Some people seem to live to shop. Most people shop to live. Lena Krause, a theatre major in her third year at Northwestern, wondered if she could get rid of shopping altogether.
Starting February 10, Krause determined to go for as long as she could without spending money on anything besides rent. For 29 days she operated on a barter system, trading chores and things she didn’t really need for things she did.
Krause said the impetus for her experiment came mainly from curiosity, a desire to see how easy it would actually be to let go of money’s influence on her.
“I feel like you’re always thinking about how much of it you have, or how much of it you don’t have,” she said. “Greed is a real thing, and it makes people mean.”
She said it was time-consuming handling all of the logistical burdens of such an out-of-the-box system. Ensuring a steady supply of food was often enough to keep her mind occupied.
“I had to start Monday this week figuring out what I wanted to do this weekend so that I could acquire or arrange all the different means to make it happen,” she said. But beyond the time it took to figure everything out, she didn’t find it to be terribly difficult.
Food, for instance, was surprisingly easy to obtain. Other things, such as El cards, were much more difficult. Krause said that not only did it take a while to find one that someone was willing to trade for, but she also said she felt conflicted about things like this: money in a different form.
“I would feel very strange about asking someone to put money on a card for me. Because it’s kind of like them paying me and then me just buying a card.”
This was a recurring theme, and she echoed these worries in Sharing Zero, the blog she created to accompany and chronicle this experiment.
“What about when a friend buys me fruit to do their dishes—what’s the difference from just getting paid and buying my own?”
Understandably, Krause’s scrimping also put a damper on her social life. She said she was wary of accepting donations, wanting to earn the things she used, but this often caused dilemmas, such as when friends wanted to go out for a meal.
“If all of your friends want to go out to dinner,” she asked, “are you going to find some way to offer them the price of a meal?” That can of course amount to a pretty penny in Evanston, and left her wondering how she could keep going to such outings.
Such concerns aside, however, Krause said that her experiment opened her eyes to some beautiful bits of life that she had barely considered before.
“It makes me feel freer,” she said. “It makes me feel lighter as a person, like I literally walk around town with my keys and my books, and I don’t need anything else. And that’s really cool.”
And for all the hassle added to her social life, Krause found that her barter system actually opened her up to new opportunities as well.
One of her favorite stories from the experience was helping some of her neighbors repair a temporary wall in their apartment. She said they asked her if she would come over with some tools and help out with the project.
“I’m pretty technically handy because I do a lot of backstage theatre work,” she said. “So I helped them rebuild a wall, things were falling all over the place.” She smiled at the memory. “It was really janky. And I got some bananas and drinks out of it.”
Krause often returned to the theme of sharing. She said her experiment opened her eyes to negative things like the wastefulness that tends to accompany money and affluence, and the ways that money separates us socially
She found that money gives us an autonomy that means we don’t often have to ask for help. For Krause, the coolest thing about the barter system she stuck to for a month was that it gave her a connection to her friends and neighbors that she never could have found otherwise.
“It’s definitely an excuse to go and hang out at people’s houses while I go and sweep their floor or something like that. It sounds really simple, but you get to have a conversation with someone while you do that, you know?”
“And going into people’s living space is a somewhat intimate thing,” she said. “Maybe it sounds a little romantic, but you are seeing a different part of people’s lives.”
That, she said, was what mattered to her most about the experiment. After all the trades were done, the sense of community remained a real and positive effect of sharing zero.
Photos by Anthony Settipani.