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The American Dream is a phenomenon of the 21st century which has caught the imagination of people across the world. And while the human rights and freedoms associated with the American Dream are worthy and attainable, the vision of a house and two-car garage with all the requisite “stuff” is unattainable as a world standard. Even in urban environments, the level of consumerism we’ve become used to is not achievable the world over.

With 5% of the world’s population consuming 30% of the world’s resources, we would need several more planet Earths to enable everyone to enjoy the material standards of North Americans.

As a boomer child of the 50’s and 60’s, I could see how the appeal of new consumer goods was infectious. TV’s were new and exciting, electric appliances became available to reduce the domestic workload for young parents, new cars adorned the driveways along the block, and middle-class parents worked hard to bring modern conveniences to their families. It may have been my imagination, but there seemed to be an unspoken competition among neighbors to acquire the newest and best of consumer goods.

Sharing was not part of the lifestyle. With 50 houses on the street, there were 50 lawn mowers, 50 hedge trimmers, 50 extension ladders, and so forth. I don’t recall my father ever borrowing anything from a neighbor. He was too proud, and borrowing things was frowned upon. But today, with the increased needs of a growing population and the pressure this puts on the environment, perhaps it’s time to revisit the idea of sharing. And in times of economic distress, the concept of sharing has added appeal.

Having lived in a remote community since 1980, I have been inspired by the sharing between community members that goes along with the lifestyle.

Having lived in a remote community since 1980, I have been inspired by the sharing between community members that goes along with the lifestyle. We all know who has a pressure washer or a tile cutter, or where we can borrow a chimney brush, a grain mill, a juicer or a large turkey roaster. We know which neighbor has a fencing plier, a post-hole digger, a portable water pump or extension ladder. When doing building projects, I take my boards to a friend’s shop to use the table saw and planer. From cake pans to caulking guns, things have a way of migrating through the neighborhood and settling where needed. And with most people struggling to make a dollar, anything that can be borrowed saves money and reduces the duplication of goods in the community.

But sharing can go wrong. When the ‘give and take’ between community members becomes too casual or taken for granted, misunderstandings can arise which discourage sharing among neighbors. Over the years we’ve come to realize that there are a few simple practices that are indispensable to the process of borrowing and lending within a community. Here below are some simple rules which we’ve learned from experience, and which will hopefully spare you the pitfalls that can come when sharing with others.

The 8 Simple Rules of Sharing

1. Balance the ‘take’ with the ‘give’

Ideally, everyone in a community has something to contribute to the pool of goods available to share. But in reality, some people have more resources to share while others borrow more often. If you are among the latter group, look for ways to contribute with a service or skill so that the give and take relationship is more balanced. Sharing is a two-way street. Borrowing is a one-way street; stay on it long enough and you’ll drive yourself right out of the neighborhood.

2. Inspect the item before lending it out

There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs when someone returns a borrowed item – you see it in a new light. The saw blade you thought of as brand new when loaned out now has a chipped tooth that you never noticed before. The pressure canner, upon return, looks stained on the inside but you vaguely remember it as still clean and new looking.

When my friend returned the small generator he borrowed, I noticed a crack in the gas cap housing. Was this new or had it been there when it was loaned out? A month later the generator stopped working, and remembering the crack, my imagination was set loose to envision further mistreatment of the generator which led to its current problem. To this day, I don’t know what killed my little generator, and I’m reluctant to lend anything to this person again. Yet he may be entirely innocent. There’s a ripple in our relationship which I could have avoided with a simple pre-loan inspection.

3. Always ask before borrowing

Relations with neighbors may be friendly and casual, and you may have borrowed items from the same person before with no problems. But assuming you can borrow without asking is a prescription for souring relations. The way things go, the one day you borrow your neighbor’s pruning ladder without asking turns out to be the same day he promised it to someone else. Even if the ‘lend-borrow’ balance is in your favor with a neighbor, always ask before borrowing. If the person is not home and you must borrow an item, leave a note which includes when you will be returning it.

4. Return items in better condition than when borrowed

The best way to develop a healthy borrowing relationship with anyone is to spruce up the borrowed item before returning it. A borrowed saw blade can be cleaned with steel wool and lightly oiled before being returned. A loaner truck is returned with more gas then when borrowed. If you return a cookie sheet with a small bag of fresh baked cookies, the lender will welcome your next loan request with open arms.

When using a friend’s shop, my policy is to clean the shop (not just the tool I’ve used) after the work task is finished. Recently he told me that he always knows when I’ve used his shop because it’s cleaner and more organized. For this reason, he looks forward to my use of his shop! This has been a great formula for ensuring our good relationship as friends, and it keeps me from having to buy duplicate machinery.

5. Set a date/time for return

After a task is done, our minds leap forward to the next thing. If the borrowed item is not returned right away, it quickly fades from thought and easily becomes forgotten. It is the responsibility of the lender to establish an ‘end date’ for the transaction. A clear, specific timetable, such as “I need this juicer back by Saturday morning” does a service to the borrower because the loan is not open-ended, making it easier to ensure a timely return.

6. Keep a list of outgoing/incoming shares

It may seem overly formal and structured, but it will make things simpler and prevent misunderstandings if you keep a list of the items you have loaned or borrowed, with corresponding dates for their return. Even smaller items like books, DVDs and cookware which may seem inconsequential when loaned out can suddenly seem more important when you need them and can’t remember who you lent them to. By keeping a list, your mind is freed from having to remember the details of every small loan.

When a neighbor borrowed my new caulking gun I was very casual about lending it out. Six months later when a leak developed on the roof, I worked myself into a tizzy looking for the caulking gun. I asked the neighbor if I lent it to her and she forgot too! About a week after buying a new gun I remembered lending the other gun to her. This misunderstanding, and the ensuing frustration, could have been easily prevented by keeping a list of loaned and borrowed items.

Keeping a list is meant to ensure that borrowed or loaned goods find their way home in a timely way. But the list is not meant to be a ledger. Keeping a record of how often a person borrows or lends is not in keeping with the spirit of sharing.

7. Keep money out of the equation

When it comes to borrowing and lending, transactions involving money are best left to banks. Unlike other items being shared, money disappears when used. It does not sit around, like a borrowed pipe wrench, as a visual reminder that it needs to be returned.

Money is harder to come by than most goods. We may find goods at discount from flea markets and thrift shops, or receive them as hand-me-downs from others. But cash is another matter, and most folks are uncomfortable sharing dollars. I’ve seen otherwise sensible people go absolutely snarky over an overdue cash loan, so it’s best not to put people in this position. When it comes to cash, the old adage “neither a borrower nor a lender be” still applies today.

8. Accept the deviations from the rules

Sharing embodies a culture of trust within the community, and the value of this culture exceeds the value of any loaned item. Some people may not follow the rules or will fall short of expectations. It’s usually best to view any problems in this perspective, and not let the sharing process be tarnished by anyone who plays by their own rules. If you follow the advice “Don’t lend out anything that you aren’t prepared to lose”, it’s less likely that he process of sharing will result in disappointment.

The duplication of many goods in neighborhoods and communities today is wasteful and adds unnecessary costs to individuals. Sharing and cooperation are keys to a sustainable future. We just need a little practice and these few simple rules to realize the benefits of sharing and to help reduce our collective impact on the environment.

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