Recession Lesson: Share and Swap Replaces Grab and Buy

Businesses like Bike Share are cropping up to meet the needs of recession-weary Americans. But besides saving money, many are relearning the principle of sharing.
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.

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