A growing movement of Torontonians barter for dinner, a haircut, a night at a hotel, you name it. They aren’t necessarily poor—they’re rebelling against the uncertainties of a cash economy
In 2010, Shannon Lee Simmons had it easy. Though the economy was two years into its recessionary lurch, she had a secure job at Phillips, Hager and North, a boutique Bay Street investment firm. She was 25 years old and earning $55,000 a year, plus bonuses. She had no debt, no kids, and enough disposable income to jet off to Europe with her boyfriend and pay her credit card bills on time. Simmons is driven and effervescent, and has the charming tendency to slip into club-kid slang. Speaking of her time back then, she says: “I was ballin’.”
Yet after three years with the firm, she was dissatisfied. She was spending all her time advising millionaires when she wanted to work with average Torontonians, especially women. She couldn’t help noticing that most of her female friends were broke, confused and floundering. Online, her social media feeds were filled with panicky talk of recession budgets and empty wallets. There was one problem: those women couldn’t afford to pay her, and she certainly couldn’t afford to work for free. “I really wanted to do it,” she says, “but I couldn’t figure out a business model.”
Her answer came, finally, in an unlikely place: at a bar on Robson Street in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics. It was close to midnight, and she was waiting in line for a drink. All around her, people were partying—except for the two women in front of her, who were dissecting the differences between tax-free savings accounts and RRSPs. Simmons barged in to their conversation. “What do you want to know about TFSAs?” she asked. “What’s your goal?” She pulled the two aside and, for 20 minutes, gave an impromptu finance session. As a gesture of thanks, the two women bought Simmons and her group a round of beer. “I can’t afford financial advice,” one of them told Simmons, “but at least I can give everybody here a beer.” Then, Simmons felt like a cartoon megawatt bulb appeared over her head. It is all you can do, she thought. It is all you can do. There, in the middle of the crowded bar, she blurted, “Oh my god! I’m bringing barter back!”
Within the week, Simmons gave notice to her employer. By then, she’d been pining to leave for eight months and had diligently saved for the occasion. Her plan now was to barter her financial services with other women for one year. That would be enough time, she figured, to get the altruism out of her system, but not so much that she’d go broke. She would use $10,000 in savings to pay her cellphone bill and to parcel out $35 in emergency spending each week if and when bartering fell through on the basic necessities. That money would also help pay for most of the rent at the Dovercourt and Queen apartment she shared with her boyfriend, Matt, who was in the midst of changing careers. Everything else—food, clothing, haircuts, fitness, entertainment and transportation around the city—she would acquire through barter. Simmons figured she’d need to barter with 300 women to make it work. She gave the project a catchy name, Barter Babes, and started organizing a launch party.
The first 23 Barter Babes to join were friends and former PH&N co-workers who wanted to support Simmons. They mostly traded items and services to help out with the launch party: a lot of food, a press release, coat racks, silent auction items, courier services and social media consulting. Barter Babe No. 24, Grace Poon, was the first person to sign up for the project with whom Simmons had no prior connection. In exchange for Simmons’s financial advice, Poon provided graphic designs for an investment presentation (which Simmons still uses today). She remembers being excited, but also nervous: it was the first trade she’d made with someone who didn’t feel obligated to give her unconditional support. She needn’t have worried.
While she didn’t know it at the time, Simmons was on the cusp of a new wave of alternative financial thinking. Having lost faith in the conventional economic system, people all over the city had quite simply started opting out.
During economic downturns, when there is a keenly felt shortage of jobs and cash, people have historically adopted barter systems. The world’s most established bartering-style system is Switzerland’s wir: the German word for “we” as well as the abbreviation of Wirtschaftsring, which translates loosely to “economic circle.” In 1934, the economy in Switzerland had tanked—as it had in much of the world. Two businessmen who were facing bankruptcy, Paul Enz and Werner Zimmermann, gathered 15 of their associates in Zurich and hashed out a solution: a mutual credit system.
Debts in the wir currency, assigned the same value as the Swiss franc, could be paid with sales to any member of the bartering circle: if a baker needed to “purchase” eggs and flour from a farmer, the baker could pay off the debt by “selling” baked goods to another wir member. The farmer, in turn, could use his newly acquired credit to “buy” his own needed items or services. Despite a bank-led campaign to discredit the system, wir stuck. Today, it has more than 60,000 business participants and does the equivalent of about $4.4 billion in annual trade.
Since the latest series of worldwide economic meltdowns, people have bartered in growing numbers. Last year, the 100 members of the International Reciprocal Trade Association, a network of barter and trade exchanges, facilitated the bartering of billions of dollars’ worth of goods and services around the world. (The IRTA uses its own barter currency called Universal Currency.) In some areas of Greece, bartering has become as second nature as paying for things with cash—there’s even a new barter-style currency called the TEM, accrued through offering goods and services via a vast online network and regular open-air market days. Spain’s time bank system, in which people exchange hours of labour instead of units of currency, has grown exponentially as a result of the country’s crippled economy.
In 2012, the average Canadian had more than $27,000 in consumer debt. Wages are shrinking, costs are rising, and one-third of us are living paycheque to paycheque. “Most of us live beyond our means both financially and ecologically,” says Marta Nowinska, founder and president of one of Canada’s largest bartering communities, Swapsity, which launched in 2010. “Swapping is a viable approach to solving a lot of real problems,” she says. Like Simmons, Nowinska left a Bay Street job to join the world of barter. The idea for Swapsity came to her one day in 2006: she was on the subway and noticed how miserable everybody looked. She started to think about a business that could empower people. At first, she thought people could swap jobs, but dismissed it as unrealistic. Then: what if they could swap other things? She developed a business plan and launched a website.
While Swapsity trades are facilitated online, its participants can be seen in real life at themed in-person swap meets as well as the annual Live Green Toronto Festival. Over the past three years, more than 25,000 items—primarily clothes, books, CDs and DVDs—have been swapped at its events, collectively saving people roughly $200,000. About 5,000 items have been donated to charity. On average, each participant saves $80 at every swap (the value of items they go home with and would have otherwise bought). This year’s Live Green event was packed despite the grey July weather: until it started to rain heavily in the late afternoon, lineups to get into the six swapping tents spanned the full length of the waiting area, then folded in on themselves like accordions. Even in the rain, the leaking tents bustled.
Consumer-based barter systems aren’t the only trade in town, either. In the GTA, there is a robust business-to-business barter system, similar to wir but on a smaller scale. Businesses sign up for a service—there are several available—and trade unbilled work hours or dust-covered inventory for goods and services they couldn’t otherwise afford, especially during recessionary times: often things that attract top talent and retain big clients, such as advertising, promotional gear or client perks.
In late 2012, Toronto even got its own spinoff of Trade School, a model that originated in New York in 2010. The Toronto Trade School holds classes—on anything from spoken word to origami flower–making to bicycle maintenance—and invites students to “pay” with an item or service from the teacher’s barter wish list. It has hosted more than 70 classes.
Toronto’s online Freecycle network, where 27,000-plus members can give, and get, things for free, provides a variation on bartering. Last April, Toronto hosted one of its first gift circles, which, as the name suggests, encourage small groups to form gifting communities—groups of 20 that give and take from a pool of goods and services depending on their needs. Torontonians can also swap skills at justfortheloveofit.org, a freeconomy community that spans 174 countries. On the site, members share talents that range from useful (dog walking, yoga instruction, electrical work) to questionable (boycotting, ear candling, loving) to weird (tree whispering, culture jamming, puppet making). When it comes to alternative economies, the creative possibilities are vast, but they all speak to the same desire for something different—anything other than what we have.
Some entrepreneurs are already taking the principles of swapping—use everything and anything you already have to survive—to create another offshoot system, one that turns a hefty profit. Called the sharing economy, it is perhaps best exemplified by Airbnb, a service that enables people to rent out their apartments like hotels. Other sites let you turn your driveway into a parking space, your car into a taxi and your tools into a rental service. Forbes estimates revenue flowing through the U.S. sharing economy will hit $3.5 billion by the end of 2013, and maybe more. It’s worth mentioning that some business associations and government members are terrified of this rise: like most alternative economies, it’s largely tax-free.
It was the fifth lasagna that did it. Three months into the project, Simmons had signed up over 80 Barter Babes, and every time she bartered her financial services, she seemed to get a lasagna in return. She was trying to shove yet another five-pound pasta dish into her freezer when the tears started to flow. “I don’t need another lasagna!” she yelled at her boyfriend. “I need a haircut! I need a bicycle!” She was overwhelmed with doubts about her bartering experiment: I’m so ridiculous. What the hell was I thinking? This whole thing is never going to work. Trades weren’t happening at the frequency she had anticipated, and Simmons was feeling depressed. She couldn’t afford a dye job at a salon, and she had started gaining weight. She’d gone from ballin’ to having $200 in her joint account.
She was about to quit the project when she received a cascade of good news: six new women signed up as Barter Babes, more than she’d ever had before at one time. Then City Television contacted her for an interview segment—one of her Barter Babes had mentioned her trade to a friend at the station. After that, social media mentions of Barter Babes blew up.
Her problem, Simmons now realizes, was that she didn’t know some of the basic rules of bartering. In the beginning, out of a mixture of excitement and polite hesitation to refuse trades, she’d simply accept whatever barter was offered, whether she needed it or not.
Nowinska says one of the biggest challenges Swapsity faces is that new barterers think they have nothing to offer. So they offer bad trades. Yet most people have hundreds of skills—from cooking to networking to scrapbooking. The trick is learning to recognize the value of your skills, your knowledge and your talent. Bartering attaches value to things that are not always recognized, or highly valued, in a cash economy—often hobbies that people can’t make a living on but love to do. One Barter Babe trades her homemade canned goods for gifts—mostly other crafted items—she can give away at Christmas. A Swapsity member has traded pounds of fiddleheads she picks at her mom’s house in the country for feng shui sessions.
The whole point of barter is to satisfy a need. A valuable barter is whatever a barterer needs at that moment. Raj Dhiman, a 30-year-old chemist, joined Swapsity at the beginning of 2012. For his first barter, he traded a batch of home-baked gluten-free muffins in return for a full weekend first aid course. Unlike the course’s instructor, Dhiman relished the challenge of perfecting the recipe. Since then, he’s exchanged a lesson on how to create a website for an Indian cooking class. He’s also turned away barter offers that he didn’t find personal value in. “It’s perfectly fine to decline,” he says, “It wasn’t like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. What is this person thinking?’ I’d say, ‘I appreciate the offer, but that’s not what I need right now.’ All you have to do is ask for what you need.”
Simmons learned how to ask after one Barter Babe, a veteran barterer, told her she needed to post a wish list. Following the advice, she eventually got not just one bike but two (one for her and one for Matt), a TTC pass, yoga lessons, a haircut and food she wanted to eat, among hundreds of other things. Simmons made exceptions for some unique trades, too, such as both circus performance training and butter churning lessons, the latter of which she now barters as a skill to others. She even worked up the nerve to approach local businesses in person, armed with a business case for barter. One café near her apartment traded a month’s worth of morning coffee for a financial session; a boutique hotel, Hotel Ocho at Queen and Spadina, took a financial seminar luncheon for its employees in return for an overnight stay for Simmons’s parents, who were celebrating their 35th anniversary.
It helped that she had something other people wanted. “If I had gone in and offered to bake a pie for a free night at their hotel,’ they’d probably have said ‘no.’ ” One Barter Babe, Carly Boyce, knitted Simmons an exact replica of a favourite hat Simmons had lost but luckily had a picture of herself wearing. When it came time for the trade, Boyce remembers feeling guilty because the hat was so easy for her to make, and she told Simmons so. Simmons laughed: it was incredibly easy, she told Boyce, for her to give financial advice. It was a funny conversation, Boyce says, but also one that gets at the essence of bartering: when money is taken out of the equation, value is a moving, customizable concept—and that’s just the way most barterers like it.
When the year-long Barter Babes experiment finished at the end of 2011, Simmons discovered she didn’t want to go back to Bay Street. Instead, she launched her own financial advice business, the New School of Finance. She rents office space at Queen and Bathurst, and many of her clients are former Barter Babes. Her focus is on easily digestible advice, socially conscious investment and creative solutions like barter. Simmons doesn’t recommend that anybody live entirely on swapping: it’s too hard. But she still barters. Recently, after getting engaged to Matt, she swapped a full year of tax and business financial advice for a $3,700 wedding photography package. The photographer is a Barter Babe who has, in turn, traded her services for yoga classes and a self-defence class for herself and 20 friends. On the day I met Simmons, she was wearing a shirt and a pair of jeans from a clothing swap, matched with a trendy floral jacket she bought from Coal Miner’s Daughter, a boutique co-owned by Barter Babe No. 81.
Nowinska envisions a world where cash and alternative economies work in tandem, allowing a consumer to buy, share, swap or give depending on what is the best choice. Money isn’t perfect, she says, and neither is bartering. Both systems have pros and cons. As Simmons says, the question shouldn’t be “can I afford it—but how can I get it?”
Financial planners often recommend that people dedicate 30 per cent of their after-tax cash flow to fun spending—yet rising costs can now make that number seem unrealistic. To alleviate some of the squeeze, Simmons suggests evaluating what, out of that 30 per cent, can instead be attained through barter. By bartering for clothes, aesthetics and fitness, she’s able to eke out at least five per cent cash savings a month. Those unspent dollars go straight into her savings account.