Changing Families: Swapping for your family

One of the most ancient forms of human interaction is making a comeback, and in the process, it’s building stronger ties between families and individuals in communities everywhere. Barter is back and it’s taking ever more creative forms — from babysitting exchanges and carpools to seed swaps and cooking co-ops.

Barter is the process of trading goods or services without any money changing hands. It can be a great way to save time and money while also providing an opportunity to form new or stronger relationships with other parents, families and neighbors.

You can get started by making two lists. First, list the services or goods you can offer that others may need. Maybe you’re available at certain times to offer babysitting or after-school supervision to a few neighborhood kids. Perhaps you’re a math or science whiz and can provide tutoring. Or what about the clothing, toys or books your children have outgrown that are taking up space in your closets?

Second, make a list of goods or services that you need that others may be able to provide. Have you been wanting to plant some perennials or bulbs around your house but don’t want to spend a fortune at the garden center? Maybe you’re happy to cook meals in bulk on weekends, but would love to have dinner for your family prepared by someone else one or two nights a week. Or perhaps you just need a way to get your daughter to her weekly piano lessons while you’re still at work.

After thinking about what you have to offer and what you need, talk with other parents and explore their needs and talents. You may find that several of you have similar needs and can work out a co-operative arrangement for getting those needs met, such as a babysitting co-op or carpool. Or you might find that someone else has something you need that they’d be willing to trade for a service you provide to them.

Whether you’re trading with just one other person or a larger group, a few basic ground rules will go a long way toward making the arrangement successful and maintaining harmony in your barter relationships. As a general rule, it’s best to barter with people who share similar values, tastes, lifestyles and morals.
Once you agree to trade, discuss these specifics with your group:

Should group size be limited to keep things manageable?
How will new members join? For example, babysitting co-ops often accept new members only through sponsorship or recommendations from existing members.
Be clear about the terms of all trades or exchanges. Who will do what for whom? When? Where?
Set time limits or due dates by which each party will fulfill their end of the exchange.
Discuss and agree on the relative value of what each person is bringing to the exchange so that people feel what they’ve gotten is roughly similar in value to what they’ve given.
Determine whether you need a record-keeping system to track members’ contributions (credits) and utilization of services (debits). Who will handle record-keeping? Some groups rotate this responsibility while others appoint a single person.

Sometimes, even with these basic ground rules in place, you won’t get what was promised by the other party, even though you’ve fulfilled your end of the bargain. While you can try talking with the person to get the situation straightened out, you still might not be fully satisfied with what you received. If so, it’s best to just decide that you won’t engage in any further bartering arrangements with that person and move on.

Some of the most common types of barter arrangements are carpools; book, clothing or toy swaps; and babysitting co-ops. Visit the Charlotte Parent Web site, to read more about these.

Regardless of the types of cooperative arrangements you may engage in with others, the benefits can go way beyond just saving time and money. Cooperating with others helps everyone get what they need while building strong families and strong communities. So come on — what are you waiting for? Wanna trade?

Once you get the hang of bartering, swapping or co-oping with friends, family and neighbors, the possibilities are nearly endless. Here are a few more to consider:
Magazine swap: Participants split the cost of several magazine subscriptions, then read and circulate them.
Homeschoolers may want to swap curriculum materials, books and equipment.
Reading or tutoring co-op: Older kids in the neighborhood can serve as reading tutors to younger ones. Or parents with specific subject expertise can tutor kids who need help in that subject.
Cookie swap: Popular during the holidays, participants each bring several dozen of their favorite home-made cookies and an empty platter. Then each person fills their platter with a half dozen of each type of cookie, giving them a terrific assortment for the holidays.
Cooking co-ops: Once a week, each family prepares dinner for the other families and delivers the homemade meal in ready-to-serve or ready-to-heat containers. Since it is usually just as easy to cook a particular dish in bulk as it is to prepare in smaller quantities, cooking co-ops minimize time in the kitchen for everyone. For instance, with four families in the group, each family could be assigned one week night, Monday through Thursday, to prepare dinner for the others. Some groups collectively purchase a set of containers for delivering meals to each family. Groups often meet monthly or every six weeks to plan schedules and menus. For how-to’s, see “Homemade To Go: The Complete Guide to Co-op Cooking,” by Dee Sarton Bower and Mary Eileen Wells.
Food co-ops enable members to get bulk pricing from grocery, produce or natural foods wholesalers. Members volunteer time on a rotating basis to handle ordering and bookkeeping, while all members work together to sort and distribute the shipments. Bulk pricing usually requires ordering each item by the case — so it’s best to band together with people with similar food preferences and needs.
Seed/garden plant/bulb swap: In the spring or fall, participants bring seeds, bulbs, seedlings, cuttings and plants from their gardens to trade.
Community gardens, orchards, compost piles or recycling centers are another way neighbors can band together to provide something for everyone.
Neighbors can also buy big ticket, infrequently used items like rototillers as a group and give everyone access to them.
Neighborhood watch, neighborhood cleanup and community work projects give neighbors opportunities to work together for the betterment of the entire community. Everyone participates and everyone wins.

Melanie G. Snyder writes for parenting magazines nationwide. Visit her Web site at