Parents have always helped each other out, but as the sluggish economy has dragged on, hunkering down and making ends meet has become the new normal. For a growing number of families who are looking to add something to their lives instead of merely slashing their budget, it's meant doing a bit of time travel -- back to the days of bartering and banding together, albeit with a twist. In a great cyber-irony, it's the new technology that's making these old-fashioned transactions both doable and even trendy.
Though it's tough to quantify, a poll by America's Research Group, a consumer research firm in Summerville, South Carolina, revealed that 26 percent of respondents said they were bartering products and skills, more than double the number in 2000, when the question was first posed. Another recent survey conducted by BAV Consulting, a marketing-strategy firm, found that 70 percent of Americans believe collaboration and sharing are key skills for surviving in the current economy, notes consumer-behavior expert John Gerzema, coauthor of Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution Is Changing the Way We Buy, Sell, and Live.
If you're feeling the pinch of both time and money and are looking to participate in the DIY of co-op-style savings, check out the stories of these real-world families who have found creative ways to pool resources.
"I barter for the things my kids need."
McKenzie Jones-Rounds was invited to her first swap three years ago. She had just moved to the Ithaca, New York, area when she heard about the meet, sponsored by a volunteer group called Share Tompkins. She arrived with a pile of gently used maternity clothes, took home some top-quality baby duds, and didn't spend a single cent.
Jones-Rounds enjoyed the experience so much she decided to host her own swap. With the group's help, she posted flyers and placed an ad in her local newspaper. About 30 people came to that first meet, and they were willing to barter everything from moving help to guitar lessons.
Now Jones-Rounds rarely spends money on toys and kids' clothes. Instead, she fills a box or two with items that her two sons have outgrown and heads to one of the swaps that she helps organize a few times a year. About 50 people typically show up at the swaps, but sometimes there are as many as 300, so the events are now held in community centers and local parks, instead of people's homes. To ramp up the fun, they often include potluck food, music, and crafting.
The events are at once highly organized and freewheeling affairs. The space is divided into one area for those who want to give items away and another "barter" section for people who only want to trade for something else. The traders set their stuff out on tables and blankets as well as list their items, along with their name and contact information, on "Have" and "Want" boards in a central place. "Most of the swapping happens with people just walking around and talking to each other," says Jones-Rounds. "If someone sees something she likes, she may say, 'I'd love to get this for my kid. I have some games, candles, and home accessories at my table, and I also babysit. Would you like to come take a look to see if there's anything you want?'" If it's a smaller group, she'll have everyone sit in a circle and take turns saying what they brought and what they want to bring home.
Children are an integral part of the scene, manning tables and helping their parents make deals. "Felix knows the swaps are in part for him, so he'll walk around our house and suggest what we should bring," she says. "A big part of this is teaching my kids that if you need something new, it doesn't have to come from the store."