Friday, 6 February 2009

LETS barter it! An account of a cashless economy.

It may not be your typical setting for a bartering get-together but on Tuesday evening, a trendy town centre bar in Bury St Edmunds played host to what must be one of the oldest surviving LETS groups in the UK.

With cool music filling the softly lit room, the activities began under the watchful eye of the Mona Lisa, raising her enigmatic smile almost in approval of the goings-on.

A lively banter kept the atmosphere alive, with a group of folk who were as eclectic as the venue itself, ten people in total, including an IT professional, a lettings manager, a teaching assistant, a broadcasting producer, and a talented crafts tutor. Different backgrounds and a variety of motives drawn together through a shared belief in an alternative economy which is as old as the hills themselves - the idea of bartering skills and products.

When I blogged about the event as it was happening on Tuesday, I hadn't quite expected the level of interest and the questions that followed. I suppose after being a LETS member for around seven years, I now take it for granted, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to offer an insider's view of this little known activity and hopefully inspire others to join one of the 300 or so groups that are currently active around the UK.

Unsurprisingly the first hurdle is that LETS is not the most sexy sounding phenomenon to hit the streets, especially when you expand the term to its full description Local Exchange Trading System. For many, an early morning car boot sale in the rain offers far more appeal and for others a swish party provides much more glamour.

However, if you forget the name and focus on its function, a LETS group can provide far more benefits than any of the above. For one, you won't need the cash required by a car boot sale and as far as opportunities go, you'll find much more variety at a successful LETS event than at a swish party, where the only things you get to swap are clothes and accessories.

A LETS group allows almost anything to be swapped and members regularly experience the flow of fresh produce, plants, preserves , cakes and second-hand goods, right through to favours such as help with the garden, computer training, hair cuts and even holiday accommodation.

The practical operation is very simple. As a member, you earn points or credits every time you give something away and then you spend your credits when someone does you a favour. This means that you don't have to do a direct swap with one particular person, which is the clever bit, offering members the flexibility that is needed for the system to work and the freedom to enjoy whatever opportunities come their way, with the only obligation to make a contribution on some other occasion in the near future.

At first glance, it might seem that the chance to save money is what attracts people to the LETS economy.

However, there are many other reasons that motivate people to join. For some it offers a chance to find new friendships and to learn new skills, whether they want to be better at gardening, become more adventurous with their cooking or study a new language. For others it is the search for sustainability within the community, for example offering knowledge and skills in repairing items, thus preventing junk heading towards landfill. So the benefits and opportunities are almost endless and are only limited by the talents of the members themselves.

A personal experience.

I joined my first LETS group seven years ago, when I found myself home alone with my new baby, then in Hemel Hempstead, a long way away from my social circle in London where I spent much of my career in the music copyright sector. As an information professional I felt I had nothing practical to offer but very soon I found myself training older members in how to use email to keep in touch with their families and offering marketing advice to small businesses. In return my family benefited from a regular supply of fresh eggs and garden produce as well as jams, pickles and delicious cakes.

The scheme was so beneficial that when we moved to Bury St Edmunds, I became involved in relaunching the Bury LETS scheme, a formerly active group, which had fallen into early retirement. The community was soon reinvigorated and my reward was a set of fabulous new friends, who were able to help develop my gardening knowledge and assist with childcare. For people like me who are far removed from their families, a support system such as this can be crucial.

Of course a system like this does need a lot of organisation, especially in managing members' accounts, but it's not a huge task for members with book-keeping skills and can even offer practical experience for people who are looking for work in this area. Other essential functions include events management, newsletter development and marketing activities, all of which enable members to earn credits or points whenever they help out.

And as good old Bruce Forsyth used to say....

"What do points make?"

Prizes of course!

So, after earning my credits through various writing projects, running occasional workshops, repairing jewellery and offering up a whole range of pre-loved items, I am now able to enjoy a seasonal supply of fresh produce, home-made cards, books, DVDs and clothes, all in excellent condition and without the surplus packaging. Given that Bury LETS is such a small group, this is a truly remarkable outcome and a fabulous foundation for sustainable living.

Relevance to 21st Century Society

LETS schemes are not particularly new. With a history that stretches back to the 1980s, research has shown that these grassroots systems have been most successful at times of economic difficulty. Through the creation of extended communities and enabling the sharing of knowledge, where the only cost is time, LETS schemes offer people a valuable lifeline at such times of need.

Whether it's an opportunity to support frugal living, the desire to feel valued or a chance to learn new skills, LETS schemes have a positive role to play in a current society that is being bruised by job losses and and knocked by a depressed economy.

But yet we have to be realistic, Earning credits through a LETS scheme will never pay the bills, the mortgage or the council tax. Well not yet. But you never know what's on the horizon. Just take a look at this article on Times Online for a glimpse of what can be achieved: Money is dead - long live bartering.

Now that's left me wondering what I could barter to get the Mona Lisa. If it's the fake one in the photo above, a pair of old boots should do it! And if it's the original, perhaps I'd have to offer my soul! Now I know I have ambition, but not even I could stretch to that.

For more information visit:

Bury LETS:
SoBar: The place where we meet - 1st Tuesday each month

This post was written in reply to the queries from interested readers and as a contribution to the Buddy's group, launched by blogger Margaret at, to promote the sharing of knowledge in tackling the effects of local job losses. To see Margaret's contribution and how other bloggers are contributing positive stories, visit



Transition Housewife said...

Hi Mrs A,

A great article and useful buryLets website. I am inspired to see if anyone in my area is keen to set up a LETS scheme.

Gill - That British Woman said...

what a neat idea, I wonder if they do that in Canada.........I will have to check it out.

Fr. Peter Doodes said...

No, no Mrs. A, don't offer your soul, even the crowning work of Da Vinci is not worth that!

PS. Mind you if it is the original I can barter some 2 year old compost for it...

Katy said...

LETS is such a fabulous idea. I have had a leaflet for some time and should fill it in and send it off!

There was a little discussion about LETS on our Freecycle Cafe in Norfolk, and there was some concern that there was much more demand for labour intensive things like DIY, and much more supply of "soft" things like reflexology. But that was experienced some years ago. I would be interested to hear anyone's experiences with trading services as opposed to goods.

Tracey Smith said...

Barter and skill exchange WORK - all you have to do is drop your cynicism and give it a go....powerful things can happen as a result.

Rubbishly yours,

TS x


Hi TH - great to see you over here and thank you for following the blog. If you need help in setting up a LETS in your area, contact the LETSLINK group (link is in the blogpost), where a lady called Mary Fee will be able to help. There is also a booklet you can buy which explains how to set one up. Give us a shout if you need any help :-D

Hi Gill - yes I believe there are groups in Canada. Try this link:

It'd be great if you could find your local group :-D

Hi Peter - don't worry. My soul is safe...for the moment...I think :-D

Hi Katy - My experience with LETS is that there is a lot of demand for DIY kind of favours with limited supply. I think it may be because quite often more women tend to join than men. WE NEED MORE MEN! The best advice I can offer is for those who join to simply relax and not be too specific about the things that they need doing and focus on the talents that are available. A relaxed positive group is more likely to bring a wider range of skills....AND MEN! :-D

Yay Tracey - I think you've hit the nail on the head there. Society suffers from much cynicism, which it could do without. I believe in LETS and have a positive outlook enjoying opportunities rather than measuring expectations. Maybe that's why it works for me and others who share the same thinking. :-D

Andy said...

NATIONAL CLOTHES SWAPPING WEEK STARTS 20TH FEB!, the Internet’s biggest clothes swapping website has just announced the UK’s first ever National Clothes Swapping Week, which will coincide with London Fashion Week starting on 20th February 2009. Fashion fans everywhere will be urged to dig out their unwanted items and list them on for the busiest and most successful week of clothes swapping in history! The founders of hope to show people that you don’t have to travel to a fashion capital like London, Paris or Milan - or even spend a single penny - to be 100% on-trend. Happy swapping xxx


Hi Andy - Thank you so much for sharing that news. It sounds like the most amazing idea. I will do all I can to support it. Many thanks Karen :-D

Danda said...

How's little the world?
I read this post too late, as I usual do, but I want to make you know that some weeks ago my friend Cristella took me and my mate to a meeting of the local "Banca del tempo" (tr.: bank of the time), wich is the perfect Italian version of LET!
That evening was enthusiastic: it was such a beneficence dinner in which everyone brings meals prepared at home (here they call it "ligàza").
And Cristella explained to us how the club works. There is the same organization as regards skills and points...
Perhaps we will became soon members of it, so we can bring them our experiences and know wonderful people!
Funny, isn't it?
And... look at me in that occasion:

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