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01.27.10

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Swaps Meet

An MBA finds herself in the odd spot of promoting barter

By Amanda Hutchins

It is, unfortunately, easier to spend less than it is to make more. As a finance geek, I tend to approach every problem armed with an Excel spreadsheet, so let me illustrate. After taxes, an annual 5 percent raise (optimistic by most companies' standards) results in an approximately 3.3 percent increase in take-home pay. If your income is $100,000, that's only $3.3K for the year, or $275 a month. With luck, it will mitigate overall inflation and leave you exactly where you were before. It's certainly not enough to afford the new Porsche I've always dreamed of.

If you're an independent service provider (consultant, masseuse, contractor), you can certainly raise your hourly rates, but at some point you're going to price yourself out of the market and wind up making less overall than you would if your rates were reasonable. It doesn't matter if you're the best house painter in the world, people are only willing to pay so much for a given service. Multiply that rate by the hours you can work, and there's your income.

There is a loophole, however. Assuming you have a valuable skill, you can trade your expertise with others for services or items that you want. My brother is an excellent personal trainer, and his clients pay him well to kick their asses. To supplement cash payments, he trades training with a masseuse and a tattoo artist, and is a little more relaxed and definitely more colorful than he was before. He has even bartered several sessions for a new flatscreen TV.

As a financial analyst, I am not in the most barterable profession and am jealous of my brother's ability to call on a masseuse any time in exchange for an hour's worth of training. But recently, I've been thinking about the less obvious or valuable forms of bartering. A few weeks ago, a zipper on my favorite $15 sweatshirt broke. It would have cost me more to pay somebody to fix it than it would to buy a new sweatshirt.

I worked for a clothing company and can understand logically how cheap inputs like overseas labor and mass-produced fabric can make that possible. But from an environmental and local level, it doesn't quite compute. Shouldn't one small component of an item cost less than the sum total of the materials required to make it? And even accounting for the loss in productivity when repairing one item vs. thousands, shouldn't replacing a single zipper cost less than sewing the entire sweatshirt?

With a perfectly good sweatshirt in my closet (minus one zipper) I am having trouble justifying its disposal and replacement. However, I can't really see paying somebody to fix it; it did only cost $15, after all. As I have the sewing abilities of an eight-year-old boy, repairing it myself is out of the question. I mentioned this dilemma to a friend, and it turns out her mom actually taught her to sew. A new zipper is no problem. In appreciation, I offered to cook her dinner.

I find this solution much more appealing than my previous options: (a) supporting an international corporation by buying a new sweatshirt; or (b) paying somebody more than the sweatshirt cost to repair it. It also accomplishes something that feels a little bigger and more meaningful than the small task itself. It brought a friend to my table and resulted in an evening of laughter, card games and decent food. (I am not quite at the "Top Chef" level of cooking. Yet.)

I realize that this may not be the most pro-capitalist solution, especially coming from an MBA, but there is something satisfying about these small, people-focused exchanges. In a time when money seems tighter every day, when global resource-consumption leads to poverty and war, and when a single sweatshirt has traveled farther to reach me than many people travel their entire lives, going back to basics feels a little less chaotic and a little more real. So maybe we can't all be amazing trainers, but we can help each other move or sew a zipper or make somebody dinner and maximize our experiences without needing to maximize our financial wealth.


Amanda Hutchins is a finance professional and occasional writer living in Santa Rosa.

Open Mic is a weekly feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 700 words considered for publication, write openmic@bohemian.com.

 

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