Just help yourself
Stories have been passed down from generation to generation about how our elders survived during the Great Depression. Usually, the tales involved resourcefulness, industriousness, cooperation and determination. Families shared houses; clothes were passed on to younger children; and friends traded goods and services. Some of those strategies are being successfully used today. There are organizations in Ventura County that can help you get what you need without cash or at an enormous discount. And all of these groups are open to the public without any pre-qualification or income requirements.

Whether you decide to barter, join a free giveaway group, participate in peer-to-peer lending or purchase highly discounted groceries, you can save your cash for other necessities. A little bit of research and creativity can now fill the gap when money is scarce. Some people participate in these programs because they believe in the greater good that can come from reducing trash that goes into the landfills or just want to save some money on the food bill. Others have chosen to be investors who can decide who gets the loan. It is a different way of thinking, and it is catching fire.

Everybody eats
A new nonprofit group is making a big splash in Ventura County. It is called the Treasure Box, and the group provides high quality groceries once a month from brand-name manufacturers for a nominal fee. In its very first month here, co-founder Marianne Richards said, they had 900 orders for food.

The program is an offshoot of Good Source Solutions in Carlsbad, Calif., a provider of feeding programs for the government, schools and food banks. The Treasure Box was started just two years ago. Richards, who worked at Good Source, envisioned a way to bring the company’s discounted groceries directly to the public as she juggled to pay her own bills.

“What has given me a heart for this program, is I know that I’m struggling,” Richards said, “and I have an education, I have family, I have resources. What about people who have none of that?”

Richards emphasized that the focus of Treasure Box is on community cooperation as much as it is on helping people find affordable and nutritious meals. Community groups provide the location for distribution and collect the money.

Treasure Box delivers the frozen food to that distribution point once a month.

“I felt like it was a wonderful way to have the communities work collaboratively — different organizations, faith-based, non-faith-based, community action, county agencies, all working toward the same goal,” Richards said.

“This is something that our country was founded on.”

2The way Treasure Box works is through its website at www.thetreasurebox.org. Instructions and menus that change every month are posted. You can purchase food from three different types of menus, each for $30. For that price, you will get 21-25 pounds of groceries that are worth $65-$100. You can purchase as many boxes as you want. One type of box has groceries that include a variety of frozen meats, vegetables, side dishes and desserts, which will feed a family of four for a week or one person for nearly a month. Or you can buy 10 pre-made frozen meals that are low cholesterol, low fat and low sodium. Finally, you can buy just a variety of frozen meats that can be anything from chicken to steak to hot dogs. And all of the boxes come with recipes.

Of course, some people save money on groceries by clipping coupons and shopping sales at different stores. “But most people can’t do that, they don’t have the time during the week,” Richards said. “Even when you save money, how much is it really worth if you have to spend four hours a week doing it?”

Richards said the community groups are the experts on their own local needs. “These groups are trying to help people survive and be self-sufficient,” she said. “If they save money on food, they have that money to pay the rent. Our tag line is ‘Building communities one box at a time.’ ”

Let’s trade lunches
Everyone remembers the elaborate negotiations that graced each lunch table at school. You might remember that a bologna sandwich was worth a lot less than fried chicken, that potato chips were about equal to a small dessert and that an apple was nearly worthless for trading purposes.

That is exactly the idea behind modern barter clubs, where goods and services are assigned an agreed-upon value and can be swapped out for other goods and services. It usually is more sophisticated than one person trading with another person. Barter clubs use a third party as a broker and assign value in some sort of scrip that can buy other things from the club. In this way, the club can cover a large area and with a wide variety of goods and services.

A club called I’ll Trade You in Newbury Park covers Ventura County, Santa Barbara County, Santa Clarita and the West San Fernando Valley. It is run by Miriam Allois and Juliet Hogue, who both take an active role in helping members to accurately place a value on what they contribute and to get the goods or services they want. This is unlike many other barter clubs that often just provide a list of what is available and leave it up to the members to connect with each other. This club also has businesses as clients.

The system this club uses is called ITEX, which is a publicly traded company. Allois said the barter services can sustain a small business through lean times and help it avoid layoffs. “Trading through ITEX helps our members attract new customers, generate new sales, increase cash flow and improve their bottom line,” she said. “Through the ITEX network, business owners bank their trade dollars by selling their goods and services, and can then turn around and spend their trade dollars with any member they choose. The primary benefit is that the dentist that needs printing services can trade his dental service without having to go out and find a printer who needs his services.”

Allois and Hogue have been in this business for 10 years and they know how to make the barter system easier for their clients to navigate. “We strive to assist our clients in eliminating as many cash costs as possible by learning about their individual goals and needs,” Allois said. “I really can’t think of any disadvantages. For many of our clients, it has become an economic lifesaver.”

However, if you think bartering will be a way to avoid paying taxes, Allois said, “All trades (sales) are taxable. If you trade with a barter exchange, you will receive a 1099B tax form for sales. If the IRS finds out that you are not claiming sales as revenue, you will be in trouble.”

For more information on I’ll Trade You, call (866) 404-2929.

Bank-free borrowing
Just before the economic meltdown hit the nation’s financial institutions, making consumer loans a relic of the past, an entrepreneur named Renaud Laplanche started a new company, Lending Club (www.lendingclub.com). In 2007, he put together a team of financial specialists and launched a brand new concept in lending, peer-to-peer loans.

3Essentially, Lending Club is an online service where individuals apply for relatively modest loans of less than $25,000.

Their credit histories are assessed, they provide the reasons for wanting a loan and why they can be counted on to repay the loan within three years.

On the other side are the investors. Individuals can research the many levels of applicants and their credit-worthiness and choose the person with whom they feel comfortable making an investment. Lending Club participates in the borrower evaluation, but it is up to the investor to decide where the money will go.

Lending Club has facilitated more than $120 million in loans so far, with more than $10 million in loans made just this past May. Investors have reaped nearly $8.5 million in interest since the club began. Transparency is important to Lending Club, and it encourages potential investors to download the entire loan database for research and study.

King Lee of Simi Valley is a relatively new investor. He tested the waters with an initial investment of $1,000. The process went well, and he now has increased his investment.

Lee said he researched Lending Club and liked what he saw. “I haven’t seen any defaults yet,” he said. “I have more control over my money because I can look at a lot of factors, including their occupation. If I invest in a mutual fund or stock, I don’t have control.”

The personal aspect of this type of investing appealed to Lee. “I look for someone investing in something meaningful,” he said. “For example, a home improvement loan is something good. I figure this guy is going to be living in it and won’t be moving around. Some of these people, they want to have their own business so I am making their dream come true, actually. I can see that they really want to be a success. I want to see that. It is a new concept and I think it will be very successful.”

Loves doing the dirty work
Hannah Attwood of Ojai is just one of those people who needed a little bit of seed money to open her own small business. Attwood said she needed $6,000 and had spent six months researching and writing a business plan.

“These days, most of us are little more than a combination of loan histories, credit scores and debt-to-income ratios,” Attwood said. “Peer-to-peer lending does give us some control. It gives us the chance to pose the question to a large audience, person to person, ‘Do you believe in my idea, my vision, like I do?’

“Essentially, the banks all seemed to have the same problems with my loan application,” she said. “I’m a stay-at-home mother who has been out of the workforce for five years, we are a one income family paying off a mortgage and a car loan, and my loan was too small. A friend had heard about the Lending Club on the Suze Orman Show. So I posted my loan application, and within seven days it was fully funded and two days after that the money was in my bank account.”

Attwood said she and her husband had decided that she should stay home with their three children. “It has always been my dream to run a family business so that I could have the flexibility to raise my children without the financial strain of one income.”

And just what is the nature of Atwood’s new business? “I am passionate about cloth diapering!” she said. Attwood is concerned about the burden that disposable diapers place on landfills and the damage they can do to the environment.
“Since the 1980s, disposable diapers have become the rule rather than the exception, and I hope that other parents are beginning to open their minds to the cloth alternative,” Attwood said. “I know there are enough parents out there that feel the way I do about our children and the world we are leaving to them.”

Attwood realized that cloth diaper services had become nearly extinct. “Most people today don’t remember what a diaper service is or what it does,” she said. “I am resurrecting a business that in most areas of the country has all but disappeared.”

Attwood was not overstating her enthusiasm for the business. “Any successful business person will tell you the key to success is to do what you know,” she said. “Well, I know diapers. I love cloth diapers and I especially love the little people who wear them. I love being a mother; I believe in doing what we can to conserve; I believe in personal service; I believe in supporting local business; I believe in giving people choices and not being complacent. I know that Adore Diaper Service doesn’t just suit my personality, it is my personality.”

Swap junk and save the planet

Imagine a stack of garbage trucks five times the height of Mt. Everest. That’s how much garbage was kept out of landfills just last year by an organization called Free Cycle. Each day, the group recycles 500 tons of stuff that otherwise would have been headed to the world’s landfills.

Free Cycle, which is currently in 85 countries, began in Tucson, Ariz., in 2003. The grassroots group is based on the concept that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. It is, by necessity, very local, and membership is free.

The idea is for members to post online some item that they no longer want and prefer to give away. Other members see the post and, if they want the item, they respond directly to the owner. The owner decides who will get it, contacts the other member and makes arrangements for pickup. Items can also be earmarked for donating to charities. Or if you are looking for something specific, you can post a note about that, too.

The main rule of the group is that everything posted must be free, legal and appropriate for all ages. After that, if you have any problems with connecting other members, there is a local group leader who can help iron out the issues.

The mission statement says, “To build a worldwide gifting movement that reduces waste, saves precious resources, and eases the burden on our landfills while enabling our members to benefit from the strength of a larger community.”

One caveat: Be careful and use common sense. Some people choose to leave their donations outside their doors for pickup, but others prefer a public setting. No problems have been reported but members should use caution if they are giving out their home addresses.

For more information or to find your local group, go to www.freecycle.org.

The organizations listed above will not solve the world’s problems or make anyone rich. But they can make a real difference in the environment while helping people survive difficult economic times. It is about people directly helping other people without relying on government or massive organizations. The groups are open to anyone who chooses to participate. You just need to widen your idea of what is possible.