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When Sherose Badruddin, 38, joined her local Buy Nothing group in Chapel Hill, North Carolina five years ago, she was only doing it to save money. As a single mother, she was on a tight budget.
“I joined my Buy Nothing group in 2016 to get free stuff. I thought that was it,” she said. “Very soon after that, I learned that it was so much more.”
She found new clothes and shoes for her then five-year-old son and made contact with families in her community that she would otherwise not have known.
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She also found that while she worked to cut her spending, she had a lot to give – when her son outgrown toys and clothes, she gave them back to the community.
“I guess I could have taken them to a thrift store,” said Badruddin, who works at a local library and later became the administrator of the Buy Nothing group in Chapel Hill. “But the opportunity to be able to give something to a neighbor feels really good.”
A boom during the pandemic
Groups promoting gift giving and the free exchange of goods and services have been around for some time. The Freecycle Network was founded in 2003 by Deron Beal to recycle items, and Buy Nothing was started in 2013 by Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller as a social experiment on a local gift economy and reducing plastic consumption.
Both groups saw growth during the coronavirus pandemic. According to its founders, Buy Nothing grew by a third in one year and now has 4.27 million subscribers in more than 44 nations around the world using more than 6,800 Facebook groups (an app is also in the works and will be released soon) .
During the pandemic, “communities realized that one of the most important parts of resilience is sharing, relying on your neighbor,” Rockefeller said, adding that many people were comfortable or able to be in business during the lockdown to leave but felt safe when they were contactless picking up a disinfected item from a neighbour’s porch.
Freecycle saw an increase in activity during the pandemic, which Beal also noted during the Great Recession more than a decade ago. The organization now has approximately 9 million members and is represented in more than 5,000 local churches around the world.
“The growth of our organization is completely counter-cyclical,” said Beal.
The budget saver
For Kate Muth, 44, her local Buy Nothing group in Brooklyn, New York meant her family was able to try things that weren’t on a budget or they’d never think of buying them.
That includes a pull-up bar she grabbed for one of her daughters – she has two, ages 4 and 9 – during the pandemic.
“It’s a fun thing I would never have spent the money on,” said Muth, a customer experience strategist.
Occasionally, the company shielded you from repeat purchases, as was the case with your mixer. She had given one away a few years ago, but recently thought it would be nice to have back. Instead of going to the store, she could get one from the community.
These gift groups can help people who want to spend less money or be more careful with their wallets, said Tania Brown, certified financial planner and coach at SaverLife, a nonprofit focused on helping low-income Americans save money.
Brown himself felt compelled to consume less during the coronavirus pandemic and put her family on a no-spend challenge for a week as an experiment. In the end, it went so well that she is now recommending similar challenges to interested customers.
“At the core of this is a conscious intention to manage your spending,” she said, adding that belonging to a gifted group can help you slow knee-jerk, emotional spending by looking for something in your own community.
For those interested in spending less or being a more mindful consumer, Brown recommends starting small.
“It could be as simple as not spending an item you normally buy impulsively or a week with no credit cards,” she said. “It doesn’t have to start with this massive change.
Of course, such groups were formed primarily with environmental goals – to help people recycle better and consume less. While there are financial benefits, both founders and members say they are often motivated to join groups in order to be more sustainable and connect with their community.
“I feel like it’s having more of an impact on the environment because we’re throwing fewer things away,” said Ramona Monteros, administrator of Buy Nothing Noho Arts (North) in Los Angeles. While getting things from her group, she has been more active on the giving side – for example donating clothes and toys that her two boys have outgrown.
“I have so much stuff to get rid of and someone else can use it,” said Alison Kamat, 69, a retired librarian who lives in suburban Washington, DC and is a Freecycle volunteer.
There’s also the thrill of finding something you enjoy using or that can start a new life with a little elbow fat.
Kamat recently found one such item – someone in their local Freecycle group posted a fajita pan that had been standing outside all winter.
“I spent a whole morning sanding it down and making it really nice, flavoring it and it’s a great pan now,” Kamat said. “It was really worth it, I was really proud of myself.”
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