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.
THE BIRTH OF BARTER
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.
Fashionistas have long used barter to appear well-heeled, courtesy of a popular party trend involving cocktails, friends, and cast-off clothes. At a "Bitch and Swap," participants arrive with items they no longer want, then play show-and-tell. If a piece elicits multiple cries of "mine!" from guests, the coveted item goes into the "bitch" pile, and contenders take turns trying it on. Then partygoers vote, and the woman who wears it best takes it home. At a recent swap in New York City, Holly Crawford, 31, scored a chic DKNY coat and "a sexy Diane von Furstenberg dress that looks like it was cut just for me." There are many reasons to attend, she says: Closets get cleaned, wardrobes get more svelte, and charities score the leftovers. Plus, she adds, "There's a supportive, 'you look really good in that' thing going on." That, and the fun of shopping- with none of the guilt. The bitch-and-swap battle cry? A whole new wardrobe for free, natch.
GOT SKILLS? SWAP 'EM!
It's a no-brainer to swap what you have. But savvy swappers know: What you do is a bargaining tool, too. Erika Forster, 25, from Boulder, CO, is one of dreamy electronic-pop band Au Revoir Simone's three keyboardist/ singers: She and bandmates Heather D'Angelo, 26, and Annie Hart, 25, recently traded knitting lessons for singing ones. While on tour in Japan with their friend Antoine Bedard, he asked if the three would sing backup vocals for his solo project, Montag. In return, the singer-songwriter-techie redesigned the band's website: aurevoirsimone.com. The girls retained creative control ("Heather did the drawing," Forster adds), but the barter gave their domain a free upgrade. Kate Lacey, 31, a New York-based photographer, does shoots ranging from high fashion to hard news. Be - cause her assignments are varied, so are her swaps: She's gotten her fee in the form of designer jeans, a spa facial, and a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant. "I did a portrait of a jewelry designer for his website and received my standard day rate's worth of jewelry," she says. "I kept half and gave the other half to my mom for Christmas!" For Lacey, trading off was a win-win. "I never would have spent $200 on a pair of jeans, but they seemed free because I was paying by doing something I love-my photography."
TRADING UP: HOW BARTER CAN GET YOU AHEAD
Don't have the moxie to barter trades on your own? Networking groups make it a formal arrangement. Business Network International, one of the largest with more than 80,000 members worldwide, has been around since 1985. Local chapters, many with about 15 to 20 members, meet weekly. Each of the more than 4000 networking chapters specializes, allowing only one person from any given professional field. So if you're, say, the printer in the group, the other members agree to let you at least make a first bid when the chapter springs for new business cards. And speaking of those, members carry around other members' cards to pass on to appropriate connections. Angela Balsamo, 28, of Pasadena, MD, says networking gave her the courage to quit real estate and do what she loves: designing personalized gift baskets. "The group made it possible. Not just in a business sense, but they were all saying, 'Try it, do it. If you fall, we'll catch you.'" Now she makes about 100 baskets a month and loves that it's her full-time job. There are also networking groups just for women. Publicist Gabrielle Bernstein, 26, who co-founded the Women's Entrepreneurial Network in New York City, runs about nine net working events per year. One of the most popular is Gift of Service, where members armed with three "service certificates" gather at a trendy bar or restaurant. By evening's end, the business owners have promised to swap services with other participants outside their own fields. "It gives everyone a safe environment to share their skills," she says. An event this spring drew 60 women from WEN's active database of more than 3000 women. A holistic-health counselor offered a nutritional-assessment session, an acupuncturist offered time under her needles, and a photographer proposed portraiture. Bernstein got an "insightful" reading from an astrologer in return for doing a one-time, wide-reaching marketing promotion for her. Handbag designer Cristina Vasiliky bartered a handmade bag for Web design.
Rachel Simmons, 22, had just graduated with a double major in finance and communications. "I need to make connections, but all I have to offer right now is myself," she said-so she did. "I'm bartering a day of my services as an intern for one piece of clothing by a designer I met tonight." Simmons's hours-for-experience swap is the model for upcoming events, too: A new mentoring event will allow women just kicking off their careers to barter their time to established entrepreneurs. Sharon Hadary, executive director of the Center for Women's Business Research, says her institute's research shows that the most successful entrepreneurs are those whose skills include networking. "Half the battle is having people know you're there," she says. "It's a wonderful way to become visible."
SWAPPING FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT
Even the web is now a two-way street. Its newest branches-which some techies call "Web 2.0"-are about letting you connect and contribute as much as they are about serving up info. You've probably already paid a visit to this "new" net without even knowing it: You participate every time you upload a photo to Flickr or Snapfish, tweak your profile on MySpace, or comment on a friend's blog. And each time you download a song, you've got company. At any given moment, almost 10 million people worldwide are trading songs, videos, photos, and software online, according to Big Champagne Online Media Measurement. Now, "swarms" of users- defined as computer users linked solely by the fact that they're all downloading the same video or game at the same time-can pool their bandwidth and use sites like torrentspy.com to download files faster than ever.
Picking up where legally embattled Napster left off are file-sharing sites like:
Morpheus, eDonkey, and Gnu tella, to name just a few. Currently, about 1.6 billion song files are up for grabs simultaneously. And podcasts-sort of like DIY radio shows-are a big part of the mix now, too. They can include anything and everything from political talk radio to Mandarin Chinese lessons.
While audio downloads make up the bulk of file swaps, YouTube and Google Video (video.google.com) let users swap their favorite video clips now, too. In fact, it's not hard to imagine a day when you could watch an episode of Lost on your cell phone, then zap it to a friend on your way home.
SHARE AND SHARE ALIKE: A NEW GETAWAY
But bartering isn't just the newest way to get a monitor tan. It can be a more economical way to vacation, too. Sites like Holi-Swaps.com and ExchangeHomes.com, in addition to apartment-swap boards on Craigslist.org, are changing even the way we travel. Think you can't afford to go abroad? Rather than shell out for a pricey hotel room, some pleasure-seekers swap
apartments to pare down costs. Lauren Ragland, 30, and her husband, from Brooklyn, NY, traded spaces with a Parisian named Philip. The $1500 they saved in hotel costs bankrolled a side jaunt to Barcelona- but the rewards weren't just monetary: Swapping let them "explore the city less like a tourist," says Ragland. Sure, she worried about giving a stranger her house keys carte blanche, but Philip provided references-and was an ideal houseguest. "The apartment looked better than we left it. My husband still talks about how perfectly our bed was made," she says. Maureen Dempsey, 31, saved $700 in dog-boarding expenses when she and her husband went away for two weeks and found an Irish student to stay in their home-in exchange for free pet-sitting. The unexpected upshot? Their house sitter was, conveniently, a veterinary student. And if you don't have a swanky pad to offer up, sites like Sabbaticalhomes.com and Caretaker.org let you register as a house sitter for people who want someone to keep an eye on their places.
SWAPPING VIEWS: A GLOBAL EXCHANGE
"It's an unspoken policy at many companies that you will never make it to the upper echelons if you haven't worked abroad," says Chris White, executive director of international work-exchange organization AIESEC US, active on 40 U.S. college campuses. Each year, AIESEC sends 300 students and recent grads to internships in 93 countries. And the salary nearly always covers program costs. Andrea Lo, a senior at the University of Texas-Austin, took part in the AIESEC Salaam program, teaching English in Tunisia. "Many of the students asked me about the U.S. and what Americans think of Arabs and Muslims," she says. "They also want to know about me-how I differ from the stereotypes they have about Americans. It allows for peaceful exchange." How about IMing to improve international relations? The latest technology is helping students swap perspectives without leaving campus. Americans for an Informed Democracy (AID) has gathered some 4000 young leaders, from Connecticut to Cairo, over broadband connections for "Face to Face Meetings," in which they discuss global issues from a global perspective. "They also exchange music and IMs," says Seth Green, founder and chair of AID. "It's creating a very small world."
THE FEEL-GOOD PART OF BARTER
So why do we swap stuff to begin with? Well, there's the financial motivation, for starters: It's an easy way to get what you want-without spending a red cent. But then, you have to factor in the "red paper clip effect." A year ago this month, Montreal native Kyle MacDonald, 27, created a blog, OneRedPaperClip.com, announcing his intention to trade one red paper clip until he got . . . a house. While the economics don't add up, the barter-nomics do: Experiments like MacDonald's appeal to people. At press time, his paper clip had been traded- and then the new object traded again- 12 times. The simple clip is now worth a small role in an upcoming movie. The social incentive of the swap can be attributed to an idea referred to as reciprocal altruism. "We're a cooperating species," says Clay Shirky, a faculty member at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. But we like to help others get what they want, in part because, someday, they might return the favor. Another social benefit of swapping? "People are looking for an excuse to communicate," Shirky adds. "You can't do it generically, but if someone creates an environment where you can step outside of your anonymous self and close a social synapse, you will." So as it turns out, not only does barter pad our bottom line, it seems the process also brings us together- one red paper clip at a time.
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