Nicola Hatton, Ruth Spurling and Sarah Coffey

Who needs cash?

Posted on February 6, 2013

As a sixth consecutive austerity budget starts to hit us in the pocket, many people are becoming exasperated at the lack of initiatives offered by the government and instead are taking matters into their own hands. Barter and swap groups have been starting all over the country, providing communities with new ways of accessing goods and services they may not have the money to buy.

Most of us have less money than we used to, despite having the same level of skills and abilities. But economics is not about money, it is about exchange, and finding new methods of exchange can help us sustain resources, build communities and still maintain our cashflow.

Of course, bartering is as old as humankind and most of us swap or barter goods and services on an unofficial basis. Some of us have been known to take things further – my husband and I paid for half our wedding in 2005 by building websites for suppliers of various services. However, the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, and social media in particular, has now made meeting, interacting and exchanging more accessible than ever before.

Websites such as U-Exchange.com allow members countrywide to offer goods and services and specify what they are seeking in return. The buy and sell website, Adverts.ie, has seen the number of swap ads double in the last two years. COO, Judyta Holubowicz, says that the main categories in which people look for swaps are mobile phones and accessories, clothes, shoes and accessories and consoles and games. Although it is hard to track, Holubowicz reckons that swap trades are more likely with local transactions.

One of the most successful local groups to date has been the Clonakilty Favour Exchange (www.clonfavour.com), which started in March 2012. The exchange has its origins in LETS groups (Local Exchange Trading System), which are already well established in Ireland. A LETS is a community whose members agree to exchange skills, labour and goods with each other without the use of money.

The Clonakilty Favour Exchange uses a system of time banking where the exchange unit is called the favour and each favour is worth 15 minutes. “Everybody’s time is completely equal so it doesn’t matter what you’re offering the exchange, we measure our contribution in time – it’s a democracy like that”, explains Olive Walsh. “If somebody was to do me four favours, those favours would be added to their account and taken away from mine and they can redeem those favours from anyone in the exchange so it doesn’t have to be direct swapping.”

The exchange has over 150 members offering services as diverse as web design, dance classes, car maintenance and chicken killing! Olive says that the practical services, such as gardening and DIY are the most sought after and, while most members live within a 20k radius of Clonakilty, some members are happy to travel further or work remotely in order to be part of the group.

Olive points out that there has been a hugely positive side-effect of the exchange. “When we first decided to go ahead with this, it was the practical side I was thinking about but what has been so wonderful for me is the community-building side of it. It’s an extension of a good neighbourly community, particularly for people who have no family nearby and for families with children, it’s very social.”

The Clonakilty Favour Exchange has been so successful that members have travelled around the country giving seminars  and advice to people who want to set up their own groups and there are at least four other similar groups on the way. Olive urges any groups that want advice or help to get in touch. “We’re very happy for people to use our model – they can import the whole website and just change the name or they can take parts of it, whatever they would like to do and we’re very happy to give people help to do that.”

One of the most popular organisational tools for local groups is Facebook. The first of its kind, the Malahide Things for Sale, Swap or Free Group, was set up by Emma Lawlor. “I started the page nine months ago after getting very frustrated at the fact that anything that was advertised as second hand for sale on other websites was so far away from where I lived.” The group now has over 7,000 members from all over Dublin. Anyone on Facebook can apply to join the group and, once accepted, can list their own items or make offers on existing items.

Emma monitors the page daily and checks over all activity. She says that bartering is very common and every item imaginable is listed: “from plastic bowls to renting a holiday home for a week in Portugal.” Emma’s advice to those thinking of setting up a similar group is to make sure you have the time to dedicate to the group. She adds, “Don’t be easily offended and stick by any rule you make!”

Inspired by Emma’s group, Ruth Spurling decided to set up her own. “I thought, hey this might work in Greystones.” Along with Nicola Hatton and Sarah Coffey, Ruth (all pictured above) runs the Greystones Area Buy, Sell or Swap Group on Facebook, which started last September. 150 people joined on the first weekend and now the group has 2,800 members and a waiting list.

It can be a hard slog, with each of the administrators spending up to eight hours a day on the group but, along with access to bargains, they also manage to facilitate a great community spirit. “We held a coffee morning for a member whose car was stolen and we raised a lot of money for her and her family before Christmas”, says Ruth. “There was a great turnout.”

Items sold and swapped in the group range from toys, clothes and jewellery to more unusual items like chicken coops and the contraceptive coil, although this was taken down when they were told they couldn’t sell prescription items online. “Waste not, want not,” says Ruth. “Some people can’t afford €120 to have a coil fitted, or to have a baby.”

While there are occasional disputes (e.g. who saw the UGG boots first), the group’s strict guidelines help to keep the peace. “We’ve added to our prohibited list of items quite regularly too”, says Ruth. “If I could add UGG boots and iPhones to it, it would reduce admin hours by 50pc!”

Another Facebook success story is the Swords Freebie Group, set up and run by Jackie Carty and Nicola Cleary. “It all began when I was looking at all the other sites buying and selling and I decided to see if a freebie site would work”, says Jackie. “I’m a lone parent with two kids and find it very difficult to manage money and I thought, there are hundreds of people out there in the same boat as me.” Jackie and Nicola were amazed at the response when they set up last November and now have over 2,800 members.

No money exchanges hands in this group and there are very few disputes or problems. “The only thing we keep an eye on is the likes of people putting up animals”, says Jackie. “They are deleted straight away. It’s in the rules – no animals of any description, unless they’re stuffed!”

Jackie and Nicola have also found social benefits to running the group and several members had a night out in Swords at Christmas. And there is the benefit of seeing a community pull together in a time of need. “I’m amazed at how people are so willing to go out of their way to help one another”, says Jackie. “It makes me so proud of all of my members. It’s a delight to turn on the computer to see people helping each other.”

Along with the economic and community-building benefits of bartering, there are a number of other positive side-effects. It has a human element that is often not present in retail purchases and commercial services, and this allows trust and friendship to develop more easily. Bartering can also open up new experiences that you might not have considered otherwise. And it can help you to assess your needs, declutter and help others out in the process.

So maybe you are richer than you think. If you have a wealth of knowledge, skills and pre-loved stuff, then you might be able to afford those dance classes, a chicken coop and even the chicken killing services to go with it!

By Fiona McPhillips. First published in the Evening Herald on 27th January 2013.

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