So the holidays are pretty much over. Not all of them, no, but definitely the most commercial, cash-sucking ones. And while you can DIY your way out of festive debt in a lot of ways – homemade lunches, knitted mitts and toques, honey and lemon for sore throats – when it comes right down to it, you probably need some actual money to pay for rent, heat, raw food ingredients, doctor’s visits, yoga classes, and booze (although my brother has a wicked recipe for homemade Kahlua). At least you think you have to pay for all these things with boring, government-issued cash (which frankly has many drawbacks). It’s hard to get, for one, and you can’t get much for it either.
DIY exchange isn’t exactly new. For example, there are LETS (local exchange trading systems) communities worldwide (www.gmlets.u-net.com/) that hook members up to “buy” and “sell” goods and services at a local “store” which is usually online. You don’t use money, but another unit of exchange (often called “salties” but varies between systems). To get salties you sell stuff: services (e.g. housecleaning, party planning, bookkeeping, child or elder care), or goods like homemade dinners or hand-sewn pillowcases, or even the use of your goods (power tools, juicer, etc.). To cash in, you use your salties to buy whatever others have on offer that you want.
Time banks (e.g., US-based www.timedollar.org), widely used by low-earners and members of marginalized groups, work in similar ways, except users exchange one hour of their time for an hour of someone else’s. Typically, everybody’s services are exchanged in one-hour time blocks regardless of whether that hour is a massage from an RMT, squeegeeing windows, or doing somebody’s taxes.
Also noteworthy are freecycle communities (www.freecycle.org), which deal strictly with goods, providing an online forum for people to exchange stuff they already own but are ready to pitch. You can get, for example, used bike parts, VCRs, microwaves, vintage clothes, and computer accessories. Like LETS and time banks, freecycle is active in several countries.
But measure alternative exchange in terms of sexiness, rather than effectiveness, and my money’s on Noney (www.noney.net). The sultry creation of Rhode Island’s Obadiah Eelcut (you know this is gonna be hot with a name like that), Noney is a form of “cultural tender” (it’s also been called “artistic currency”). Each note depicts a comely design by Obadiah and is hand-printed, signed, and numbered. Instead of dead presidents, Noney is faced with portraits of different Rhode Island residents with their favorite bird and their favorite fruit or vegetable. In 2003, Obadiah set a few hundred notes into circulation and his website is full of stories from unsuspecting people who’ve since been happily conscripted into using them.
Here’s how it works: you basically barter for some goods or services in exchange for Noney. The person with the stuff you want will look at you skeptically, and you’ll explain that you’re totally on the level, but also idealistic and maybe a bit “touched”. If it works, the seller just might give you something in exchange for a couple of cool bills. Smooth, right?
Noney is slick stuff. It forces the people who use it to interact with each other, often on uncomfortable footing. It lets you determine the worth of whatever you’re getting and even the value of Noney itself (each bill has a denomination of zero). And it’s fun, dammit! You can’t say that about paying your credit card bill.
Want some for yourself? You’ve got to barter, baby. Offer Obadiah some loot – I sent him some Canadian Tire money (funny money a Cdn hardware chain gives out with purchases) and a poem about my favorite bird and vegetable (parrot and cucumber respectively). He’s got a wish list if you can’t think of anything good to send.
Obadiah’s located in Providence. And well, that seems about right to me.
Riva Soucie is small, dark, and handsome. She likes organizing her kitchen cupboards and getting crafts in the mail.