Rising food prices, soaring utility bills, credit crunch ... it’s all pretty depressing these days. Yet, as the country hurtles towards the
locust years, I wonder if the nouveau pauvre isn’t such a bad look. After all, conspicuous consumerism is kind of déclassé, non? Even Vivienne
Westwood has been telling people to stop shopping. Money, it seems, is rapidly going out of fashion. So, for one week only, I decided to stop using it
and join the “freeconomy” – a friendly and burgeoning community based on bartering and swapping.
“The problem with money is that sometimes there is none,” says John Rogers, the founder of Value for People (valueforpeople.co.uk), an
organisation that specialises in “community currency, time banking and co-production”. “But people are willing to work and there are the raw
materials. The future of the planet depends on biodiversity – but we also need financial diversity.”
So what, exactly, can human capital buy? When Mark Boyle, a freeconomy campaigner, headed off to India on foot, with the intention of living solely by
trading favours for favours, he got as far as Calais. How far would I get before I was written off as a freeloader?
There are various means – from supermarket grazing to ploughing through your apocalypse rations of past-sell-by-date larder staples.
Sadly, I can’t recommend cadging from the deli counter, so I approached a man with an allotment (the grow-your-own movement is, well, growing –
vegetable-seed sales are up 60% from last spring). “Perhaps I could do your weeding in exchange for a turnip or two?” Result: six tasty organic
carrots and three black radishes (I came at the deadest time of the year, apparently). The fallout was a good hour of scrubbing (the veg, then myself)
and three hours of travel and labour – not exactly a nice little earner. I was still hungry.
For spiritual, physical and comic nourishment, my local Hare Krishna temple lays on a free, pretty-tasty-for-vegan lunch. There is, however, a price:
quite a lot of proselytising.
Then there is that other cult, the Freegans – feral foragers who mop up society’s excesses by living off discarded food. I tried to locate someone
to take me dumpster-dining, but they proved elusive: “Why inform the public?” one said. “It just gets dumpsters locked and brings more
competition.” Secretly relieved, I turned instead to Wild Food, a new National Trust book on how to harvest nature’s free fruits. “It’s a
tricky time of year,” warns its author, Jane Eastoe. “I would start with nettle soup. Nettles are incredibly good for you – full of vitamin C,
potassium and calcium.” The calorie count, however, is equivalent to chewing on air. “Free food gives you a glow of virtue,” she chirrups. All I
got was a mouthful of bitter grit. Eastoe also recommends roadkill: “Just wait for the first maggot to drop – that indicates it’s tender.”
Roll on the summer, for blackberries, plums, wild strawberries and more.
Dressing for free
With so much disposable fashion swilling around, it’s hardly surprising that fashion fans are “shwopping” – clothes swapping.
At Swap-a-Rama (myspace.com/swaparamarazzmatazz), a roving club night, people swap what they are wearing for something they prefer from a neighbour
every time a klaxon sounds. Tupperware-style “swishing” parties (swishing.org) are a more productive take on the theme.
It’s a concept that works well online. Whatsmineisyours.com allows its users to swap dresses, shoes, bags and so on. It even features eBay-style
ratings. While there are more than 1,000 swaps a month, there is also a good deal of trash: “Some users are scared to say no,” admits the
website’s founder, Judy Berger. “Sometimes I do tell them to take their stuff to the charity shop.”
Travelling for free
I am lucky (and wise): I have a bike. But what if it rains or the distance defeats me? Join the fare evaders at the back of a bendy bus? Thumbing a
lift is the rock’n’roll route, but, with a bit of organisation, carshares are now the best bet. Try Liftshare.com, a nationwide database of
222,000 members – and you don’t even have to have a car. Just register your journey and the website shows other users taking the same route. It
makes for quite a weird encounter, but a welcoming one. Take some broken-biscuit cake to ingratiate yourself.
Getting favours for free
Local exchange trading systems are community-based barter networks that encourage local trade for “local currency” or pledges – no money
required. Baby-sitting for three hours earned me 30 pledges, which could buy me IT support, interior design, language tuition or all manner of
Getting treats for free
I needed to find a birthday present for someone. Freecycle.org is another local-network system where things are passed on for free. From secondhand
ukuleles to discarded Masai spears, it was a treasure trove of ideas. When I made an appointment to collect the present, however, the owner never
showed. It’s understandable: what was in it for them?
There’s more. Want to catch a show? Tvrecordings.com has details of radio and television programmes recorded in London, such as Al Murray’s Happy
Hour and 8 out of 10 Cats. Now that’s what I call free entertainment.
For voucher and competition junkies, there is Freebieworld (freebieworld.co.uk), a user-generated network on which news of all freebies in the world
(software, cosmetics, books, even a suspiciously inviting £250 grocery gift voucher) is posted online. Trendspotters call the growth of available
freebies “free love” – a race for consumers’ attention made possible by the decreasing cost of producing the freebies. There is a catch, of
course. To make it viable, you will need to become a marketing statistic – expect to hand over your personal details and receive constant
bombardment from the ad men. Like free love, it can leave you feeling empty inside.
By the end of the week, I was seriously hungry, but otherwise I had coped. I had spent absolutely no money and found lots of support networks that
will drastically reduce my spending in the future. Be warned, though: the money-free lifestyle is far from utopian – it’s tough and
Still, when needs must . . .
Another interesting piece - Couldn't we live perfectly well without money?