An Informal Economy

Traditionally, ‘informal economy’ referred to economic activity that is neither taxed nor regulated by a government. Even though the term may be rather unfamiliar, examples of informal economies practices are as familiar as babysitting or the drug trade. But I recently read a different description of  ‘informal economy’: “that which allows people to acquire goods and services they might not otherwise afford.” It’s an idea that deserves more than a glance. As we move into the second half of 2015, I sense a deepening economic uncertainty that demands each of us find ways to transition to a life style that is built on community, local resilience and living well on less. Enter: trade and barter.

Not long ago I bartered fresh heads of bok choy in exchange for a nurse neighbor’s steady hand in giving Michael his B-12 shots. We often trade watering or harvesting chores down at the community garden with fellow vacationers. A friend recently had a raised bed but nothing to plant in it, nor any extra money to invest in it. So I gave her some of my heirloom bean seeds that I’d saved, to plant in her bed. She’ll no doubt enjoy eating her beans all winter, and has promised to repay me in fresh beans. Yesterday I offered my skills as a canner to a woman that is equally skilled in quilting. We will both benefit from our reciprocal agreement to ‘help one another’. Carpooling, house and pet sitting are favorite trade-offs for me. I also enjoy doing sewing repairs in exchange for goods or services that I might need. Years ago I helped an acquaintance prepare for a major move by organizing and packing, in exchange for several months of fiddle lessons; our friendship has lasted long after the trades were completed. These informal economies help friendships to grow and allow all involved to benefit without any money being exchanged.

I wrote here recently about the free truckloads of gravel for my driveway I was able to get, via Freecycle, from a nearby church, who just wanted it off of their parking lot. My own church offers many, many opportunities for sharing and trading of goods and services. Our local electric cooperative delivers shredded wood mulch for free to anyone that lives within the city limits, and the city crews deliver shredded leaves for our compost piles during the fall leaf pickup. The members of the nearby community garden that I manage are constantly learning from, trading with, and helping one another, even though we all started as perfect strangers and have few common bonds other than our love for growing fresh, organic food. From an online community to a community garden, all of these informal economies help to build community strength and resilience.

 The nearby town of Abingdon, VA is home to the Barter Theater, a live theater venue that was set up during the Depression and so named because you could gain admission to see a play by bartering fresh eggs, produce or chickens instead of paying the 40 cent admission price. During that same period, when no one had any cash, it wasn’t uncommon for doctors to accept food as payment. My own grandfather was known to accept car repairs and haircuts as payment for his bookkeeping and accounting skills.

Produce traded at Barter Theatre
Produce traded at Barter Theater, circa 1933

For all those aspects of life that we need in order to sustain ourselves and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (in response to peak oil), drastically reduce carbon emissions (in response to climate change) and greatly strengthen our local economy (in response to economic instability)? An Informal Economy is a logical starting point and offers limitless possibilities that can help us with these transition issues. Some communities have even gone so far as to start community currencies based on barter, trading one hour of work for $10 in credit. From food to computer skills, we all have something to offer. Might a more formal organization of these kinds of efforts be more helpful or hassle? Please let me know in the comments section below if you or your community are working in informal economies, and what affects it is having on your resilience and/or personal economy.


Frugal Friday- July 25, 2014
July 25, 2014, 9:01 PM
Filed under: Frugality | Tags: , , ,


I was given a greenhouse. That’s it up there ↑. The couple that owned it just wanted to get rid of it, and said if I could figure out how to get it home, I could have it. Where there’s a will there’s a way… A friend with a pick up truck and a flat bed trailer came to the rescue, along with a bunch of guys from my church. Plans for outfitting it and planting some winter greens are brewing!

The greenhouse alone would’ve been the frugalist ? thing ever but life goes on as usual and each day is a new opportunity to ‘live well on less’.

Monday: Michael and I volunteered to deliver posters around town for the local college’s ‘School of the Arts’ fall series and earned tickets to a performance tomorrow night at our regional live theater for doing so. We’re going to see “Hollywood Confidential”. The tickets would’ve cost us $37 a piece, so this was a real bonus. In addition to the theater tickets, we were also given a gift card for 2 free ice cream cones at the local ice cream shoppe, Yum!


Tuesday: I tried a new recipe for zucchini, taken directly from a recent edition of Mother Earth News. Basically, slice and fry, turning to brown evenly on both sides, then drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt and pepper. I also fried up some sage leaves for about 3 minutes to garnish the slices with. It’s a great way to use up that sage AND zucchini, and it filled out a meal of leftover casserole, garlic bread and corn on the cob. Oh yeah, it was really good. Now I only have 99 more zucchini to use up 😉


Wednesday: We worked in the gardens for quite a while today and were really hot and tired afterwards. Have  you ever been grocery shopping and when  you were through, felt too exhausted to cook? That’s where we were on this night. It happened to be the night for my church’s monthly Wednesday night supper and we were able to enjoy a glass of wine, a wonderful meal and dessert for $5 a piece!. By tracking our expenses, we’d become aware of a gradual increase in eating out over recent months so we’ve been trying to cut back. It’s really easy this time of year when there is so much fresh produce to put to good use in the kitchen, but on this particular day, we caved and enjoyed an evening of fun and relaxation with our church friends. An added bonus: We’ve realized that eating out more infrequently gives us a greater sense of satisfaction when we do indulge. What’s the old saying? “Familiarity breeds contempt”. Occasional meals out have become special once again.

Thursday: This was the night of the annual Harvest Potluck for the nearby community garden. Need I say more? The food was all fresh, all local, and home grown. I had a hit with my ‘Double Delight Chocolate Cake’ made with cooked, mashed sweet potatoes and grated zucchini added to the batter. It is so moist that no icing is needed, although I did dust it with powdered sugar before serving. Adding the veggies cuts down on the oil needed by 2/3’s  AND now I only have 98 more zucchinis to use up.  Piece of cake!










Friday: Yard sale finds today: two nice  tee shirts  for 50 cents each and two candles for the same price. One candle is a fancy, schmancy ‘hand poured’ one in a cool jar (which can be repurposed once it’s been burned) and the other is gift quality, still in the wrapper and with a bow. They both smell lovely. We love candles but new ones can be truly pricey. I’m always on the lookout for them at yard sales and have plenty in stock, rarely paying over $1.00 for them. Candles and home-made soaps are my two little luxuries that I hope to always be able to enjoy-and greenhouses too.


But you know what? Learning to live well on less has given me a deep feeling of abundance that’s not based on money or stuff, but on a sense of enough. It’s a mindset, more than anything I think. If this blog only gets that point across I’ll consider it successful. My hope is that the frugality aspects of my posts will lead you to a greater sense of resilience and community mindedness as well. Regardless of what the stock market says, we’re living in dangerous and uncertain times. Having skills to share and a community of folks to be a part of (whether that’s your neighbors, your church, your coworkers or your yoga class!) will enable us to not only survive, but to thrive as we transition to a leaner life.

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