Get free stuff, make friends through Buy Nothing groups
Michelle Bajada was at Target last year looking at a 9-by-11-foot rug that she thought would be perfect for her kids to play on in their Floral Park living room.
But at $200 she felt it was too expensive so she walked away and forgot about it for a while. The following week, she noticed on her Facebook feed someone was giving away a shaggy white rug in the exact size that she had been eyeing.
So Bajada hopped into her SUV, drove to the owner’s house five minutes away and came home with a new rug.
“I really was just so grateful,” said Bajada, who works as a pre-K teacher in Manhattan. She later sent flowers as a token of appreciation.
“She never had to do that,” said Robyn Rizzi of Bellerose, the rug’s previous owner. “She got it off our hands, it was taking up a ridiculous amount of room in our basement.”
Bajada and Rizzi didn’t just randomly find each other on Facebook. Like hundreds of others on Long Island, they’re participants in the Buy Nothing Project, a worldwide network of people giving away goods and services for free to their neighbors connected through Facebook.
There are just over 3,100 Buy Nothing groups across the world, with a presence in all 50 states and 15 different countries, according to its website.
People in these Facebook groups post things they’re giving away for free or request an item they’re searching for, all under the mission of creating connections with neighbors.
In Michigan there are nearly 70 groups and about 18,000 members, said Heather Jean MacGraine of Ypsilanti, who volunteers as an administrator for the region, mentors local administrators and helps keep membership organized.
Several Michigan cities, including Berkley, Grand Rapids and Ypsilanti, have more than one group. MacGraine said this is because if a Buy Nothing Project Facebook group gets too big, they’ll create another, which she calls “sprouting.”
“It’s a gift economy. Everything is free and our focus is on building connections with our neighbors,” she said. “I call it ‘diverting waste streams’ — keeping things out of landfills, reusing things more than we would ourselves, and just trying to save the planet one friend at a time.”
MacGraine, who often gifts used vinegar bottles to neighbors who use them for food storage, growing seeds or for making children’s toys, said she once saw someone gift an older car in one of the groups she helps manage.
Besides not offering anything in exchange (no trading, no swaps, no strings attached), the Buy Nothing Project aims to connect people personally to a point where the group isn’t needed.
“Person to person connections are really our goal,” she said, adding that if two people enjoy dealing with each other — maybe they have a child who is a size up in clothes — they can offer items directly. “If we do that then we will have created this whole culture where people, instead of giving things to a thrift store, where people have to pay for it, we’re gifting. ‘Hey, I’m done with this, you can use it, please have it.’”
MacGraine said it’s also not just about used household and children’s items, but also time, talents and services.
“New York is one of the most expensive places to live and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” said Andrew Burke, 36, who is a member of a group in Levittown. He’s gotten things like board games for family nights such as Sorry, Monopoly Jr., and Life. He’s also got a mallet, a hammer and a few handsaws. He’s given away a lot of baby things like a playpen and toys that his 5-year-old son doesn’t use anymore.
“It’s all about how do we make this work,” said Burke, who works as a theater teacher at a public junior high school in Queens and upcycles items for extra cash. He moved to Levittown with his wife and son two years ago and joined the group as a way to get involved in the community.
There are 125 groups in New York, with five on Long Island. In addition to Floral Park/New Hyde Park and Levittown, there are also groups in Great Neck, Hicksville, and Selden, according to the site. The Floral Park/New Hyde Park group is the largest on the Island with 354 members.
The rug was one of the first things Rizzi, 37, posted in the Buy Nothing group for Floral Park/New Hyde Park. It was less than two years old and hardly used after she decided to add carpet in her bedroom. She could have sold it, but she said it would have taken too much effort.
“I just knew the amount of people I had to deal with,” she said. “People would flake on me. The thought of it was just so exhausting.”
“Time to me is more valuable than money,” said Rizzi, who works in entertainment marketing. “It’s nice to see someone locally put it to good use and frankly it’s less effort.”
Bajada has since also gotten some cardigans and a wicker trunk from Rizzi, and has offered to baby-sit Rizzi’s 3-year-old son if she ever needed it. They plan on getting together for dinner one day.
Bajada, 40, estimates she saved at least $500 by getting items through the group for free.
She’s also given away items such as books, DVDs, storage bins and toys that her 7-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son outgrew.
When Levittown resident Jessica Nofi heard about Buy Nothing, there wasn’t a group in her area; so three years ago she decided to start one.
The group now has more than 220 members. Nofi, 34, describes the Buy Nothing Project as the “big corporation, and we’re just franchising it.”
Nofi first heard about it from her sister in Northern Connecticut, whose neighborhood has an active Buy Nothing community.
The process to start the group took a couple of months, she said. She had to submit a request to create a new group via a form on their site and then once approved, go through a free seven-day online training course conducted by volunteers from the Buy Nothing training and development teams.
“I can’t imagine how many requests they get,” Nofi said.
The main duties for an administrator include monitoring posts, reviewing comments and approving requests from new members. The role is entirely voluntary.
“The biggest rule of the Buy Nothing group is there really shouldn’t be any money spoken about or exchanged,” Nofi said.
Nofi says the time commitment has been “really minimal” and she hasn’t had any difficulty balancing it with her day job as a teaching assistant at a preschool for disabled children.
Anything and everything, as long as it’s legal, is allowed to be exchanged in the group. Typical posts include baby items, clothes, books, sporting equipment, furniture, decorations.
The Buy Nothing Project was started in July 2013 by two friends, Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller, who wanted to create an experimental hyperlocal gift economy. The first group started in Bainbridge, Wash.
Richard Hayes, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at Hofstra University who studies the sharing economy, says groups like these can help build a sense of community.
While Hayes doesn’t think these free exchange groups will “radically change consumer consumption” in the global marketplace, he thinks “at its intended local level, this could be an important social innovation,” he said.
Hayes does have concerns about diversity in these groups. “In communities that are not very diverse organically, often the market is a place where you can meet different people. A hyperlocal market has the potential to only reinforce the lack of diversity in a given community,” he said.
Participants of the Buy Nothing groups cite not just financial and social benefits, but environmental ones as well.
“I see people constantly throwing things out that should be recycled. Any effort to keep stuff out of the dump or the garbage is a win,” Nofi said. “At some point, we’re going to run out of room, especially on Long Island.”
“There’s something that feels wrong when you go to throw something out and it’s not done yet,” Burke said. “It doesn’t sit right with me to chuck something in the trash that someone else can use and may actually have a legit need for.”
Bajada, Burke and Rizzi said they’ve never had a negative experience with a Buy Nothing meetup.
The Nassau and Suffolk Consumer Affairs offices said they were not made aware of any complaints or scams relating to the Buy Nothing Project.
“There’s no money being exchanged. There’s more calmness about it,” said Nofi about meeting strangers.
“It’s a built-in trust factor. We’re all local. The chances of running into them again are pretty high. You don’t put (negativity) into your own neighborhood,” Burke said.
Detroit News writer Melody Baetens contributed.