address a group of young people who had been inspired by her work to live without money for week (Schwermer spends much of her time giving lectures about her lifestyle). Accompanying her was an Italian/ Norwegian film crew and we watched as successive teenagers stumbled in and out of the office, having been given the task of bartering for food with the offer of work. "We already live in a barter economy. We go to work to get money. I want to go farther."

What is farther and how far is far enough? Ideally, Schwermer would like to lead by example and give other people courage to change their attitudes towards money and how they live in and contribute to society. The pressure to buy and to own, she feels, has intensified in recent years. Consumerism is essentially about "an attempt to fill an empty space inside. And that emptiness, and the fear of loss, is manipulated by the media or big companies." There is a fear, she says, that in not buying or owning an individual will fall out of society. The irony, she claims, is that material goods can never plug a spiritual hole and shopping and hoarding are more likely to isolate people than bring contentment. Does she intend to start a revolution?

"No, I think of myself as planting the seed," she says. "Perhaps people come away from my lectures or seeing me being interviewed and decide to spend a little less. Others might start meditating. The point is that my living without money is to allow for the possibility of another kind of society. I want people to ask themselves, 'What do I need? How do I really want to live?' Every person needs to ask themselves who they really are and where they belong. That means getting to grips with oneself."

Does she really think that she can convert other people to her life philosophy? "Yes, that's our future. One day we will all live without money, because we don't need it and because it is only a burden. We're the way we are because it's how the system allows us to be. We can buy everything we want but we need so much less than we realise. If you think that the capitalist system we live in now is the only system, well that's just ridiculous."

Though she no longer owns any of her own, she has written two books on her adventures (and has given away her royalties). The first, My Life without Money, turned her first into a minor hero in Germany in some quarters, the kind who, last week for example, was invited on to a late-night TV forum to discuss whether Money Can Make You Happy. Surrounded by dot-com millionaires and lottery winners, she spoke while the other guests peered at her, visibly disconcerted to meet a woman who had given up everything and who claimed to be happy. "I live completely normally, only without money," she said. "There are people who do so in Siberia. And in Africa there are many people who survive only because they all help each other."

Schwermer knows from experience that not everyone will take her seriously. When she began with her project, "I was attacked frequently by people telling me that I wasn't living without money at all, that I was just being provocative or scrounging, which made me cry! But then I realised it isn't just about giving and expecting something back, or about giving and allowing oneself to be taken advantage of, or becoming a victim. It is about the possibility of having another life, of letting go of the stuff around us and examining our deepest fears."

She tells me about an episode three years ago when she became convinced that she was going to starve to death: "But I really asked myself what that was about and realised it was about my childhood, and it had no bearing on reality." (Schwermer is the child of refugees who lost everything after the war). Her only real terror now is appearing in the media. "I hate being on TV because it makes me so nervous but I know I reach a lot of people that way." The people she does get through to, judging by the demographics of the lecture halls she visits, tend to be women. Why? "Because women are more open to new ideas."

Is Schwermer a lunatic? Certainly she has been called "naive" and "idealistic" by the author of an article in the right-wing Die Welt newspaper, who asked her whether she was pursuing a communist-lite agenda when communism has been proved to be a failure. "It's true that communism didn't work," she says, "but human beings need to learn to be a little bit different before we can learn to share what we have. We are going to run out of oil in ten years. We don't have infinite resources. That just isn't sustainable."

© Unknown
Is her own itinerant lifestyle sustainable? She thinks so. She feels young but, in the event of death, she has organised her own funeral. She's "paid" for it by striking a deal with an enlightened clergyman, who agreed that she would cover the costs of the burial by offering counseling sessions for the bereaved. Such deals are a regular feature of her new existence: only the managers of the German rail network seem to be immune to her formidable powers of persuasion, hence the few euros she still needs at her disposable to travel long distances.

Schwermer often talks enthusiastically about "the new world" she is in the process of discovering. She is esoteric but not mad or prone to ranting. Most people find her to be engaging and likeable: there are now many members of her Tauschring. What about those who live without money but not through choice? What about the poor and the homeless? Has she ever converted a homeless person to her way of thinking?

"I haven't managed to reach the homeless," she says. "I did hold lectures for the homeless but only six or seven showed up. They didn't want to hear it. One of the men there accused me of having 'connections', that I'd only been able to do what I have been able to do because I knew people. I do have contacts, that's what this new world is all about, forging links and contacts. Otherwise it wouldn't work."

She never managed to convince her interlocutor and not long after their conversation he had resumed his place outside on the pavement begging for spare change.