WWII refugees, Schwermer's family fled from Prussia to Germany in the 1940s. Her father had owned a successful coffee roastery and kept a nanny and full-time gardener on his payroll. "We were well-off but ended up as riff-raff," she says. "Then we became rich again and (we) had to defend it. I've always had to justify myself, whether we were rich or poor."
So she became obsessed with finding ways to live without money. A former teacher and psychotherapist, Schwermer formed Germany's first exchange circle, "Give And Take Central" in 1994. The group helped locals exchange simple services like babysitting or house cleaning for tangible goods. "I noticed that I needed money less and less," she told Business Insider. "And so I thought, I can try to live one year without money."
Schwermer attempted to live without money at least four times, she says, but it wasn't until a friend asked her to house-sit for three months that she finally took the plunge. "I said, 'The time is right. Now I'll do it.' I gave everything away." That included her apartment, which she sold first, and everything that wouldn't fit into a small suitcase.
What was only meant to last 12 months became her life for the next 16 years. "I only wanted to try to do an experiment and in that year, I noticed a new life," she said. "I didn't want to go back to the old life."
Family and friends weren't on board when she pitched the idea. She only sees her two children and three grandchildren a few times per year, but says they've warmed up to her come-and-go lifestyle. "Now they're proud of what I'm doing. It's enough for us," she says.
After divorcing her first and only husband 40 years ago, Schwermer hasn't remarried. She's clearly not in any rush. "If it happens, I'm interested, yes," she says. "Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't."
She's a light packer. When seasons change, she gives away old clothing and waits for new ones to come along. When they do -- usually donated by hosts or friends -- she calls them 'miracles', rather than charity.
Her schedule is pretty strict. After a week, she's off to somewhere new. "I'm always thinking how I could make things better for life in the world," she says. "I am something like a peace pilgrim. I go from house to house sharing my philosophy."
She's no stranger to press, but this interview on RAI TV, a Rome, Italy-based talk show, put her over the edge a few years ago . She hasn't done another one since. "I can endure [critics], but when they tell me to my face, it's hard," she says.
Friends often get frustrated with her come-and-go lifestyle. She's turned down many invitations to extend visits, including ones to stay permanently. "But I say no [to staying longer] because I can't," Schwermer says. "I feel that I must go. It's always my job to be in the world with people."
In the documentary about her life, Living Without Money, she's seen foraging for leftover produce at fresh air markets, where she might ask vendors for unwanted leftovers or find them discarded in heaps on the ground. But don't call her homeless. "You cannot compare me to other homeless people," she says. "They are not well-liked and invited into people's homes."