Recession Lesson: Share and Swap Replaces Grab and Buy

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009

The recession is reminding Americans of a lesson they first learned in childhood: Share and share alike. They are sharing or swapping tools and books, cars and handbags, time and talent.

The renewed desire to share shows up in a variety of statistics: A car-sharing service has had a 70 percent membership increase since the recession set in. Governments are putting bikes on the street for public use. How-to-swap Web sites are proliferating.

"I think what happens in a recession or any sort of economic contraction is that you have not only a loss of financial resources, but also you have a loss of emotional resources," said Shawn Achor, a Harvard University researcher and a consultant on positive psychology.

"You don't have as much of the money or security or confidence or pride that goes with financial success," he said. "Our brains try to seek out those resources that are lost. The financial resources are beyond our control, but the emotional resources are not. And we seek out each other. We rely on each other."

The economy reflects the way Americans have cut back, especially on discretionary items: Department store sales dropped 1.3 percent in June. People are not buying cars, and auto sales dropped 27.7 percent last month. They are not paying others to do what they can do themselves -- Home Depot reports increased attendance at in-store do-it-yourself clinics. And although paint sales are down in general, according to Sherwin-Williams, individual consumers are still buying.

When Tom Burdett needed to cut some tile at his home outside Annapolis, he refused to buy expensive tools. So he asked his neighbors and friends for help. Sure enough, someone had just what he needed. And when that friend needed help installing a satellite dish, Burdett volunteered.

"I'm not going to go out and buy a $500 tile saw just to do one project," said Burdett, a television producer who lives in Edgewater. "Just ask for help and help people out. I think the economy has kind of woken people back up to the old way of doing things instead of the crazy '90s of 'Oh just go out and buy it.' "

The sharing mind-set is not new to the American culture, but many Americans abandoned it when the nation shifted from an agricultural society to an industrial one, said Rosemary Hornak, a psychology professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. They moved farther from their families and did not have time to connect with new neighbors because they worked so much, she said.

Now that people are experiencing financial distress, they don't want to be alone.

"You can't change the economy. You can't change the recession. Maybe you can get a better job, but that won't be instantaneous. What do you do?" she said. "Sharing is one of the things that first of all makes you feel better about yourself. . . . We're moving into 'How can we establish these kinds of personal connections, this helping others, sharing, being a bit more neighborly?' "

Neighborhood conversations tell more of the story as the movement grows organically in communities across the Washington region and the nation. On one street in Arlington, for instance, neighbors are chipping in for mulch and dividing it among themselves.

Liz McLellan, a Web designer in Oregon, started a free yard-sharing community at Hyperlocavore ( in January. Friends, relatives or neighbors create a group, pool their resources and start a garden, then distribute the produce equally. The recession gardens, as she calls them, can save families with two children up to $2,500 a year.

"We have people who are foodies and have become accustomed to outstanding taste and freshness," she said. "We have people who simply are trying to make ends meet."

In February, Robert Morse of New York started -- named for a friend known for helping his neighbors before he died at age 43 -- to connect groups of people who want to help one another out on home projects or share tools.

"We hear stories about guys who have no money to go golfing anymore and are going to each other's houses and helping each other paint the house or fix the patio," he said.

Women have flocked to the Web site to borrow or rent luxury bags and other accessories. Users of a book-swapping Web site, Bookmooch, have increased 30 percent to about 124,000 since the beginning of the year. The membership of the trading site SwapTree has grown tenfold in the past year.

"We're kind of coming out of an opulent time," said Mark Hexamer, co-founder of SwapTree. "People have seen the bad side of mass consumerism. Now everyone is kind of looking for ways to cut down on the family budget."

Since the recession started, car-sharing company Zipcar has had a 70 percent increase in membership to almost 300,000. Sixty percent of the new members said they had sold their cars or abandoned plans to buy them and decided instead to use Zipcar, which charges a small annual fee.

"The downturn in the economy has people thinking of buying less and sharing more," said Scott Griffith, chief executive of Zipcar.

Local governments and faith organizations are joining in. Arlington County runs to help residents carpool. For a $40 annual fee, the District offers access to 120 bikes at self-service racks around the city.

Chris Ganson, 35, a city planner, has embraced the sharing mentality in several ways. He has joined the city's Smart Bike program as well as Zipcar. "It's convenient and it saves money," he said.

Ganson also shares a house in Adams Morgan with five other people. He pays $955 a month for a room with a private bathroom, about $600 less than for most one-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood. "It's a great thing for times like these," he said.

Emily Richards, 27, a Falls Church marketing consultant, shares books with her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and friends. Whenever she visits her four sisters in Alabama, she uses their clothing so she does not have to pack a big bag and pay extra baggage fees. She also recently let a friend borrow the vases that were part of the centerpieces at her wedding. That friend is going to use them at her wedding.

"I think I'm very frugal by nature, but it's nice to know that other people have embraced that mind-set," she said.

When the economy started getting worse, a friend persuaded Burdett to join with him. Burdett and his neighbors used to hire a handyman for small home projects. That is now a luxury. "With the recession, no one has extra cash," he said.

Burdett's network grew to about 13 friends and friends of friends. In addition to the tile saw, he now has access to other tools such as air compressors. He also does his share of helping. He recently erected a fence around a friend's father's house.

"Almost everyone I know has lost a lot, I would say half of what they had as an investment," he said. "People are helping each other and getting back together. You're not the lone ranger anymore."

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