A growing movement of Torontonians barter for dinner, a haircut, a night at a hotel, you name it. They aren’t necessarily poor—they’re rebelling against the uncertainties of a cash economy
In 2010, Shannon Lee Simmons had it easy. Though the economy was two years into its recessionary lurch, she had a secure job at Phillips, Hager and North, a boutique Bay Street investment firm. She was 25 years old and earning $55,000 a year, plus bonuses. She had no debt, no kids, and enough disposable income to jet off to Europe with her boyfriend and pay her credit card bills on time. Simmons is driven and effervescent, and has the charming tendency to slip into club-kid slang. Speaking of her time back then, she says: “I was ballin’.”
Yet after three years with the firm, she was dissatisfied. She was spending all her time advising millionaires when she wanted to work with average Torontonians, especially women. She couldn’t help noticing that most of her female friends were broke, confused and floundering. Online, her social media feeds were filled with panicky talk of recession budgets and empty wallets. There was one problem: those women couldn’t afford to pay her, and she certainly couldn’t afford to work for free. “I really wanted to do it,” she says, “but I couldn’t figure out a business model.”
Her answer came, finally, in an unlikely place: at a bar on Robson Street in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics. It was close to midnight, and she was waiting in line for a drink. All around her, people were partying—except for the two women in front of her, who were dissecting the differences between tax-free savings accounts and RRSPs. Simmons barged in to their conversation. “What do you want to know about TFSAs?” she asked. “What’s your goal?” She pulled the two aside and, for 20 minutes, gave an impromptu finance session. As a gesture of thanks, the two women bought Simmons and her group a round of beer. “I can’t afford financial advice,” one of them told Simmons, “but at least I can give everybody here a beer.” Then, Simmons felt like a cartoon megawatt bulb appeared over her head. It is all you can do, she thought. It is all you can do. There, in the middle of the crowded bar, she blurted, “Oh my god! I’m bringing barter back!”
Within the week, Simmons gave notice to her employer. By then, she’d been pining to leave for eight months and had diligently saved for the occasion. Her plan now was to barter her financial services with other women for one year. That would be enough time, she figured, to get the altruism out of her system, but not so much that she’d go broke. She would use $10,000 in savings to pay her cellphone bill and to parcel out $35 in emergency spending each week if and when bartering fell through on the basic necessities. That money would also help pay for most of the rent at the Dovercourt and Queen apartment she shared with her boyfriend, Matt, who was in the midst of changing careers. Everything else—food, clothing, haircuts, fitness, entertainment and transportation around the city—she would acquire through barter. Simmons figured she’d need to barter with 300 women to make it work. She gave the project a catchy name, Barter Babes, and started organizing a launch party.
The first 23 Barter Babes to join were friends and former PH&N co-workers who wanted to support Simmons. They mostly traded items and services to help out with the launch party: a lot of food, a press release, coat racks, silent auction items, courier services and social media consulting. Barter Babe No. 24, Grace Poon, was the first person to sign up for the project with whom Simmons had no prior connection. In exchange for Simmons’s financial advice, Poon provided graphic designs for an investment presentation (which Simmons still uses today). She remembers being excited, but also nervous: it was the first trade she’d made with someone who didn’t feel obligated to give her unconditional support. She needn’t have worried.
While she didn’t know it at the time, Simmons was on the cusp of a new wave of alternative financial thinking. Having lost faith in the conventional economic system, people all over the city had quite simply started opting out.
During economic downturns, when there is a keenly felt shortage of jobs and cash, people have historically adopted barter systems. The world’s most established bartering-style system is Switzerland’s wir: the German word for “we” as well as the abbreviation of Wirtschaftsring, which translates loosely to “economic circle.” In 1934, the economy in Switzerland had tanked—as it had in much of the world. Two businessmen who were facing bankruptcy, Paul Enz and Werner Zimmermann, gathered 15 of their associates in Zurich and hashed out a solution: a mutual credit system.