From babysitting co-ops to community currency, an alternative economy is brimming under the surface of our consumer system. Find out how to help build more local, equitable economic models — and feel good about the ways you spend your money.
Neighborhood gardens turn empty city lots into food-growing commons.
Photo By John Koivuluouma
Bartering was the original means of exchanging goods and services, predating the invention of money as we know it. Garden bounty was traded for sheep’s cheese; mead was swapped for a woven blanket. Today, a resurgence in bartering is underway, as people turn away from our culture’s dominant “buy more stuff” paradigm, and instead take pride and satisfaction in the goods and services they provide, the handiwork of their friends and neighbors, and in helping make their communities more self-reliant.
The growth of this direct-trade economy is accompanied by an emergence of several other exciting economic trends that diverge from business as usual. Options include seed libraries, bike-sharing programs, local currencies and socially responsible investment plans. Here’s how you can join in and be a part of the change.
As many MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers already know, you can break away from the 8-to-5 grind (or, these days, often the 7-to-7 grind) by limiting spending and producing more for yourself. As part of the journey, you’ll embrace basic skills, such as gardening, cooking, raising chickens and livestock, chopping wood, and maybe even building your own home. Why? Because this type of modern homesteading not only reduces consumption and saves money, but it’s also satisfying and more sustainable. Two terrific books about the true value of homemaking are A Householder’s Guide to the Universe by Harriet Fasenfest and Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes.
One way you can get off the money train is to barter for some of the things you need. It’s a great way to live well with less cash, and it creates a stronger community of like-minded DIYers.
Bank your time. Work-exchange programs are a rewarding way to trade skills instead of cash to get a job done. A common example is a babysitting co-op, an organized group where parents take turns babysitting. If you don’t have a local co-op, start one yourself or find a babysitter at Babysitting Coop, which primarily lists for-a-fee services. For many other types of work exchanges (think gardening help for a free haircut), look for a local “time bank.” If time is money, then time-banking cuts out the middleman by replacing currency with units of time. Find a local time bank at Community Timebanks.
Make it an event. Keep your eyes open for nearby barter fairs, swap meets, seed swaps and clothing-exchange parties. Host a larder swap to trade your excess pickles for a friend’s spicy mustard. Keep your closet fresh by exchanging the clothes you don’t wear anymore for new-to-you attire at a clothing swap. You’ll find a whole section devoted to trading secondhand clothing at ClothesSwap at Meetup.
Trade items online. Connecting with other barterers is far easier in modern times thanks to the Internet. Your trades don’t have to be local (although staying local is ideal for the purpose of minimizing shipping costs). Browse online at TradeYa! and the barter section of your closest city’s Craigslist site for general trade options, and check out websites for swapping specific items, including Paperback Swap, which specializes in books, and Rehash Clothes for clothing.
Community gardens. City blocks, neighborhoods, or entire towns may designate a plot of land as a community gardening space. Management falls to individuals, a nonprofit or the municipality, depending on the arrangement. Members typically pay a small amount of money as dues to join the garden, and work is divided among them. Find a community garden or look into how to start your own by going online to American Community Garden, or by checking community boards around town and in your local newspaper.
Look for libraries. Your public library is a terrific resource, but other types of libraries exist, too. One example is a tool library, where you can check out hand and power tools. Learn more info at
Local Tools. Another growing option is seed libraries, designed to help gardeners share seeds and learn about seed-saving. Check out the Richmond Grows Seeds Lending Library.
Share a ride. If you live in the right place (namely an urban area or a college town), you may be able to take advantage of car- and bike-sharing services to reduce or eliminate your need to own your own vehicle or bicycle. Online car-sharing services, such as ZipCar, make it a snap to reserve and use a car as you need it — usually for a monthly fee. More than 30 cities in the United States have adopted bike-sharing programs to ease traffic congestion, and the Earth Policy Institute reports that the country’s bike-sharing fleet is expected to double by the end of 2014. These programs make bicycles available for low-cost, short-term rentals.
Collaborative housing. Many kinds of intentional communities are organized around the principle of private residences sharing larger public spaces and facilities. Find out more from Fellowship for Intentional Community or read the article Cohousing Creates Community. For more ideas you can try in your neighborhood, the book Superbia!: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods by Dan Chiras and Dave Wann outlines some innovative strategies.
Have you heard the phrase, “Your dollar is your vote”? We vote with our money by where we spend it and where we choose to put our savings or investments.
Rethink your food choices. Don’t stop at growing a garden. Support local farmers by buying directly from a farm, shopping at farmers markets, joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, and looking for grocery stores that offer local products. Encourage sustainable agriculture by looking for organic products; for meat, look for grass-fed or pastured. Join a natural foods co-op to participate in member meetings and decision-making. Find a co-op near you at Cooperative Grocer. Consider donating to funds that support local, sustainable food and farming, including food banks, or look into larger investing through the local food initiative Gatheround.
Consider investing options. Many of us have money in the stock market in the form of retirement accounts. Check into socially responsible investment funds, such as Domini Social Investments, which invests directly in community development to assist underserved communities. If you already have an investment plan, ask your agent about options that are in line with your values.
The rules for small investors are changing for the better thanks to the JOBs act of 2012. If you’re interested in investing in small local businesses, many options are now available. An interesting book about the benefits of investing in a local food system and local agriculture is Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money by Woody Tasch. Utne Reader lists more than a dozen ethically minded investment funds and resources on its Socially Responsible Investing Web page.
Spend local currency. Alternative currencies have a history in the United States — they were used in many places during the Great Depression when people didn’t have much cash. The goal of modern community currencies is usually to encourage people to buy locally. Some businesses agree to accept payment in community currency, and by doing so, they’re committing to spending that money within the community. Two of the most well-known local currencies are Ithaca Hours, found in Ithaca, N.Y., and BerkShares in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts.
A few farmers markets have adapted the community currency model by dealing in market tokens. Farmers markets in Lawrence, Kan., and Portland, Ore., allow customers to swipe debit or food-assistance cards in exchange for wooden, nickel-like tokens. If you want to develop a local currency, talk to your city council members and market organizers (and be prepared to explain the concept).
By putting your hard-earned dollars back into the hands of local people, you help your community thrive.
The founder of the Slow Money movement, Woody Tasch, has been a champion of socially responsible investing for nearly two decades. In his book Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money, Tasch outlines the principles of the Slow Money movement and presents a path for bringing money back down to Earth — philosophically, strategically and pragmatically, all with an entrepreneurial spirit. Tasch believes we can create a sustainable food system if we are prepared to invest a percentage of our own money in local agriculture.
Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on Google+.