Updated on 12.03.09

Social Supply-Side Economics

Trent Hamm

Almost immediately after my article yesterday about the costs of preparing for additional children, Eileen wrote to me with a very worthwhile comment:

In that article you barely mentioned the value of family and friends who will give you lots of hand-me-downs and other items. Since you talk about the social value of things, I was surprised at this.

I agree wholeheartedly with Eileen that, if you have family and friends that have young children themselves, you might be in line for a lot of free used baby, toddler, and child items. For example, my mother’s best friend had a child about four years after I was born and my mother gave her best friend mountains of kid stuff to help out.

I like to call it “social supply-side economics.” To put it simply, you’re hoping that the things that others have might “trickle down” to you over time. This isn’t just about children’s items, it’s about everything from garden equipment to help putting a roof on your house. It’s about babysitting in a pinch and about giving you a ride when you have a flat tire.

The best way for you to make it happen in your own life is to maximize the chance for a trickle beforehand by beating down a path. You can do that by sharing things yourself. When you have items you no longer need (or are easily willing to share), share them. Each time you do, you prepare the path. When you have a free afternoon and a friend asks for help, offer that help. Each time you do, you prepare the path.

One problem with this avenue, though – and we faced it – is that it’s rarely a given that someone will have these items on hand and be ready to give them away when your child arrives. Among our friends and family, we had one sibling whose children were just a bit too much older than ours. They had decided to not have any more kids and had sold off most of their baby stuff before our first one arrived. We also had some other friends with children, but they were all expecting to have additional children down the line. Thus, we were pretty much on our own when it came to picking up the items we needed (and still need) for child care. Instead of waiting for hand-me-downs, we head out to thrift stores and other such places.

The lesson is simple: never rely on the social supply side. Plan assuming that you won’t get any help at all and then be grateful when something works out. Patience is really the key. There are few things in life that need to be done as quickly as we think they need to be done. Take your time with it, come up with plans on your own for accomplishing what you have in mind, then talk that plan over with friends. If someone has a better idea, great! If not,

Another problem with this is the “greed” factor. Don’t plan as though your friends and family will just hand over their stuff. They may be intending to keep it for their own future children. They may be intending to sell it to recoup some of their financial cost. They may have other people that they intend to give some of the items to. All of these are reasonable plans for the stuff they have – and you shouldn’t be insulted or offended (or have your plans destroyed) because they chose one of these alternate paths.

Again, the lesson is simple: don’t expect others to just hand over what they have. Greed never wins out.

The best way to get social supply-side economics working in your favor is to start out being the giver. Give your time to others. Give the things you don’t need to others. Give your contacts to others.

Yes, sometimes your generosity won’t be returned. On the other hand, not only will your generosity often be returned (sometimes with interest) by others, your reputation will do nothing but go up. People will see you in a more positive light because you give your time and talents to others without expecting anything in return. That positive reputation itself is a very powerful thing.

If you’re hoping for hand-me-downs later on, help out by babysitting now every once in a while – or find other ways to help out. Later on, when you have a child, your generosity will be returned in surprising ways.

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  1. Mighty@LettersTo.Us says:

    Can I mention how awkward it is when a friend asks for your baby clothes, knowing that you intend to have more than one child? I’m not talking about, “Can I borrow these things for a few months, and I will give them back sooner if you need them?” but “Can you ship your clothes cross-country, never to be seen again?” I just reply as nicely as possible, “We intend to have more than one child, so we’re going to keep them for now.”

    Along with supply side, it goes without saying that if you lend things out, don’t be shocked if you don’t get them back, or you don’t get them back in great condition. I settle this by lending things that I can live without or that are duplicates, but holding onto the things that are precious, like hand-knit sweaters and blankets.

    When my sister had her first child, she had a huge shower with 30 people. When I had mine four years later, it was smaller, with much smaller gifts. (Neither of us planned our showers or put together the guest list.) I think that my relatives knew that I would be using most of her gear. Or they don’t like me. :)

  2. Dan says:

    how is this not “mooching” off friends and family? we can’t go through life expecting everyone to “give” us stuff, especially when we are fully capable of getting it ourselves. not sure i like the tone in this post- i’d rather have seen it the other way around, like, “we intend to give away all our stuff”….not, “we expect to get stuff from people”….i don’t know, this one kind of rubbed me the wrong way.

    i’m not trying to be a critic, just don’t like to rely on anyone for things i can do myself…

  3. E says:

    Dan did you read the post? I got the exact opposite impression you did: generosity happens, but plan to be the giver rather than the receiver.

  4. momof4 says:

    The first time I read the tightwad gazette series one of the things that stood out was the phrase “mutual mooching relationship”, a term that the author used to describe a friendship where they could borrow things freely. I’ve been fortunate enough to establish a few of these relationships. With my own friends, I do keep the things that are precious to me ( sentimental), but the rest we just keep passing around and I’ve never not had the items I needed when I needed them. Of course my family with 4 children is one of the smaller ones in our social circle and we’re always trying to keep the amount of stuff we have at bay.

  5. Sue says:

    Freecycle.org is a great way to share the stuff for people whose friends don’t need it. And to find stuff that you might want, although sometimes you have to be quick to get it.

  6. Dan says:

    Maybe it’s just how the ‘intent’ part occurs. I can’t see developing relationships with people because, “I hope they have a lot of good stuff to give me”…..

    I know..I’m probably taking it too far…it’s just what it seems like to me.

    I can’t remember where I heard this, but I recall a suggestion to try to live in a neighborhood where you are probably the wealthiest person around. That way, you never develop envy, and you can become more of a giver…..

  7. Julie says:

    This also applies to things like setting up a first apartment. My boyfriend and I just moved in together a few months ago, and pretty much the only piece of furniture we bought was our bed. Almost everything else was hand-me-downs from family and friends. Some of it I inherited from my grandmother. My mom’s handyman donated his couch because he was upgrading. People vaguely connected to us that we’d never met (my boyfriend’s aunt’s friends) were moving in together and had duplicates of *everything,* so that’s how we got our cutlery, coffee maker, and a lot of our kitchen stuff.

    And, yes, we’ll probably pass on a few things when we decide it’s time to upgrade. We’re already going to have a “free stuff: please take” box at our housewarming. Wouldn’t you know it? After only two months of living together, we already have duplicates!

    Just to say that social supply-side economics can work for other areas than just planning for kids.

  8. Swap Savers says:

    I am the oldest in my family and did not expect any free or hand-me-downs when I had kids. I was so surprised to receive (and still receive 5 years later) an over abundance of toys, clothes and other baby/kid items from friends, neighbors and friends of friends (who I have never even met). I never asked for these things–people just offered. I think people can be very generous and also I think it is important to always accept their items or they may not offer anymore (you can always donate it to someone else or a charity if you don’t need it).

  9. Vanessa says:

    Another way that this works is in the vein of the borrowing friendships. Items that are pricey but used only a short time work well for this. There is a bassinet in my family that is used this way. It is actually a pram that my mother bought in England in 1978 when she had my brother. That pram has mostly been used as a bassinet since, as it is a bit unwieldy for for American stroller type use. But Many of my cousins, nieces and nephews and both my children have slept in it. It has even survived a flood (my husband had to replace the wooden frame). So no one in my family has ever had to buy one, but it is always there. So far, no two families have ever needed it at once, so it has worked out well.

  10. Kyle says:

    When our baby was born this August, I knew going into it that we wouldn’t have to buy anything for him. Too many grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends who would be too thrilled at the thought of the new baby. We had five baby showers, all planned and demanded by different groups of friends and family.

    Was it mooching or wrong that I knew this going in and didn’t budget any money for baby stuff? I don’t think so.

  11. kristine says:

    I had two children with my first husband. He had 13 siblings. Yes, 13! Ironically, I have one sibling, and it was my brother’s wife who kept us in kids clothes for the first 10 years- just happened that she lived nearby, and her kids were 2 and 3 years older. Perfect! But I felt guilty sometimes, as she was a spendthrift, and many of the clothes still had tags. I think sometimes she had in the back of her mind…if my kids don;t like it, Kristine’s kids will wear it. So true!

  12. Jules says:

    Good things come to good people–what can I say?

  13. Hope D says:

    My kids have lived off hand me downs and yard sale buys. My daughters have oodles of clothes. I’m still trying to manage all the clothes. I have 4 daughters. Keeping the clothes for the next is overflowing every storage area. I’m currently culling the clothes and giving away things we don’t “love”.
    My sons have not been as lucky. I have had to buy my sons more clothes. I have found boy clothes much less handed down.
    People, my self included, like to give things away to people who can use them. If I don’t need something but don’t know anyone who can use it, I give it to Salvation Army. A lot of charities now only want new. Remember Salvation Army also wants your stained clothes. They sell them for rag to manufactures for insulation and other products even paper money. Other charities might do this too.
    Our community has these red metal boxes that you can put clothes in. They had a website listed on the box. I looked them up. They are a commercial company, not a charity. They take your clothing and sell it to third world countries. I guess that is great for recycling but I prefer charities. There are charities that give the clothes away to third world countries. The red boxes are convenient though and the business or school who lets them have their box there gets paid.

  14. Esther Ziol says:

    This is why church groups are so wonderful. Our Sunday School class gave us a shower that supplied almost all we needed for the first six months.

  15. Tracy says:

    I agree with Sue. Freecycle.org is a wonderful resource. When my step-daughter had a baby last December, she didn’t have to buy much at all. Between her baby shower that I co-hosted with her mother, Freecycle and yard sales that I frequent, she had almost everything she needed for the first year, other than diapers. I am always on the lookout for things for my friends and family that I know they need. I guess it’s the thrill of the hunt…..kwim?

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