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August 1, 2006

Get What You Want Without Spending A Dime

How can you get what you want without spending a dime? Welcome to the new economy, where trading what you have can get you anything you need-from vintage jewels to a new job. In fact, it's a cultural revolution that might change the way you shop, work, even vacation. Trust us, you can't afford not to read this!

model wearing black patent pump standing in coins

Photo Credit: Karin Catt

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How could barter affect your bottom line? In Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30- Some things Can't Get Ahead, author Tamara Draut says that 60 percent of people ages 18 to 34 are struggling financially because of a combination of student loans, credit-card debt, stagnant wages, and higher costs. Today, a bachelor's degree has a heftier price tag than ever: The average grad racks up $19,300 in student loans (a full $7000 more than B.A.s accrued 10 years ago) and an average of $3200 in credit card debt, says Draut. Adjusted for inflation, that degree now represents a several-thousand-dollar drop in starting salary earning power as compared to your parents. Which all adds up to make bartering "the new black" when it comes to getting you out of the red.

There are records of bartering from the days of the American frontier: rum for furs, whale oil for wheat. Barter Island was a trading post off the coast of Alaska. At the Barter Theater in Abingdon, VA, instead of throwing tomatoes, locals traded them to see the show: During the Depression, farmers' produce was accepted for admission. "At Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims were bargaining with the Native Americans," explains Lawrence J. White of the Stern School of Business at New York University. "That was the entire economy." Then, he explains, we left the farms for factories, and eventually offices, and the inefficiency of direct trade outweighed the "sociable" benefits. As you get to higher levels of economic well-being, opportunity costs increase, and the value of your time becomes greater and greater. Bartering "waxes and wanes" with the economy, he says, adding that the technology we have now means it's simpler than ever to find someone who wants what you have: "It makes it easier to bring individuals together." Timothy C. Mack, president of the World Future Society, points to the formation of "communities of interest"- groups of people who are geographically scattered but now able to come together over the Internet. "The boundaries in these digital communities of interest are dissolved," he says. And just where are these digital communities? On a host of new websites which facilitate trades, attracting people who want to swap their . . . well, everything. Bookins.com will help you trade your discredited A Million Little Pieces for an already-decoded The DaVinci Code. Peerflix.com deals in DVDs. Swaptree.com focuses on books, music, DVDs, and video games, while at SwapThing.com, you'd be hard pressed to think of something someone isn't trying to trade: three-foot neon beer sign, anyone? And while the algorithms powering the sites might be mind-boggling, the philosophy behind them is child's play: "It's playground trading," says Mark Hexamer, vice president of Swaptree. "I give you this; you give me that." But ideally, he says, in addition to connecting virtually, the site will bring people together locally, like swap meets of old. "Eventually, it could get to the point where you meet at the local Starbucks to trade CDs," Hexamer says.

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