Swap to keep a handle on spending


Last Christmas, I was trying to stick to a budget, but cash on hand was running low. Each year, I buy a landmark sketch by a local artist as a Christmas gift for my husband. Last year, it looked like I'd need to scratch it off my list. I was not sure who would be more disappointed. My husband, when he didn't receive it. Me, when I couldn't give it to him. Or both of us, for the break in tradition.

Then it occurred to me. I teach piano lessons to the artist's child. What if we could work out a deal? Negotiate a sort of music-for-art-swap that was amenable to each of us?

Would that be weird? Would it seem like I was pilfering art? I couldn't bounce the idea off my husband. I didn't want to drag him in on figuring out payment for his own gift. So I swallowed my pride and spoke to the artist about my proposition.


Without hesitation, the artist jumped on board. He liked the idea of getting a break from coming up with cash for weekly lessons for a while. We both felt like we made out on the deal.

It brought to mind the spirit of Amish barn raising, in which an entire community comes together to assemble a barn for one of its households. While only one family ends up owning the barn, the community realizes that independence and self-sufficiency are bolstered by a value of interdependence.

It reminded me that it is OK to accept help, and that doing so inspires me to help in turn. How refreshing it was to embrace a circle of service, rather than a "work to pay" and "pay to work" way of living.

Imagine the money families could put to better use, if instead of throwing dollar bills at each other, we would serve each other creatively.

Excited by the prospect, I started running it by friends and family. Turns out some people got the concept long before I did. While I have been busy getting over my fear of being unable to reciprocate adequately, others have been experiencing the joy of building and receiving proverbial little barns in all kinds of valuable ways.

Everyone has got something to offer. Usually the skills people have themselves are the ones they value least. Why? Because the need for that skill is already met. What they need is something they can't do.

In recent weeks, a friend with mechanical knowledge made a phone call to an unfamiliar auto repair shop to ascertain that my husband and I were not being overcharged. The same week, my husband was able to share some helpful knowledge of the special-education system with the same family.

A friend has been helping me out by babysitting, and I've taken her some dinners on nights that are busy for her family.

Maybe you are wondering how you will pay for swimming lessons for your child this summer, or how you are going to take care of that leak in the roof. Remember that your options might go beyond just cash. Read to a friend's aging parent. Tutor a student in algebra. Repair a water heater. Weed a garden. Optimize a computer. Raise a barn.

Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail address is

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