NEW YORK (MainStreet) —At my first job, as a summer sales clerk at a hippy boutique, I befriended a woman coworker who was whispered to travel the world by private plane. This was hard to figure, given that we both made less than $200 a week selling tie-dyed T-shirts. I asked her about it one day. It turned out that she had in fact recently flown to Nice, Marrakesh, and Martha’s Vineyard by Lear Jet, courtesy of an older couple and their circle of wealthy friends.
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Eventually, she gave me the details. The first time she hopped a plane, she said, she was desperate, because her flight had been cancelled after she’d made plans to see a boyfriend up in Maine. She was cute as well as French, so the airplane mechanic was ultimately persuaded to introduce her to an older couple flying from Washington, D.C. to Bar Harbor. Back in the days before airport security, it wasn’t hard to charm them for a ride. During the trip, they mentioned they had a two-year-old granddaughter. After landing, they exchanged addresses, and my friend sent a thank you note and included a toddler size sweater she’d knitted herself, complete with the child’s name embroidered on the collar. The couple was so touched that they included her on future trips and even passed her name along to friends who were only too happy to offer a seat on their Cessna in exchange for a hand-knitted scarf or hat.
Since splitting from my husband three years ago, I’ve discovered for myself the value of bartering. I got the house in our divorce but lost much of the cash to maintain it. Added to this, I was starting a business with a paltry amount of capital. Around the same time, I met a neighbor down the street, also divorced, who had managed to secure himself a new stove (actually a vintage garland stove — even better!) in exchange for his design services. This was truly inspiring.
I know how to knit. I actually made three pairs of fingerless gloves for the friends who helped pull me through the toughest months of my breakup. But I haven’t seen any of them wearing theirs. It turns out that not everyone goes in for a look that one friend described as “Agnes B. meets Les Miserables.” The trick to bartering, I learned, is identifying what you can do, or what you have, that someone else will find truly useful. It also helps to keep an eye out for others’ needs.
When a five-foot lilac bush needed removing from a walkway near our house, I gave it to a farmer friend who offered to pay for it with 20 pounds of his farm-raised organic Berkshire pork, deliverable over two months, along with four dozen of his excellent fresh eggs. Since that was more eggs than I could use, I dropped off two dozen at the home of another neighbor who happens to be a fish broker. A few days later, he delivered two pounds of the freshest flounder my kids and I had ever eaten. That same month, I made a giant dish of lasagna for a carpenter who fixed my broken front door.
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From there, the bartering spirit just seemed to flow like fresh maple syrup into the work arena. I was looking for someone to videotape an event I was hosting. A cinematographer friend traded his camera and his time for a few evenings of babysitting for his two year old. Another friend traded editing time for subscription tickets to an off–Broadway show, and my web designer offered a meaningful discount for a weeklong stay in my house while we were gone (he even fed the cats).
Before I was married, it seemed to me that relationships were doomed to fail unless they were based on real mutual need like the frontier households of yore. Then I fell for a wildly impractical man who loved spending cash on services. But I still maintain that the most solid marriages work like partnerships for survival. So why then couldn’t one build similar relationships with multiple partners, only without the sex. This may sound flinty to some. But I’m not looking to barter my way to riches like the Barter Kings of reality TV who started with a gold Elvis record and bargained their way up to a power-boat. I am not looking to undervalue my friends’ skills or catch them off guard. They are, after all, my friends. Now more than ever before. Bartering works, even if I can’t write it off on my taxes, and it won’t abolish my need for a Visa card anytime soon — unless someone wants to treat me to a deep tissue massage for a lesson in partnered Charleston.
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Currently, I’ve got some window screens needing repair before mosquito season arrives. In return, I am ready to give up an extra membership card for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, good till March of 2014. Any takers?
Elise Pettus is the founder of UNtied, a website for women navigating separation and divorce. Check out the site's free monthly info and events.