Posted in Family, Home

Barter ECOnomics & the Much-Maligned Art of Packrat-ism

folded dollar houseI’m a little embarrassed.

One of the lovely side-effects of living below the poverty-line  is the realization that most money-saving behaviors are thoroughly environmentally friendly. I’m embarrassed because it shouldn’t have taken a detour into destitution for us to put this type of lifestyle into practice. A matter of putting my money where my mouth is (figuratively speaking, that is, since absence of money is the catalyst in this case)…  So here we are, engaged in creative do-it-yourself projects, re-using and recycling and “upcycling” and making do for ourselves rather than buying even simple stuff.

shopping cart
of course we don’t avoid the store entirely… Grocery shopping for the essentials with our “phenomenal cook”–Elena Grace’s (accurate!) description of Keoni

In my previous life, if I needed (or wanted) something, I went straight to the store. Didn’t even think about it. Even a DIY (do-it-yourself) project would result in an automatic shopping-list for the needed components.

In contrast to that mindset, we make a game these days of “creative alternatives,” even with a DIY undertaking.  Our goal isn’t so much to do things inexpensively with DIY, but to see how close to FREE can we get with any project. For any item on our list, we’re asking ourselves what we could use, and where we might find it. (Funny thing—it does feel like a game, and there’s a definite satisfaction in “scoring” something we’re looking for.)

barter system
um, NOT quite how it works… (image courtesy of

Last month I joined the Freecycle network, which acts as a hub for people to offload (and pick up) used items at no cost. Without a doubt, the most neglected component of the eco-trinity (“Reduce, Re-use, Recycle“) is the practice of re-using—which is a shame, given the relatively high costs (both ecological and economic) of the recycling process… Freecycle operates a lot like the “free” listings on Craigslist (though unfortunately there’s not a lot of member activity in our area, so I’m still a regular Craigslist browser as well).

We are also blessed with a wonderful network of friends and neighbors who make bartering a viable possibility in our household economics. It should be said first, however, that although there is a steady traffic of foods and favors and funning exchanged across our various fences, the majority of those interactions aren’t undertaken with any aim so concrete as “bartering” for something specific. That’s just neighborliness, on all sides.

Keoni & Bill admiring our shared vegetable garden

Having said that, though–I will add, on reflection, that the habit of neighborliness has stood us in good “credit” with those neighbors when we are on the hunt for something specific. And since those same neighbors have now formed addictions to Keoni’s cooking, they know precisely what they want in return. Case in point: when we approached our neighbor Steve to ask about the stack of two-by-fours by his shed (gathering materials for our son’s chicken-coop project), Steve had a wish-list at the ready. He held up two fingers and requested (1) Keoni’s teriyaki sauce and (2) his ginger salad dressing. Then he stabbed his two counting-fingers toward the pile of wood and told us to have at it—he had no plans for it. When we asked Bill (retired from construction, and a certified electrician) to see if he could sort out the electronics of our broken shave-ice machine so we could offer it as a rental to Keoni’s boss, Bill jumped at the chance to ask for Keoni’s “Tahitian Lanai” banana bread.

There are times, too, when neighborliness results in rewards unsought. Keoni stopped to offer condolences to the father and brother of our recently deceased neighbor, asking also how he might be of help. They’re looking to sell the place, so he offered to keep the lawn mowed in the interim. He spent yesterday morning mowing and weed-whacking and clearing trash (his OCD kicks in here—he can’t do half a job without following through on whatever else needs doing) and when they stopped by again, he suggested to them that they should store the outdoor items to prevent them from disappearing. (Unfortunately, we had some experience with that last year—while we were in the process of moving from our foreclosed-on house to this trailer, someone decided to help themselves to a number of our outdoor tools, plants, even a water fountain…)

tackle box
Christian reverently inventorying our late neighbor’s tackle box. “This guy took REALLY good care of his stuff.”

To our surprise, they told him he could help himself to whatever he could use from the yard and garden; they had already taken the few things they wanted to keep, and they’re focused now on clearing the place out.  It seems a little morbid to benefit from the death of a neighbor (one of the few neighbors we didn’t know, at that), but on the other hand we can offer a most appreciative home to the fishing tackle, portable barbecue, gardening tools and potting soil… And maybe, after all, the neighbor would get a kick out of our delight over the little garden-hose timer, which has long been on our wish-list for use with our sprinkler on the lawn.

Our neighbors have also been a great resource for our start-up gardening. Bill is kindly sharing his established vegetable garden with us—we provided seeds (which can be bought with Food Stamps, yay) and weeding-services (always with the “help” of his nosy wiener-dog, Buster), and a steady stream of baked goods—in exchange for which we’re enjoying radishes and tomatoes and carrots and broccoli and zucchini and (my favorite!) snap-peas. Bill jokes that we must have a bakery-bush behind the house, and wonders how far apart you need to plant those…

We’re working, too, on our own collection of kitchen herbs—plants started from seedlings and cuttings we’ve gathered from neighbors and from the herb-garden at Keoni’s work, and even road-side and river-side. (Wild asparagus grows along the river right near our house!) Some of the home-grown herbs are going into my “Kitchen-Chemistry” experiments (another installment coming soon!)—our other ecological/economical DIY project.

weeding the vegetable garden on Bill’s side of the fence (with Buster’s help)

What actually prompted this post was the curious collection of components for our planned compost barrel (which will no doubt get a post of its own when it’s completed)—a project that combines both the Reduce and the Re-Use commandments… We’ll be cutting down substantially on our outgoing trash and gaining compost for our developing kitchen-garden—and we’ve gotten creative in assembling its ingredient pieces. We find that the key to bartering (and sometimes getting things free) is keeping eyes open for items we can use, and being willing to ask.

For the compost barrel, we asked for an empty 55-gallon barrel of soy sauce from a restaurant-supply company. Its pivot-rod will be an old gas pipe, which we asked for when a gas-company worker was checking lines in the neighborhood and taking out unused pipes. And its supports will be a pair of outdoor umbrella-stands that Keoni rescued from the trash heap at the restaurant where he works.

kitchen herb nursery
the “nursery” of kitchen herbs—including seeds planted in the egg cartons

And that brings me to Packrat Habits. I have officially retired from teasing Keoni about his Packrat-ism, due to the overwhelming number of times he has pulled something useful out of the shed—something for which we had no imagined use when he picked it up. The umbrella stands fit in that category, as does the John Deere key he picked up in a parking lot a few years ago. We didn’t own anything at the time that could possibly fit that key, but this summer when we misplaced the key to our riding lawnmower (itself an item partly-bartered from a neighbor last summer), damned if he didn’t pull out that found key from wherever he had it stashed, and damned if it didn’t fit our lawnmower! I concede the field—he’s less crazy than I thought.

Still plenty crazy, though, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. On that note, there’s a clump of road-side wild-flowers I’ve had my eye on, and I think I’ll go dig it up—it’s either that or pay $5 at Home Depot.


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

26 thoughts on “Barter ECOnomics & the Much-Maligned Art of Packrat-ism

  1. Fantastic use of resources! You guys are an inspiration. Like you said, why didn’t you do it sooner, before you “had” to. We should all try to make those changes, now. :)


    1. I’m in no position to preach, since I didn’t make changes until I had to… But I’m in a great position to RECOMMEND! ;)


  2. Kana, I share your enthusiasm for barter and realize that we don’t usually need 3/4 of the ‘stuff we want.’ Reminds me of “You don’t always get what you waaaaant, you don’t always get what you waaaaaant,…but if you try sometimes, you get what you need..!”

    I learned when Rey was unemployed for a year and 1/2, that we could get by on virtually nothing. But there was that sticky thing called ‘the mortgage’ that got in the way!!


    1. Don’t we know it! As evidenced by the “foreclosed-on house”… We quite enjoy our low-rent little trailer in the country now–much easier to stay afloat! ;)


  3. I bet that the fine line between how crazy you think I am and where I typically am is quite fluid ;) Me Kealoha Pumehana Ku’uipo. BTW I miss you writing (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)


  4. It is amazing that we don’t practice tightwaddery until we *have* to. Then, once we get the hang of it (and have fun with it), we wonder why we wasted so many resources before. Necessity is that mother of invention.


    1. SO true! I just made a delicious body-scrub from ingredients that cost about a quarter, and I’m remembering paying something like fifteen bucks (in my previous life) for exactly the same thing from Bath & Body or some such place… Now I’m wondering WHY??! :)


  5. I knew all my years of poverty had some use… just now I was wishing that, for once, I could just go to the store and buy whatever I wanted. I’ve never lived that life. But perhaps my destiny is to continue to perfect my ability to make something out of what others consider “nothing.”

    I thought it was interesting that you felt a twinge at the thought of profiting off someone’s death. I immediately thought of the tree that falls in the forest, and how insects and plants make use of it. I would so much rather everything I own go to a thoughtful, wonderful family such as you and yours than have it go to a landfill, sit idle, end up in someone’s storage shed who will never touch it, or some other dead-end destination. Life goes on, and your active participation is a beautiful thing.


    1. Thank you for putting it that way–it makes me feel less vulture-like. :) And I salute your cheerful attitude about the opportunity to “continue to perfect” your making-do skills. :)


  6. Ah, dumpster diving vs treasure hunting = semantics. Or as my husband says, “The only way this poor man and can afford the toys that make the living fun.”

    Of course, big biz (and little biz for that matter) will have to recalculate if this becomes a habit in society…all those teenagers at Bath & Body out of work :-( Seems it’s like restoring an old house – fix one thing and it highlights another. Fix one aspect of social dysfunction and it shines a light on something else…not that the first fix wasn’t worth fixing. OK, I’ll hush up now. ;-)

    Nice post and Free Cycle is definitely worth a looksee, depending on each community’s participation…even if your personal benefit is to clear clutter. (It always amazes me what my neighbors put out for the landfill when the Goodwill would love to have the donation!!!???) Hushing now.


  7. I can see all your hard work in your gardens — pure love! I am where you are economically — living far below poverty income, and DIY or do without. I appreciate all of the valuable lessons I’ve learned here on your blog — thanks so much!


    1. Although I wouldn’t wish the challenges on anyone, there’s something comforting in knowing we’re not alone… Here’s to finding Joy among the challenges!! :)


  8. Freecycle is blooming here. After my son’s wedding I gave a huge pile of decorations, candles, centrepieces, bubble blowers, bows, etc. etc. to a young girl having a July wedding – what a great treat for us both!


    1. I love it!! I’m hoping Freecycle will take off here as well. Idaho tends to “trend” behind the times (particularly in environmental matters), but I’m optimistic. :)


  9. I always feel a little twinge of inspiration when I read about how will you’re getting on. I desperately want to try some of the, frankly, super cool things you’re doing, but I always use the ‘i don’t have time’ excuse.
    How do you squeeze it all in? And raise lovely kids, and write for work and write your blog?! :-)


    1. Hmm, I think the short answer is that I don’t THINK about “how to fit it in”… If I did over-think it, I’d decide I don’t have time! ;)


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