Like so many other students across the country, when John Stout and Carly Zdanek graduated college in 2019, they had mounds of student loan debt hanging over their heads.
But the Braintree couple came up with a creative solution to pay down the more than $130,000 they owe for their combined educations.
For the past year, Stout and Zdanek have been bartering random items with strangers online using marketplaces like Facebook, eBay, and Craigslist, with the goal of eventually “trading up” enough times to achieve financial freedom. At the end they hope to have gained an object equivalent to their debt and plan to cash out.
They began with a USB drive Stout got for free while attending Northeastern University. That was traded for a used dome chair, which was then swapped for a foam roller and other gym accessories, and so on. To date, they’ve bartered more than a dozen items — each slightly more valuable than the last.
They’ve still got a long way to go. But the challenge — and the stories that have come from the project — is all part of the appeal.
“The community that’s developed has been the most rewarding, and been the motivator to keep pushing through,” said Stout, 25.
Stout first came up with the idea to “up-trade” items to pay off their debt while on a lunch break last June. At the time, he was watching a video montage featuring the “Trade Me Project,” about a woman who is trying to turn a bobby pin into a house, one trade at a time.
“I felt immediately like this was something that we could do,” said Stout, an energy and sustainability engineer for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Stout sent the video to Zdanek, who was intrigued by the concept — one that’s been attempted by many before them. The most famous example is Kyle MacDonald, a Canadian man who went viral in 2005 after he “up-traded” from a red paper clip all the way to becoming a home owner. It was also a tactic employed by Dwight Schrute in a 2011 episode of “The Office.”
“I knew with John’s mentality we were just going to go for it,” said Zdanek, a marketing coordinator who went to Lasell University. “We thought anything from the project, if that could go towards [our loans], it could be such a huge help.”
By July 1, the couple, who met in high school in New Jersey and have been together for seven years, had set up their first trade with someone they met on an online marketplace. They managed to pawn off the Northeastern-branded USB flash drive — a symbolic item for their project — in exchange for a gray “dome chair.”
“We were super fortunate,” Stout said. “This girl was trying to move out of her apartment quickly because of COVID and just trying to drop prices for furniture.”
The woman was looking to get $5 for the chair, but she agreed to take the flash drive after Stout and Zdanek explained the idea behind their horse-trading.
“She loved our idea, and so that sparked the first trade for us,” Stout said.
They traded the chair for the gym accessories, which they later flipped for a used snowboard. That was parlayed into a Google Nest Thermostat — trade No. 5 — which was dealt for an Apple HomePod and a used lawnmower. Those eventually led them to a Segway electric scooter valued at $800, which later landed them to the most difficult item to offload: a 160-pound industrial cappuccino machine, fit for a restaurant or office.
But “office amenities,” as Stout put it, weren’t exactly in high-demand during a pandemic. For 80 days, it haunted them, without a single bite. Finally, they had to take a cash offer — something they’d been trying to avoid completely — to keep the project afloat. The machine went to a local farmer’s market for $500, much less than it was worth.
Once they got past that roadblock, the couple used the money to purchase camera equipment. That was traded for a drone and more camera equipment, the latter of which they used to get a laptop. They then drove more than an hour north to New Hampshire to trade the drone for an Osaki massage chair, which they paired with the laptop to snag a 2014 Kymco MXU 450i ATV in Leominster.
They spun that into a professional-grade video camera — although they did give the ATV a test drive first.
“Just down the driveway,” Zdanek said.
As of this week, Zdanek and Stout have been trying to swap a Canon 5D Mark IV camera bundle “with just about every accessory you could ever need” — minus a lens — for the next product to get them closer to their goal. They say the camera and accessories are valued at more than $6,000 and have a “lateral trade” in the works.
The couple has been documenting their swap-meet saga on their Instagram account, “From USB to Debt-Free.” There, each item is described in detail, often with a short backstory about how they landed the trade.
They’ve also been posting content about the journey on TikTok and YouTube, including discussions with people doing “trading projects” of their own, and wrote about the concept for Dig Boston in October.
While the objective is to make a dent in their student loans, Zdanek and Stout said they’ll remember the adventure, and the people they met along the way, long after the loans are closed.
“The project kind of lives more in the story at this point than the end goal. It’s been really fun for us, and we have had 17 trades with 17 people we never would have met,” Stout said. “I think the best thing for us has been meeting these people.”