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.
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."
Three days a week, Jennifer Folsom, of Alexandria, Virginia, picks up more than just her children at the school bus stop. The working mother of three also gets a fully cooked homemade dinner complete with side dishes, ranging from slow-cooked barbecued ribs to spinach-feta cheese pie.
It all started two years ago, when Folsom read an article about meal-swapping and mentioned it to three moms she knew from the school bus stop. From a few casual conversations, a system was born that they called the "Bus Stop Meal Swap." Folsom says that it changed all of their lives. Monday through Thursday, one mom cooks dinner -- if she makes grilled pork tenderloin, for example, she also includes sides such as a green veggie and rice pilaf -- for each family and hands off the food at the bus stop.
Just as it is with cooking for your own family, not every meal is a hit, but since the moms see each other at least twice a day, there's a lot of honest discussion about what worked and what didn't. "If in doubt, you can always ask the kids, who have no trouble being honest," says Folsom. One member, who's from a Pacific island, makes curry dishes that have helped Folsom's boys become more adventurous eaters.
The women don't have a formal system, but they decide what they're making at least a month in advance, buy ingredients in bulk when they go on sale, and put together a calendar of all the meals for the month to avoid repeats. They also rotate their glass and plastic containers and reusable shopping bags for deliveries. Meanwhile, not having to plan and make dinner each night has given them each a gift: more energy and time for their kids. "I can sit down with the big kids and work through homework after school, and I have a lot more time for fun stuff like evening bike rides or just kicking the soccer ball around the yard," Folsom says. Sharing the cooking duties has also brought the families close. "We're so in tune with the minutiae of each other's lives that I don't feel like I'm doing it alone anymore," says Folsom. If you're inspired to try it with friends, check out dinnertrade.com for a start-up guide and swap-friendly recipes.
Rebecca Andersson, of Portland, Oregon, rarely steps inside a supermarket. As the founder of a buying club called Know Thy Food, she gets organic produce, milk, eggs, meat, dried fruits and grains, cleaning products, and more -- direct from wholesalers and farms every week -- and saves 25 to 50 percent off what it costs at the store. But it's not just about the money. 'I can't begin to explain how much easier it is to make sure my kids have a healthy diet," says Andersson.
The club started in 2008 when Andersson and a few other moms who were part of a local "meetup" on green parenting started chatting about how they were all searching for easier and cheaper ways to put organic, local, and healthy food on the table. About 20 families in the group said they were interested in getting together to buy in bulk as part of a food-buying club. Unlike food co-ops, which must meet specific legal requirements, food-buying clubs are more informal. The moms began contacting wholesale food distributors, focusing on local produce. Andersson hit the farmers' market to meet farmers, searched online, and e-mailed manufacturers to ask who distributed their products. At first, the members focused on dry goods like beans and grains. Then they moved on to buying organic produce wholesale, but the club quickly grew. With 860 members and three employees, Andersson now runs it out of a local warehouse that she leases in her neighborhood.
Members order online and help unload and divide deliveries once a week. "Everything is unprocessed and unpackaged," says Andersson. "We get 25- to 50-pound bags and cases. People bring their own mason jars and bags to put their stuff in."
Andersson, meanwhile, hasn't stopped looking for ways to leverage the group's buying power. When Cirque du Soleil came to Portland, for instance, she recruited parents from the club and bought tickets through the group-sales office. The result: Each family paid $55 a seat instead of $105.
If you're interested in starting a food club, Andersson suggests food-hub.org as a great resource for finding local food distributors and the sites foodclub.org and localfoodcoop.org for free software to keep it all organized.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Parents magazine.