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Toilet Paper for Tomatoes: Bartering Culture Gains Steam

Seniors are deepening community relationships while getting creative to avoid spending cash

spinner image Teresa Konechne in her garden with cucumbers
Teresa Konechne barters vegetables from her garden for items she may need
Courtesy of Teresa Konechne

Perishable food for laundry soap. A book light for hand sanitizer. Canned goods for cleaning supplies. A 12-pound bag of organic brown rice for Clorox wipes.

Pandemic-induced shortages and a lack of cash are causing a resurgence in the art of bartering, but all that swapping does more than just move items around. Some seniors say it's helping them bond with their neighbors and forge new connections, and creating ways for them to get assistance.

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Rebecca Daniels, 71, of Turners Falls, Massachusetts, traded homemade hand sanitizer for a home-sewn mask at the start of the pandemic, but it wasn't her first foray into bartering. Gardeners in her semirural neighborhood often trade plants and excess garden vegetables.

Daniels also has bartered with a younger neighbor who helps her with heavy lifting in the garden in return for construction materials for a fountain-building project. The interactions have deepened their neighborly relationship, she says.

"It's created closer connections in my community,” she says. Bartering “helps maintain those connections."

Finding scarce items

People are swapping goods and services among neighbors and on digital message boards like NextDoor and in Facebook groups, where trades like the ones above took place earlier this year in a group devoted to bartering in Southern Nevada.

Bartering has been part of the human economy since 3000 B.C., when cash currency didn't exist, said Phillip Braun, a clinical professor of finance at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Today, however, scarcities of items and a high unemployment rate are forcing people to think outside the box, he said.

"Many individuals don't have cash, but they want something, so they try to barter for what they want,” he said. “It tells you just how hamstrung households are."

At the start of the pandemic, the Barter Group-Southern NV Facebook group gained thousands of members in just a few days. Loleta Barrion, 62, joined shortly after the group launched and in April she contracted COVID-19. She also ran out of toilet paper.

Grocery shelves were cleared out and she was unable to order any online. She posted in the barter group hoping to trade masks for toilet paper, but someone offered extra rolls without a swap and even delivered them to her doorstep.

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She said she sees people in the Facebook barter group providing emotional support, helping people locate hard-to-get items and donating goods when they can, as well as trading.

"It reinstills that faith in humanity that we don't often see anymore,” Barrion says. “You see the good in people."

Not just a simple transaction

Bartering isn't just a simple transaction — you have to engage with people and often learn more about them than you would with a cash purchase, says Shera Dalin, coauthor of The Art of Barter: How to Trade for Almost Anything.

"When life gets harder, people get excited about bartering,” Dalin said. “It takes more energy to barter, but it also builds a sense of community."

Dalin's coauthor, Karen Hoffman, said people should think creatively about bartering. “If you're recently retired, you have all these skills and assets you can use,” she says, suggesting that someone with marketing experience, for example, offer to write press materials for a restaurant in exchange for meals. “You can be as creative as you want to be."

In addition to bartering on a more personal level, many businesses are part of bartering organizations where they exchange goods and services with each other. Jack Scharr, 75, the president of Fine Art Limited in St. Louis belongs to a bartering network in which the artwork his company produces for special events is valued in “barter bucks” and can be traded to purchase from other member companies goods and services such as carpet cleaning or hotel travel.

"There's been a lot more activity of late,” he said. “People haven't had the cash to purchase different things and use barter dollars instead."

Think creatively about swaps

While bartering options may be readily available in your area and online, people should still be cautious and use common-sense safety strategies. Avoid giving out your home address when possible, and try to make exchanges in public areas during the day.

In addition, when you consider bartering, think about your best approach, Hoffman says. If you're looking to barter for landscaping services, for example, approach a company during the winter when business might be slow.

And don't be intimidated about pitching a bartering suggestion, Hoffman says. She often starts by saying, “This might sound like a crazy idea, but would you be willing to barter for this…"

"It starts the conversation off,” she says. “Other cultures are more open to bartering, but for Americans you have to break down that initial resistance."

For Teresa Konechne, 58, of Henderson, Minnesota, money is tight and bartering has become an imperative for getting goods and services she doesn't have the cash to pay for. In exchange for pet-sitting services, Konechne offered up a restaurant gift card she had won, along with some essential oils she had.

She recently traded home-cooked food with some organic farmers who provided advice, soil and other materials for her garden. And she got a much-needed quarantine haircut from a friend’s husband in exchange for some fresh basil.

Konechne says she sometimes wishes she could pay cash for items instead of bartering, because she knows people need money. But she says she also enjoys seeing people make use of things she's willing to part with.

"The woman who got the essential oils and the gift card could treat herself,” she says. “These were things that were extra to me and an I didn't necessarily need them. I was happy that she was happy."

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