Take it from these three women, whose lives changed for the better because of bad times.
1. Susan Dominus, 41, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY
Anytime I've ever tried to sell something on Craigslist, I have felt like a chump: No matter how low I've priced the item, the buyer always springs a last-minute haggle on me upon arrival. One of us ends up feeling like a winner, the other (that would be me) a loser.
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The antidote to Craigslist is Freecycle, a Yahoo message board where people post things they want to give away for free. Interested parties respond, and the original poster picks a recipient. I started using the site not long after the recession hit, when I was looking for children's clothing for my twin 2-year-old boys. After spotting a listing for a navy pea coat, size 3T, I packed up the kids and drove to an address in a run-down neighborhood several towns away. There, on the porch, I found a perfect-condition coat with a blue satin lining nestled in a bag with a bow. The small but thoughtful gesture truly moved me.
Giving items away on Freecycle has been its own gift, and has sometimes eased the transitions of my children's growth. I was saddened by the realization that my sons would never again sit in a double stroller, until a young woman, who barely spoke English and was pregnant with twins, turned up with her gallant husband, elated to take it off my hands. Now, whenever I'm tempted to go out and buy storage bins, I go to Freecycle instead and force myself to post the things I'm saving for some mythical future-one that has a second home (where I really could use that mismatched set of Dansk kitchenware), or in which I am a totally different kind of mother (the kind who will take all those rejected stuffed animals and use them in a puppet show-to teach the kids French!). It's a mini catharsis every time.
My husband and I have lugged couches and cribs out of our basement and into vans with total strangers, feeling not just liberated of stuff but inspired by the industry of hardworking people who drove up to an hour to find something they needed for their families. I like to think that when they leave, they feel something more than the high of scoring a freebie, that they also sense what we do: We're all working through parenthood-and hard economic times-together.
2. Catherine Newman, 43, Amherst, MA
"Nice work, Ma!" my husband says, laughing, as he passes through the kitchen. I do, indeed, look something like Ma from Little House on the Prairie, standing over a steaming pot, an apron tied behind me, my hands dyed purple from the wild grapes I'm stirring into jam. My daughter, Birdy, 8, darts in to taste the still-warm results from my wooden spoon. "This is the best batch yet!" she says, without a trace of irony.
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Given the nearby Trader Joe's, our life does not exactly depend on the successful canning of summer's bounty. But we are broker than we've been in years: I lost a regular writing gig last year, which was one of our main sources of income. My husband, a massage therapist, does okay, but plenty of clients have cut massages from their "necessary expenses." So this summer, we stayed at campsites instead of hotels, trading chlorinated pools for a cool pond in the woods. And when we eat out, which is rare, it's at the local sports bar. But here's the thing: We love roasting marshmallows and sleeping under the stars. We crave the buffalo wings at our rowdy pub. "I'd definitely rather eat onion rings here than that weird goat-cheese thing at the other place," my 12-year-old son, Ben, says. Extreme thrift-soon to be an Olympic sport!-has proven almost unaccountably rewarding.
I know it sounds like some grimly peppy Depression-era slogan, but we are happier with less. And what we do have, we appreciate so deeply now: a roof over our heads, our health, and the odd cashmere cardigan from the Salvation Army. Surprisingly, perhaps, we gave away more money last year than ever before. In Haiti, they need health care and clean water more than we need, say, new towels from Target. We're lucky: For us, it's not life on the prairie or an actual crisis. So we stretch to donate as much money as we can to the nonprofit Partners in Health, and we've realized there's really nothing like giving it away to make you understand how much you actually have.
3. Stephanie Robertson, 41, Redmond, WA
The retail industry treated me well for 22 years. The pay was great and the perks even better: box seats at Bulls games, private jets to Puerto Rico. It was enough to convince me to put off prioritizing anything but work until I reached the "top." Even as I celebrated friends' bridal and baby showers, I never felt envious-I was that into my job. So when I was laid off in 2009, I lost myself.
The last time I'd job-hunted, I'd received multiple offers. This time, crickets. In the silence, I began to rethink my next move. A few years before, I'd dreamt about starting a bachelorette-party supply company, offering something more sassy than smarmy. So I used my severance money to launch www.TheHouseofBachelorette.com. As challenging as it was, being my own boss allowed for more breathing room in my personal life.
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For two years my fiancé, Jason, and I had waited to get married, telling ourselves that one day we'd have enough vacation days saved for a destination wedding. But jetting off to Greece seemed plain irresponsible, so we opted for a small beach ceremony at home in 2010. Not long after, we started trying to have a baby, and by the end of the year, I gave birth to our son, Beck. Our insta-family-the one I hadn't even allowed myself to dream about when I was working-was a magical surprise.
In a strange way, the downturn brought with it a reality check I desperately needed. My biz is on track to reach $500,000 in sales this year, and I can still skip out at lunchtime to read to Beck or splash with him at our weekly swim classes. Of course I want this economy to improve, but I owe it big time, too.
As told to Alison Storm.
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