As I gear up for this Saturday’s The Frugal Gardener: Growing food for (next to) nothing, I find myself fascinated by the experiment of attempting to operate a portion of my business without relying on cash in exchange for my services.
Ever since I started Root & Branch at the beginning of 2012, I’ve offered non-monetary exchange as an option to people who want to access my services but who can’t afford (or choose not) to pay in cash. I was surprised that virtually no one took me up on the offer through my whole first year. Apart from one great trade of a garden consultation for a haircut, and a couple of people who assisted me at workshops in exchange for their attendance, everyone seemed content to pay cash for my services.
I have to admit that I felt some disappointment about how things were evolving for my business in its first year. Quite simply, I don’t want to serve only the privileged people in my community. Everyone benefits from learning to take control of their own food supply and participate in a sustainable local food economy where food is treated as so much more than a commodity—not only those who can afford the luxury of healthy, safe, sustainable food.
My interest in cultivating an informal economy in my life and business persisted, despite the apparent lack of interest from anyone else. So this year I decided to try something quite different: as part of my series of spring gardening workshops I decided to develop one focused on gardening without spending a lot of money. In that spirit, I also wanted to make the workshop available only through non-monetary exchange.
What’s ensued over the past few weeks has been by turns fascinating, frustrating, mystifying, and inspiring. In fact, I don’t believe there’s been an experience that’s taught me more (about myself, my values, and my business) than attempting to conduct business without cash. It’s brought me face to face with my own limitations and those of my community and the larger society. It’s also created opportunities I never imagined existed.
The first thing of note was that right off the bat I realized that regardless of what happened, I would be taking a financial loss on The Frugal Gardener. Try though I did, there was no way around the hard costs of renting the venue and printing posters. I had decided at the outset that taking a loss was OK—I hoped to turn a profit on my workshop series as a whole, so losing money on The Frugal Gardener hopefully wouldn’t break the bank!
At the same time I realized that in this case, functioning as part of an informal, non-cash economy was a privilege I could afford. It was safe—an experiment that I wasn’t relying on to contribute any meaningful resources or stability to my life and business.
Unfortunately, that felt in some ways like a lost opportunity, since what I dream of is a world where non-cash exchanges are just as or more meaningful than cash purchases. Dealing outside of the cash economy forces us to consider the potential for a different kind of equality between people. Instead of a person’s value being determined by how much money they have (or don’t have) to buy things, non-cash exchange challenges us to define a person’s value by the content of their lives: their time, toil, talents, and skills. Though perhaps less tangible than the value of cold, hard cash, identifying and understanding the value of a person feels much more profound.
Curiously, although I had identified the service I was offering (a three hour workshop), I’d failed to consider what I actually needed or wanted to receive in exchange for it. In an effort to be open-minded to any possibility, my response to anyone who inquired about the non-monetary exchange was to simply throw it back into their court. “It’s an experiment, so I’m open to anything,” I’d say. “Pitch me something creative and then we can negotiate something that feels fair.”
In retrospect, my approach wasn’t all that effective, nor was it very fair. Non-monetary exchanges already place people outside of their comfort zones, and providing minimal guidance didn’t help them. Not surprisingly, in several cases people who contacted me with interest never followed up after I sent them away with only vague direction.
I realized that my vagueness was actually something of a cop out on my part. I hadn’t taken the time to consider things that I could actually use, and instead left people to make the best guess they could, in most cases without knowing me at all. By not taking the time to identify what I really wanted and needed from the situation, I missed out on a huge opportunity to really benefit from the experience.
With that in mind, I finally took some time to consider what non-monetary exchanges would actually have real value to me in my life. It was a great exercise that provided heaps of clarity. It also helped me achieve what I knew was important the whole time but couldn’t put my finger on: making people’s non-cash value tangible and real.
So where has this all led me?
- I’ve developed a great list of potential non-monetary services and items that I could really use, which I will direct people to in the future;
- I have great anticipation about this weekend’s workshop, where I plan to spend a decent chunk of time workshopping participants’ ideas and understanding of the potential for non-monetary exchange in their own lives;
- I’m also really curious to see whether people will actually show up to the workshop! Just as I find that people are significantly less likely to turn up if they haven’t paid in advance, I wonder if people will take this workshop as seriously as if they had paid cash for it.
Regardless of the outcome, this has been an extremely worthwhile experience that has really helped to strengthen my vision of the kind of business I want to run and the sort of person I want to be.