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Published: Jan 05, 2022 7 min read
Photo collage of a plant, a baby car seat, a teddy bear, a box of clothes with the word  Free  written on it with money bills in the background
Vanessa Garcia / Money

This article is part of Money's January 2022 digital cover, which features 22 ways to make 2022 the best money year of your life. Browse all 22 articles here.

Before you pull out your credit card, take a second to check with your neighbors.

That’s the idea behind the Buy Nothing Project, a massive, Facebook-driven grassroots movement encouraging communities around the world to participate in a sustainable gift economy. Some 5.3 million members in 44 countries have joined 7,000 hyperlocal groups online where they request, offer and swap items, forming valuable connections in the process.

And chances are there's one within driving distance of you.

“It’s creating a network of people who are committed to sharing with each other and giving and asking and expressing gratitude with no strings attached,” says cofounder Liesl Clark.

They’re also, of course, saving a ton of money. In the nine years since the project kicked off, Buy Nothing groups have quietly grown to become the best place on the web to score a deal on anything you could possibly desire, free of charge.

Keeping junk out of landfills and avoiding record-high inflation rates are just added benefits.

From cribs to fresh produce, “we all need stuff,” Clark says. “You will inevitably find people who have exactly what you're looking for.”

The basics of Buy Nothing

The Buy Nothing concept is so simple you’ll think there’s no way it could work… until you see it in action.

Transactions typically happen in one of two ways. The first happens when a person has something they want to get rid of. They post an offer, usually with a photo and brief explanation of why they’re giving it away — “full size sheet set from IKEA, never used, light tan (bought the wrong size and missed the return window)” — and their location. Then comments roll in, direct messages are exchanged, and the deal happens offline.

The other occurs when a person wants something they don't have. They post an ask — “Does anyone have an extra set of shower curtain hooks? My liner didn’t come with any” — and how far they’re willing to travel. Comments roll in, DMs are exchanged, and the deal happens offline.

Buy Nothing groups are location-centric and super-specific. In fact, many cities have multiple divided into neighborhoods — Austin, Texas, has about 70 alone. Upon joining, members have to prove their residency by answering a set of questions. (Though it recently launched an app, many Buy Nothing groups still live on Facebook.)

They also have to agree to a set of rules. Buy Nothing’s principles explicitly forbid buying, selling, trading, bartering and exchanging money for goods and services.

“The whole philosophy is there’s no tit for tat. People take what they need and give what they can,” says Stanzi Littlefield, an admin for the Portland, Maine, peninsula group.

Items are often used — “a wide variety of working DVDs, roughly 150 or so I'm trying not to put in the trash” — or have a small defect — “Cordless vacuum, given to me by a friend. It works but not well?” Sometimes the descriptions are funny — “The lucky recipient will also receive a plain white unscented votive with some dirt stuck to it because my cat kicked it around the floor a bit.”

Clark says newborn clothes, produce and furniture are regularly swapped among members. Littlefield says people who move to Portland frequently use Buy Nothing as a way to outfit their apartments for cheap, putting out a call for coffee tables, lamps and spare dishware.

Both women personally participate in Buy Nothing. Clark, who has chickens, says she’s “always giving away a dozen eggs here and there.” Littlefield recalls the time she got a $60 ceramic pot for her jade plant for free from a stranger.

“It was a great way for me to get something free and get it out of their yard,” she says.

How Buy Nothing becomes everything

In Lynwood, Washington, someone’s getting rid of five pedicure chairs. In Deltona, Florida, a children’s Spider-Man backpack. In Akron, Ohio, soy baby formula.

Any of those would be a hot score. But to Clark, it’s not the stuff that makes Buy Nothing so special — it’s the opportunity to form connections in a turbulent time.

Think about it. If you’re picking up a kids’ baseball glove from a neighbor, then you’re probably meeting another parent who has children around the same age and with the same interests as you do. Maybe you learn they own a cafe in town, so the next time you’re hankering for Starbucks you visit their small business instead.

Just like that, Buy Nothing has made a difference.

“The bottom line is a very real savings. Families and individuals are able to not only save but also have a little extra income, and we’re finding they’re putting that money back in the local economy,” Clark adds.

However, there is a delicate balance in the Buy Nothing groups. If you’re interested in getting involved, Littlefield says it’s crucial to find the correct group for your location. When you post to ask for an item, skip the sob story and focus on facts.

From there, maintain a degree of self-awareness of your role in the group. If you’re always taking and never giving, change that. Be generous.

Littlefield’s favorite interactions happen when somebody asks for something, and members rush to respond: “Yeah, you can have my microwave.” “I actually have an extra baby carrier.” “You need clothes for a child, size 14? We can clean out our closet.”

It’s both financial and feel-good.

“When someone had a need for it, they realized they didn't need it themselves,” Littlefield says. “That’s when the warm and fuzzies kick in.”

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