Create The Good Life - Simple and Slow Living by Design

The Relationship Economy

Today baskets of fresh veggies will arrive on our doorstep for our fellow farm subscribers to pick up. In exchange for being the drop–off location, we receive a hefty discount on our container of herbaceous goodies. Meanwhile our neighbor has brought over a plate of homemade cookies. She is getting on in years, and we put out her garbage cans and help with repairs from time to time. A friend brings over magazines she's finished reading, and we share some of the lemons from our garden. Later we will walk downtown for the best fish tacos money can buy.

Welcome to the relationship economy where barter, gifts, sharing, and money swirl through a lush web of connections. Here the quality of the human bond serves as the gold standard. Regular investments of time are essential, but the pay off is enriching materially and emotionally. It feels good to do business with people you care about.

A money–only economy flattens relationships. It doesn't matter who you are doing business with when you have money, and with online transactions there isn't even a who much of the time. Of course currency has a role to play because it gives us lots of options. As an abstraction of value it is highly versatile, transferable, and storable. But ultimately, money is cold. You can't hug it, spend the afternoon relaxing with it, live in it, or make a meal of it.

In contrast to currency, trading is as old as dirt. Inevitably it arose when people realized they had too much mammoth and they salivated over their neighbor's berry bounty. Trading does require negotiation involving both time and skill. But ultimately in a good exchange everyone comes out ahead. This is particularly true when you have an abundance of something which is of value to others. Got extra? Try trading. Look for ways to convert your plethora of stuff and skills into things that will keep you warm, happy, and well fed.

While we will never know what the very first gift was (pretty rocks? the fatty part of the mammoth?), the impulse to give runs deep. True gifts are rooted in a sense of abundance and are offered from of place of love and generosity. These qualities often enhance the value of the gift well beyond its material worth. (Our overflowing closets are a testament to how we treasure the emotions imbued in gifts, often more than the thing itself.) What differentiates gifts from other forms of exchange is that there is no set expectation of what the giver will receive in return. We give to give, not to receive, though gifting often creates a flow of mutual generosity. For more thoughts on the subject see Lewis Hyde's classic work The Gift (1983) and Charles Eisenstein's essay about the gift economy.

From a cup of sugar to computer files, there have always been many ways to share. Sharing is based on mutual trust and responsibility and, like trading, often requires time and skill to arrange. Ideally, sharing brings with it similar emotional benefits as well, including feelings of abundance and connection. There is a resurgent interest in sharing, undoubtedly fueled by the downturn in the money economy and the growing prevalence and ease of electronic communication. Our neighborhood has a simple e–group from which we have borrowed lawn chairs, shared advice and resources, been gifted tomato starts, and even found our current home. To further open your eyes to the world of sharing possibilities including cars, houses, and jobs, check out The Sharing Solution by Janelle Orsi & Emily Doskow.

Given the importance of the quality of connections between people and the time it requires to build these, the relationship economy is inherently a Slow economy. It calls upon our empathy, creativity, forethought, reflection, communication, collaboration and patience. But in return we receive acknowledgement, gratitude, joy, friendship, love, learning, a sense of abundance, and sometimes a hug. Consequently, you may find yourself consuming differently, possibly less as each exchange takes more time and is more fully satisfying. Our needs for companionship, entertainment, novelty, etc. which we sometimes meet through consuming may now be fulfilled through our connections with people as we negotiate, swap, and donate. There will always be a place for some type of currency—local or otherwise—in the economy, even a relationship economy. But while money makes possible certain vital transactions (like fish tacos!), trading, gifting and sharing are, well, priceless.


Take a look at your personal economy and note where and how you use trading, gifting, and sharing to meet your needs. What percentage of your time and needs are met in these ways?


See if you can shift one thing from the money economy to your relationship economy. For example instead of spending money on a present, give your time, your skill, or some thing you have in abundance. What changes in your thoughts, feelings, or attitude when you do this?

Thanks to Karen Preuss for sharing her photos for this essay. See more at

Beth and Eric

This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.

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