The Barter Babes Project
Scrilla, bones, dough, moola, scratch, clams, buckaroos: call it what you will, but money is money. From all the economy talk in the news to applying for school loans to standing in line at the grocery store, we spend a lot of time with money on our minds and our minds on money. It makes the world go round, yet finance is not an easy to navigate subject, with cryptic acronyms and confusing questions. What is an RRSP? A TFSA? How do you get a mortgage? What do you do if you have bad credit? What is the best way to save for school?
Finding the answers to these questions sometimes seems daunting and inaccessible. There is little education at school, and often lessons about money are left to family. Luckily, one Toronto woman has embarked on a mission to help demystify the baffling world of money. Shannon Simmons, a 26-year-old certified financial advisor, launched a grassroots initiative called The Barter Babes Project, designed to help women make sense of their dollars and cents. All for free.
After noticing a gap in access to financial information for her peers, young women who finished school but had amassed large amounts of debt, Simmons decided to do something about it. She noticed women were talking about money everywhere, all the time yet lacked the confidence and know-how to manage their personal finances. The financial guru quit her high-paying job at a wealth-management firm to offer her services to women who needed advice but might not have been able to afford her consultation fees.
“I was aware of the missing link,” says Simmons. “There was no teaching of finance in schools. Generation Y had gone through school without it and came out in the red.” While Gen Yers are increasingly technologically savvy, they are still financially illiterate. With university students across Canada facing rising tuition costs, the reality is more than half of graduating students relied on loans to help finance their studies with debt averages hovering around $20,000. This has real implications on students after they graduate, when they are looking for jobs and have to start paying back loans.
The premise of the project, which started last November, is simple. Simmons offers a financial consultation in exchange for barter from clients. The barters have varied from practical goods such as home-cooked meals and handmade hats and shirts to more adventurous items such as circus and hunting lessons. Clients contact Simmons via her website, they agree on the terms of barter, Simmons sends documents to the clients and they fill it out with their financial information including short and long-term goals. Then they meet for a session to ask questions and discuss concerns.
Marta Chudolinska, an artist and librarian, says she chose to participate as a “Barter Babe” because her financial situation had changed considerably in the past year. The 27-year-old went from making $10,000 a year to having a well-paid full-time job and wanted to make sure she was using this money wisely. “[I wanted] to pay off my student loans efficiently, to save and grow my savings through investment and properly take advantage of this opportunity I have.”
Another "Barter Babe," Carly Boyce, a 25-year-old community worker, says before the meeting with Simmons she had fears about money and gaps in her financial knowledge. While she says she still has some fears, she found her meeting with Simmons "a great way to get some personalized advice [and because] the advice was from someone not affiliated with a bank or someone up to profit from my hypothetical investments, I felt secure in the knowledge that the advice I was getting wasn't coming from a place of self-interest."
Part of Simmons’ goal is to open up the dialogue regarding finances and make it less frightening. “Money is seen as a taboo subject. When times are good, it’s fine,” says Simmons, “but when there are bad financial times, it’s discussed behind closed doors… [And what it does] is make money scary. The more you don’t talk about it, the more people have weird relationships with it.” Money, like sex, if treated carelessly can lead to serious consequences, so it’s important to look at it realistically and plan. Unlike safe sex campaigns, there are no PSAs preventing debt. We are constantly bombarded with conflicting messages from media and society to consume and strive for the fabulous life despite the news being plagued with dire and menacing headlines about crashing economies. With so much pressure to constantly consume, the reality is many of us are not living within our means.
To reassess what is necessary is not an easy step. Simmons says that when she first quit her job, it was a shock because she was forced to re-evaluate what she needed versus what she wanted. She came from a place where she could afford all these things she wanted but, “when you can’t have everything at the drop of a dime, a swipe of a card, you start to access what you want and why you wanted it in the first place.” Simmons put herself on a $35 a week budget and “through bartering, it taught me to take a hard cold look at what I needed versus what I wanted. It made me think a lot about what makes me happy, what makes me tick.”
Aside from cutting down her expenses, Simmons says the project has been a learning journey for her as well. After meeting all kinds of talented and crafty people from all different walks of life, Simmons says she was overwhelmed with all the amazing barters she received. “I realized that if I were on a deserted island, I’d be eaten first because I don’t have any skills. I’d just count coconuts,” laughs Simmons. “What I’ve learned, walked away with towards the end of the project is that it’s nice to know we’re worth more than what’s in our bank account.”
Elizabeth Fraser, who works at an NGO and started the website, 52 Projects: A Year from Scratch, as her own experiment with self-sufficiency and a “quest for new ways of living.” The 25-year-old bartered an evening of D.I.Y. projects with Simmons and found the exchange to be easy-going and relatable. “The best part of the barter was Shannon put together these really great tools you can take with you [such as] spreadsheets where I can go back to and play around with…it was not a one-off. I feel like I have a tool I can take away with me and use for a longer-term period.”
For those looking to rein their expenses in, Simmons offers some simple advice: Live within your means. This will likely mean having to make some trade-offs. If you have student loans to pay off, living on your own is probably not a feasible alternative. “I advise people to lay out what your options are,” says Simmons. She suggests only using 50 per cent of your paycheque on rent, living expenses and other fixed costs and the other 50 per cent on spending and saving. That number may seem impossible, but with the right choices, it is possible. “Those quality of life assessments [whether it’s living alone or owning a car or having a fabulous wardrobe] are the most difficult to give up. It’s the most important rule to live by, but it’s also the hardest. For those about to embark on school, she advises people to respect the amount of debt they’ll be taking on. “Try to spend, not save, as little as possible. Make sure you’re conscious of what you’re spending.”
The number one rule in savings is to save like it’s a bill. Pick an amount each month and put it away. Saving what is leftover at the end of the month is not realistic because there’s never anything left at the end of the month if you don’t budget it in. Decide on an amount, but don’t forget to budget in having a life as well. There is so much guilt surrounding spending money, that it makes the problem worse. Spending money isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can have a life too so long as you make a plan. You don’t want to constantly feel deprived. “It’s like living on an all-lettuce diet,” says Simmons. “Eventually you’ll see pizza and binge.”
Simmons is nearing the end of her year-long project, having surpassed her goal of helping 300 women. She is hoping to continue with Barter Babes 2.0, with a book in the works and plans to do talks and reach younger audiences as well as opening up the project to men. For those not in Toronto, Simmons offers her services over Skype.
One of the biggest rewards Simmons has encountered from the Barter Babes Project is connecting a community of like-minded and interesting individuals. “The project really engaged people,” says Fraser, who first heard of Barter Babes through a friend. After her session with Simmons, she went home and talked about finances with her roommates. “It had a ripple effect that was substantial in taking ownership over finances. It was not a topic we talked about before.”
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