Adventure, Business, Travel

How to Live for Free

Those of you who are regulars know that I decided to inject some adventure into my life. (Well, even more adventure, I guess.) In January I sold my house and by April 30 I need to be out the door. But the idea of getting chafes at my Rogue Priest ways, so I decided to mix things up.

Initially I focused on two different options: staying at a Buddhist monastery, or moving into a vacant warehouse space. After a lot of thought and several cool options, I’ve decided to go with the monastery.

My room probably will not look like this.

Well Shave My Head and Pluck Me a Lotus

So what does this mean? People ask me a lot of fun questions when I tell them this news. Here are a few answers.

  • No, I’m not Buddhist, and they’re fine with that. (You can read about my beliefs here.)
  • I will not have to shave my head or wear orange robes. I’m not a monk.
  • They don’t all keep vegetarian at this monastery (that is an optional vow) nor do they abstain from alcohol. I can eat and drink what I see fit.
  • It is pretty normal for people to stay at the monastery. They have rooms for guests, retreatants, visiting teachers, etc.
  • Yes, I intend to high-five the head lama every day.

All in all I’m super excited. As a priest and a philosopher it brings me great joy to speak with wise people. The fact that I will be able to hang around with a lama for late-night conversation over wine is pretty wonderful.

However, I didn’t immediately settle on the monastery option. Even when I was offered a place there I kept up my search. I put out a call to arms to find a vacant building, which had some fantastic results.

How to Get the Most Leads

I got many responses both from good friends and strangers. Most of them completely missed the point of what I was asking for. Which is exactly what I wanted.

I had intentionally cast a wide net, putting the word out to everyone in my network. Obviously that meant I would need to filter the results, and I was prepared for that. It meant I would end up with more options.

The responses I got mostly fell into three categories:

  1. “Oh, you want to squat somewhere illegally?” No.
  2. “Are you poor? Why do you want to live somewhere for free?” This was often implied rather than directly said. I have a great job at one of the best museums in the world. But really, who wouldn’t want to live somewhere for free, if that’s an option?
  3. “Isn’t it unsafe to live in an abandoned building?” Potentially, but that’s why I would be choosey about my building.

My patience paid off: I got interesting options ranging from a vacant Church of Christ Scientist, a natural limestone cave (!), a house-share with a retired nun, and a guest room on a farm.

This kid never stops following me.

Making the Ask

However, that’s not the process I used to secure my place at the monastery.

Instead, I sent a simple letter to the lama. I explained my hope of staying there for a summer. I referenced  my social media experience, and offered to act as the monastery’s Social Media Consultant.

Then I waited.

Within a week she had called me and set up a meeting for us to talk details. It was as simple as that.

This process was similar for my other leads. When I found a former ballroom, now vacant, I simply tracked down the owner’s phone number and offered to act as groundskeeper. In that case it didn’t work out (they are in the middle of renovating it into apartments), and that’ll happen. People will say no.

But think of all the people out there who have an empty building or spare room. Now think of the skills you have, whatever they may be.

Don’t you think there could be a chance for barter?

The only way to find out is to ask. Compared to just telling friends to spread the word, I found asking property owners to be more daunting. I also found it to be more effective, with better results. I chose to use both tactics side-by-side to maximize my chances, but if I look for another unusual living space after the monastery I will forego the wide net. I’ll focus on targeted asks to the owners of specific properties that intrigue me.

The barter I ended up offering the monastery is this:

  • Complete a three-month strategic social media plan (that I drafted) focusing on Facebook and the lama’s blog.
  • Assist the monastery with selling some antiques online as a fundraiser.
  • Spend one evening per week helping in the monastery garden.
  • Contribute $50/month toward utilities.

That’s a pretty sweet deal. “But Drew,” you’re saying, “You said this was how to live somewhere for free. What’s up with the $50?”

That’s fair. I could have stayed totally free of charge if I was willing to spend more time in the garden. I love gardening, but I place a premium on my time, and I spend most of it writing. I decided to contribute some money in order to duck out of chores. Other people might have chosen differently.

Almost Criminally Easy

Finding a place to stay for (almost) free was almost painfully easy. The extra work I have to do adds up to a few hours a week, and I save $900/month on rent. There’s a word for that here in the dictionary, it’s…


Remember, this is a clean, safe living arrangement in good company and a reputable part of town… and I had to turn down other offers. If you want to live rent-free, it doesn’t require sacrifice. All you have to do is identify something you can provide and approach property owners.

I’m really excited that this worked out, and I want others to be able to do it too. What would you like to know about how to offer barter or live for free? Are there any questions you have that I left unanswered? Are you thinking of trying it?

Please let me know, and please be a good internet citizen and tweet the hell out of this post. Thank you. 

Update: Do you want to live in a monastery? I get emails every month asking me how I did it. It’s easy if you plan carefully and approach the monastery the right way. Here is the complete how-to guide.


42 thoughts on “How to Live for Free

  1. when @lex_garey said this was fucking cool, i didn’t know what to expect. but this is pretty amazing. great job and enjoyyour time. i look forward to watching your journey. thanks for the inspiration.

  2. This is really impressive and I hope that it works/ed out well for you. I would’ve done more gardening as that’s my passion and saved the $50 for something else. I dont’ think this idea would work for most people who don’t live in a large city though. A monastary? And empty warehouse? I don’t have those here.

    • Hi Jen! That’s interesting. I think the process would be similar in a rural area, but the kind of place to look for would be different. A guest house or spare bedroom are likely possibilities in exchange for barter. Anywhere there are people with empty rooms, who are not professional landlords, there is a chance to really make their day by offering them something worthwhile in exchange for lodging.

      I think the suburbs would be the hardest area to do this in, though if anyone wants to prove me wrong I’d love to see it….

      Welcome to Rogue Priest by the way :) Thanks for commenting!

  3. Haha! I like the way you think. This is brilliant (congrats!!) and makes me rethink my strategies for finding a place to live once summer hits…especially since I don’t have any yet :P

    • Yay! Good to see you, Tee! Thank you so much. I really recommend it, it’s a different process than a conventional apartment search but it leaves you feeling like Magellan about to launch for a trip around the world. (Except hopefully not to be killed along the way like he was.) I feel exhilarated thinking about my move. By the way, so glad you are reading. Welcome!

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  5. Hey! Thanks for your post, I really enjoyed it! I currently live in a huge apartment in Manhattan (hey Jen in Canada!) and pay about $300/month in rent. I also take care of my roommates two kids when she’s traveling for work, do all the dishes and keep household supplies like toilet paper and soap stocked. It works well because I’m short on $$$ but love kids and have some time to spare.

    When I travel I’ve learned that by volunteering with local organizations, it’s often possible to negotiate room and board in exchange for services. That’s how I lived in Bali for a few months for free while helping birth babies!

    Its amazing what happens when you take a minute to assess your relevant skills, then make a proposition. Not everything revolves around money!


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  8. chris says:

    I am considering joining the Peace Corps and see the world. However, i have never left Texas and i dont particularly care for foreigners. I think something similar to what you have done would suit me much better. However, i dont have regular internet available and im fairly sure my friends could help out too much. Any advice for a guy ready to leave but cant seem to find the means?

    • Chris, go for it. I think you will be happy you made the leap.

      Can I ask – is there a reason you don’t like foreigners? And is it all foreigners, or just people from certain countries? Personally, I think you’ll be happier in the long run if you look that hangup in the face and meet people from other countries. You’ll end up making friends you never would have expected. Just a thought.

      That said, it’s good you know that about yourself. Peace Corps is all about helping people in other countries, so it’s probably a good choice not to go with that.

      Do I have advice… yes, since you asked. First off I would set a firm deadline for when you’re going to leave. Probably a year out since you need time to figure out finances. At the same time, set financial goal for how much to save up by the time you go. You want an emergency fund in the bank.

      As far as making money, I would consider learning how to work online. You said you don’t have internet which may mean a used laptop would be a good business investment for you. If you want to go this route, I recommend Location Rebel. I used to link to it like crazy but I stopped because I don’t like marketing to my readers. But it is still the best program out there.

      If you don’t want to be tied to a laptop there are ways of bootstrapping it. Consider hitchhiking and doing odd jobs. If you can get a job on a cruise liner you can travel as part of the crew. Or if you know (or learn) the basics of sailing, you can get free passage on lots of smaller boats.

      Definitely get involved in travel communities. Online if you can, otherwise seek out local meetups or talk to grungy people with backpacks. You’ll get more tips than you can imagine. Talk to hitchhikers, backpackers and people who have done it.

      I’ll be in Texas in spring 2013 if you’re still there.

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  10. cody brown says:

    I really want to know more about your story. Where were you living?
    What’s the best way to contact a monk?
    Is a 6 month stay too long? (I’d like to stay until I find what I am looking for)

    Just get back to me. Ill have more- I’m on break at a job I don’t like.


    • Cody, contact a monastery and talk to them. That will be a much better source of information.

      Note: you should actually have some affinity for their spiritual mission or purpose. Otherwise, probably not a good idea.

  11. Avery says:

    This sounds great i wish i could find something like that as well, i dont know where to start, and because i thought i was running out of options i was considering the french foriegn legion.

    • There are monasteries of different kinds all over the place. I’m not Buddhist but my interfaith work meant that I had close ties with a number of local faith leaders.

  12. arielle says:

    I would love to spend a year in a monastery – where and how did you manage to achieve this. Any advice would be immensely appreciated.

  13. Jill says:

    I know Jessica from her time in Ann Arbor which led me to your blog, now I am intrigued! Obviously catching up on your past adventures but love your style!

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  15. Travis says:

    Hey I was just wondering if you could help me go the the same one? I’m looking for a complete change in my life and have been trying to find someone with experience like yourself to help guide me.

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  17. Hello

    I am fed up of this artificial life, artificial wife and people .
    Want to serve people in the monastery and need to connect with the God. Please guide me because want to leave all these artificial things and be there for social causes. Only request is that have place to say and basic food to live. Pl help as I am a serious seeker for help

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