When someone posted a blood type test kit on a local Buy Nothing Facebook group in Queens, NY, they may have wondered if anybody would want it.
“I think it was leftover from one of those food diet things where you find out what’s best to eat for your blood type,” said Sheri Sayles, who responded to the post and picked up the test kit from her neighbor.
This transaction was part of the gift economy — a way to exchange random items you don’t want with your neighbors who might have a use for them. It’s all free.
Buy Nothing groups on Facebook, the Nextdoor website and app, and other online platforms exist in neighborhoods across the country, helping people get free stuff online — sometimes stuff they never knew they needed.
What is a Buy Nothing Group?
The first question you might have while reading all of this is a simple one: What exactly is a Buy Nothing group?
The initiative started from humble beginnings: Two friends in Bainbridge Island, Wash., began the Buy Nothing Project in July 2013, aiming to save people money and reduce waste. It has since grown to more than 7,500 communities and 6.5 million members, per the project’s website.
Their mission is all about community and gifting: neighbors in hyperlocal areas post what they have to offer and ask for what they need.
While the project initially ran everything through Facebook groups, the company transitioned in recent years to an in-house app, called the BuyNothing app. The platform comes with some distinct benefits: first, users can set their preferred geographic distance, from one mile to six miles. Unlike Facebook, there is no requirement to approve users, eliminating at least a few delays.
But fret not: if you’re a beloved user of Facebook groups, Buy Nothing still exists on the platform. In fact, the site maintains a directory of its groups based on country and state. You can easily find the group closest to you.
How Do They Work?
The basic idea is simple. Someone posts something they want to give away and another person responds if they want it. You can also post when you’re looking for something specific in hopes a neighbor might have it.
But in practice, it isn’t always so clear-cut, especially for high-quality items.
“When you post something, people will then say, ‘I’m interested, I want it, this is why I want it.’ Then you don’t necessarily select the first person who responds. You wait for people to respond in like a 24-hour period and then you select from that list,” said Robin Eiseman, a member of the Buy Nothing group in her Philadelphia neighborhood of Fairmount.
She uses a random number generator to pick who receives her items, but not everyone does.
“I wanted to be as fair and impartial as possible,” Eiseman said.
According to the rules of Buy Nothing, people can only be in one group based on the address where they physically live. The organization also operates under a strict set of community guidelines, found here. First and foremost, posts are separated into three different categories: gifts that must be given for free either to share, to loan or to completely give away. Second is an asking post that asks group members whether they have something to share, loan or give that you need. And third, a post of gratitude is allowed that simply offers gratitude for the community.
Other neighborhood platforms with similar services have seen the demand for free products skyrocket in recent years. Nextdoor, for example, reported that the number of free listings has almost doubled in 2020 since the beginning of the year, which may be a result of the decluttering spree the pandemic has wrought.
What Else is Available (Besides Free Blood Test Kits)?
The Buy Nothing project breaks down possible gifts into categories, and they’re not all items. Members can give gifts of self or talent, which includes things like cooking classes, tutoring or offering rides for an appointment or an evening of babysitting for free. They can also offer what you might expect: gifts of stuff, miscellaneous items that are no longer of use to their owner but might be of use to you.
Nextdoor reports that the most popular categories are usually furniture, garden, and baby and kids items. But 2020 brought with it some changes.
“Throughout 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve observed an increase in requests for items related to DIY projects as people are sheltering in place and taking care of their household projects to do list,” Angold said.
Eiesman has gotten rid of things like a water bottle holder for a kayak that was the wrong size, extras from a monthly subscription box she didn’t care for, a printer that didn’t work (though she told people it didn’t work) and more.
“I’ve picked up from other people some really random stuff like ginger beer, Girl Scout cookies and lots of different things” she said.
After her father died, Sayles gave away some of his things like two nice television sets and some healthcare items.
“I recently posted that I had some sort of adult underwear, and like 10 people wrote to me that they would like it. So here’s something I would think nobody would ever want … and there’s 10 people who need it, so it has been a very good thing.”Sayles said.
Using a Buy Nothing Group vs. Giving Items Away: The Pros and Cons
If you’re reading this and wondering why you shouldn’t just pack up all your stuff and give it away to the nearest nonprofit or thrift store, consider these pros and cons before taking your latest dump to the, well, dump.
Pro: Buy Nothing groups are limited to a local radius, so there’s a higher chance that someone nearby will want your things and get them quickly.
Con: Buy Nothing groups aren’t necessarily about the fastest bidder, so you may have to wait some time to make a decision on who gets your item if you’re in it to be fair.
Pro: Both Eiseman and Sayles say getting rid of items this way is often easier for them than donating them because of limited storage space and the fact people come to pick the items up.
“Many organizations receiving item donations are flooded right now and can’t accept more inventory,” Angold said. “[Nextdoor] For Sale & Free allows members gifting items to get the item in front of thousands of nearby neighbors instantly.”
Con: You’ll have to be responsive. Even if you’re giving your items away for free, people generally have a few questions. What condition is it in? What are its measurements? Be prepared to monitor your social media for a little while. This is a good deed that doesn’t quite go unpunished.
Pro: There’s a certain sense of safety associated with these groups.
“Nobody puts their address on the actual Facebook page [for Buy Nothing]. It’s all done through Messenger,” Sayles said. “I feel perfectly safe, and they’re neighbors generally so you know you see them on the neighborhood Facebook group.”
Nextdoor works to create a sense of security by requiring transparency.
“Since day one, Nextdoor has required people to use their real name and verified address, so members can trust that their Nextdoor neighborhood is made up of real people at real addresses,” Angold said. “Additionally, proximity is incredibly powerful given the current situation. While neighbors around the world are staying closer to home, it becomes increasingly important to have a trusted community to rely on.”
There’s always the option of meeting someone in a public place to exchange items.
Con: There’s no guarantee someone will take your item. Yes, there’s technically a home out there for everything, but this is not a church thrift shop. It’s essentially an online marketplace—albeit a free one.
Free Exchanging Advice
Veterans of no-sell groups say there are some general do’s and don’ts to follow.
Do: Be creative. Your trash might be someone else’s treasure. “The interesting thing is people post and say, ‘I’m sure nobody wants this but’ and then 30 people say ‘I’ll take it,’” Sayles said.
Don’t: Give away junk. Make sure what you’re giving away is in working order. If it isn’t, let people know that. Giving away junk wastes everyone’s time. “Upload multiple photos with different angles to showcase all the features of your item,” Angold suggests.
Don’t: Offer or ask for anything illegal. Both platforms have lists of what can and cannot be given away. Anything illegal isn’t allowed.
Do: Respond quickly. Like good news, good stuff travels fast. So if it’s something you want, respond as soon as you see it.
Don’t: Take your sweet time picking up your items. People are posting items because they want it out of their houses. If you claim something, go get it as soon as you can.
Do: Be gracious. These are real people behind computer screens. “Not everybody’s going to get the item that they want, and that’s okay. It’s not personal when people decide to give it to one person over another. They’re your neighbors. Don’t do stuff that is going to anger your neighbors. You have to live next to them,” Eiseman advises. Be civil and do not discriminate.
Don’t: Post when no one is online. “Most transactions happen on the weekend, so posting around that time frame is best for visibility,” Angold advises.
Do: Respect the administrators—and everyone. These people are volunteers and neighbors. Treat them as if you will see them again.
Ultimately, the whole idea isn’t just to get things for free.
“[Many people would] rather reuse something instead of going out and buying something new,” Eiseman said. “It’s not a matter of being cheap, but it’s kind of like, well, if you’ve got this and you don’t want it anymore instead of throwing it out, I’m happy to take it.”
Sayles agreed. “I have too much stuff and everyone else has too much stuff and we’re sharing our stuff. It’s great. It’s a very good way to keep it out of the landfill.”
Tiffani Sherman is a Florida-based freelance reporter with more than 25 years of experience writing about finance, health, travel, real estate, and other topics.
Writer Elizabeth Djinis is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder, often writing about selling goods online through social platforms. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Smithsonian Magazine and the Tampa Bay Times.