Best things in life are free challenge: No free lunch?

I’ve been reading your comments this week and those of other people who follow the blog via Twitter, and I’ve found them very thought-provoking. Thanks for taking the time to stop by and leave them. I’m really impressed by how many of you have given away household items or furnished your home with them and spent time remodelling them. Even with my limited crafty skills, I think I could learn a trick or two.

Nothing is ever really free, some point out. There will always be a cost involved. If we go to pick up an item someone is giving away, like a piece of furniture, then there’s the cost of petrol and running the van or car. We can go to our local amenities, such as the library, which appear to be free but in reality we’ve already paid for them via our council tax. Perhaps we could also add to this that somebody may help us out, but in the end they just want something in return.

This is true in many ways. On the face of it, there are few things in life that are genuinely free. After all, we live in a consumer society. Our economy is actually based on shopping – buying and selling goods and services. OK, maybe I’m naive, but I still want to believe that some people genuinely want to give away their belongings, their time or their skills. And not because they are looking to gain from it, but simply because they want to help another person, reduce their impact on the environment by recycling unwanted goods, or just because it’s fun and rewarding to do so.

Continuing my search this week for free items, I’ve been looking into the trend of skill swapping which is proving popular during the economic downturn. Say you want to get your car fixed – instead of paying for it, you find a mechanic who is prepared to do the work in exchange for you teaching his son football, for example. If you want to improve your French but don’t want to pay for lessons, you could hook up with a French-speaker who wants to polish their English and you help each other out. DJ, who is learning Spanish, was looking into doing this recently. There are a number of websites that offer skill-swapping opportunities, including,, Gumtree and LETS. Hearing about it, I’m really intrigued and keen to try skill-swapping out for myself. I’m just wondering if I have any skills worth swapping! Let me know if you have tried this out for yourself and how successful it proved. I recall Mark Boyle, who runs and spent last year trying to live without money, telling me that skill-swapping relies to a certain extent on trust. You have to trust that the person you’re swapping with will keep their end of the bargain. But surprisingly he said that while there were the occasional bad apples, generally very few people abused that trust.

Maybe the attitude that ‘nothing in life is free’ is holding us back. We sometimes assume that if something is given away it must be second rate. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, goes the saying. Someone is only giving you something for nothing because the goods are faulty or ultimately they want something in return. In my previous life this was often true. Companies would take me out for dinner in the hope that I would write (favourably) about them in the magazine I worked for. Once, when I wrote (unfavourably) about a company, they still insisted on taking me out and, over an expensive meal, sternly berated me for what I had written. I felt duty bound to go to hear their side of the story. They didn’t change my views on them but they did give me, and probably themselves, indigestion.

It’s healthy to be sceptical (why is that clapped-out car being given away free, I wonder?) but I think we should also be open to other possibilities. My neighbour, who is in her eighties, has taught me that. Once, when she looked after our chickens for a weekend, I brought her a present back to say thank you. I thought she would be pleased but actually she was offended that I had bought her something. She said that neighbours should support one other without expecting anything in return apart from reciprocal support when they needed it. Thinking about it now, I believe she had a point.

Can we escape the consumer society or is there really no such thing as a free lunch? Have you tried skill-swapping? If so, how successful was it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments so please leave a message and let me know.

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8 Responses to Best things in life are free challenge: No free lunch?

  1. Christine says:

    You need to be able to trust the person that you are swapping with to be able to do the job you want of course.

  2. Bill says:

    Hi there Christine, mon ami, mon amour!Hope you are fit, long time no see. I never trust a civil servant, not even a civil service pensioner, once a prat, always a prat. They could be counting paper clips today, & prime minister tommorrow.

  3. Christine says:

    With skill swaps there are times when it takes trade from local small businesses – like the mechanic who mends your car takes business from a local garage and a swap for doing your garden takes trade from a local jobbing gardener. A small business can close and everyone goes on the dole if there is too much skill swapping.

  4. Bill says:

    Christne, mon ami!Many of these small local businesses are just clueless chancers, some are just cold blooded rip-off merchants. Some have no more skill, compassion or conscience than a standard civil servant. Those who do have what it takes oft co-operate & assist with local charities fers mutual benefit.

  5. Kerri says:

    Its not so much skill swapping but we often take turns in baking cakes to bring into the office, or if I cook a soup/chilli/stew I will often take some to work for friends. With regard to skill swapping per-se, isn\’t this just a modern twist on the tradition of community/neighbourly support?

  6. Bill says:

    I agree with you, Kerri, 110%.Sadly the old Bulldog Spirit is so thin on the ground today, but that stew sounds good. Long time since I met a good old fashioned home-made stew. There is a sweet young deaf girl brings home-made cakes into the local Deaf Club every week, extremely enjoyable, although I do not by such sweet things from shops, as they are normally full of E-garbage, & taste even worse. Hers are packed with pride, & we can taste it!

  7. piper says:

    Kerri -The stew sounds great! I think you\’re right. It is a modern spin on helping our your neighbours. I can\’t see skill-swapping becoming so prevalent that it would threaten local businesses. After all, the businesses that are swapping skills are getting something they need in return anyway.

  8. vivien says:

    Many towns now have a scheme similar to the one i use,FREECYCLE,where you can post WANTED or OFFERED stuff.all free!being a pensioner this local site has helped me wonderfully,i ave got things i couldnot buy,food processor,bookcaseprinter scanner and lots more.Brilliant!!!

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