Life on Bitcoin

Bitcoin has received heaps of attention recently from tech early adopters and the mainstream media alike. It’s been a wild last six months which has seen the value of the virtual currency grow more than tenfold and then fall half as much, as well as the government intervene in a series of suspected fraud and money-laundering cases. The cryptocurrency has been hailed by many as a potential future global currency, but amid all this fervor, it remains little more than an intellectual curiosity to most. That is, those who own bitcoin, have used it to complete a transaction of any sort, or are even aware how to do so are firmly in the minority.

Austin and Becky Craig, documentarians and soon to be newlyweds, are taking on this challenge firsthand with an ambitious plan to live only using bitcoin for the first 90 days after returning from their honeymoon on July 27. The Provo, Utah residents are entering this project without any pre-experience using bitcoin and without making any prior arrangements for how to handle life’s everyday transactions: rent, food, gasoline, etc. The entire adventure will be captured by a documentary film crew, the Good Line, and the couple will also post daily vlogs (video blogs) detailing their triumphs and struggles. The final film will be called “Life on Bitcoin.”

The couple are fundraising to cover the costs of producing the documentary. They launched a Kickstarter campaign today with the goal of raising $70,000 – donations can also be made using bitcoin directly through film’s website. The incentives offered range from a DRM-free HD copy of the film, to signed memorabilia, to face time with the creators, to various producer credits.

It’s an ambitious project with more unknowns than knowns. The couple set out five goals for their 90-day adventure. The first, which they describe as the baseline, is to live their everyday life using only bitcoin, meaning paying for rent, furniture, groceries, cell phone, Internet, restaurants, medical, insurance, a plumber, etc. In many cases, they will rely on a financial intermediary to deliver payment in a currency acceptable to the end-recipient, but their hope is to negotiate as many direct bitcoin transactions as possible and to prove that a bitcoin-only life is possible – even in the Provo, UT, where the Craigs say there is “relatively little bitcoin adoption.”

The couple will also need to receive all income in bitcoin, or not touch those funds received in fiat currency until after the 90 days have concluded. Both Austin and Becky are creative professionals – Austin starred in the Orabrush “Bad Breath Test” video which received more than 60 million views on YouTube – meaning they will be dealing with many clients and paying multiple vendors, each of which will present their own challenge.

Beyond this, the goals get more ambitious. The couple is committed to taking a road trip of at least 1,200 miles round trip using only bitcoin. The trip will require that they buy a “reliable but cheap” car, pay for gas “even if [they] have to barter with farmers,” obtain insurance, and stay in hotels or camp along the way. They have set two related stretch goals of traveling to another country and traveling across an ocean. Both will require the cooperation of airlines or their ability to charm their way onto a private plane.

The Craigs aren’t the first people to go bitcoin only for a period of time. Forbes journalist Kashmir Hill lived on bitcoin alone for a week earlier this year and described the experience as “living on the fringes” at times. But while that brief experiment was revealing, it pales in comparison to what Austin and Becky are taking on. Unlike a single week, there are very few transactions that can be put off over a 90 day period. At the same time, Hill lives in San Francisco, which is ground zero of the prototypical 32.7-year-old white male libertarian bitcoin early adopters. For better or for worse, taking on the same challenge in Utah will be an entirely different experience.

As someone who has used bitcoin in the digital world but never in the physical world, I’m fascinated to see how this plays out. Austin and Becky will need to get really good at explaining what bitcoin is and why anyone would want to accept it. If they can manage to cross this chasm of education, they’ll then have to make it painfully simple for bitcoin newbies to get setup and accept their payments.

There are several intermediaries available that could help facilitate life via bitcoin. For example, PizzaForCoins.com will allow the Craigs to place a delivery order from their local Dominoes and pay for it using the virtual currency. And a variety of sites allow consumers to purchase via Amazon using bitcoin. But these intermediaries are akin to cheating the system, and the couple plan to avoid using them wherever possible. For this experiment to work, they will need to prove that the world is as willing to accept bitcoin as they are to live using it exclusively – or fail trying.

The biggest risk in this whole experiment is the fluctuating value of bitcoins. Over a 90 day period, it’s very realistic that the Craigs’ buying power could vary by as much as 50 percent in either direction. If this move is in their favor, then it will be a major bonus. But the realization of this volatility alone will be enough to cause concern, let along ending up on the wrong end of a changing exchange rate.

The next area of concern is the ever-changing regulatory environment. The US government sanctioned the world’s largest bitcoin exchange less than a month ago and have been taking similar action against other nodes in the virtual currency ecosystem. And while bitcoin is legal in principle, there is no guarantee that it will survive in its current implementation or that access to the critical infrastructure will be uninterrupted for the duration of the experiment. For the most part, Austin and Becky will be powerless to over any changes in this environment and will have to adjust their plans and their methods accordingly.

Whether the newlyweds will live a life of luxury or one of squalor remains to be seen. But regardless of the answer, the results of this experiment will be instructive about the state of bitcoin and also the gaps in the market ripe for solutions from entrepreneurs.