Roadtripping Across the U.S. to Chronicle Life Outside the Financial Mainstream

Bailey Reutzel, a 26-year-old business journalist, quit her job to find out how some Americans are living independently of a financial system that’s failed them.

Bruce Campbell stands near his home, a decommissioned Boeing 727, in the woods outside the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. (Steve Dipaola / Reuters)

The U.S. is a composite of countless economies: The one experienced by the homeless population camped out under the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago will necessarily differ from the economy occupied by Millennials embarking on guerilla farming projects in Cleveland, who in turn might not recognize the system inhabited by the Bitcoin believers of libertarian New Hampshire. And a lone bicyclist who’s sold all his belongings to head west may live in a makeshift market of his own.

These are just a few of the people and subcultures documented in Moneytripping, a blog by 26-year-old financial journalist Bailey Reutzel. Reutzel, a former co-worker of mine, decided this summer to quit her job and drive across the country interviewing people about how they are making do (or not) in post-Financial-Crisis America.

In my admittedly biased opinion, Moneytripping serves as a missing supplement to mainstream economic reporting. Too often, stories are focused on drawing a broad conclusion about the way the American economy is changing—either the problem is Amazon’s impossibly demanding, performance metrics-obsessed workplace culture, or the trouble lies with services like Uber and AirBnB that are replacing steady jobs and predictable hours.

While the issues identified in these narratives are real, it’s also important to stay attuned to the differences in the way people live and work. Moneytripping puts a spotlight on the strange, idealistic, and unruly individuals and groups who are forging their own systems of value and exchange. It’s important to hear diverse stories about how smaller segments of the U.S. population are operating outside the financial mainstream so we can imagine broader alternatives to a system that’s failing so many.

Reutzel plans to roll through 48 states in five months, spending at least three days in each place she visits. So far she’s has written about the mixed effects of The Heidelberg Project, a collection of polka-dotted houses and makeshift art installations that attracts hordes of tourists to an East Detroit neighborhood. Another post observes the class divide between affluent Lollapalooza revelers and the homeless population they hardly register. And she’s also interviewed the last few residents of a Pennsylvania coal town seized by the government in 1992 under eminent domain.

I spoke with Bailey during her stopover in Portland, Maine—the ninth state she’s visited since starting her journey in August—to talk about the people she’s met on the open road. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sarah Todd: What inspired you to start Moneytripping?

Bailey Reutzel: My initial idea was to write about money and how people in different cultures and demographics think about it. But as I’ve gone along, the project is changing to a focus on political economics. I’m looking at how different cultures move money and interact with economics and the financial system.

Todd: Your introductory post on Moneytripping says you’re looking for stories about what journalist Paul Mason calls the post-capitalism movement in the U.S.—people using local currencies, time banks, cooperatives, and other systems that subvert mainstream financial tools. What examples have you run into so far?

Reutzel: I was just up in New Hampshire, which is big on libertarian ideas. One guy I met is a professor in mathematics who’s into Bitcoin and tutors people as a side gig. When we were at a Bitcoin meet-up, the server offered to take care of the professor’s $30 bill in exchange for his next tutoring session.

​Todd: Bartering in action. Do you think there’s a bigger cultural shift underway toward these kinds of systems?

Reutzel: I think local currencies are still an outlier. But in terms of cooperatives, I think that’s definitely a part of the economy that will continue to grow. The biggest question of the next decade is going to be what goes global and what stays local. I think more people are going to be willing to choose local even if that means they have to pay more—especially if they know the disadvantages of buying things on the cheap from large corporations.

​Todd: What has surprised you about the places you’ve visited so far?

Reutzel: Cleveland and Pittsburgh were surprising in the best way. Since manufacturing jobs disappeared, Rust Belt cities have been trying to reinvent themselves, and they both have great arts scenes and downtowns. It’s good to see that cities can be adaptable. And the people too—they’re chameleon-like, bouncing around from job to job, and also pursuing big ideas like opening their own businesses.

​Todd: What’s one example of a person who’s gone that route?

Reutzel: In Cleveland I met a guy, Ryan, who was an adventure-tour guide in India and then married an American lady a couple years ago. But he’s had trouble finding a job in the States, especially since India doesn’t have a credit system.

Eventually he got a job as a pharmacy technician, but that was minimum wage. So his neighbors suggested that he sign up for Uber, which actually pays better. Now he shuttles a lot of people to the airport, especially in the early mornings. And his neighbor has developed an app that determines when surge pricing is happening, so they know when to turn on their Uber apps so they can make more money.

​Todd: This pattern of moving from job to job—do you think it’s sustainable for people in the long-term?

Reutzel: With the downturn in the economy in the U.S., people have had to find their own way. Now we have these odd-job economies and sharing economies, and Millennials and sometimes Baby Boomers as well are all trying to create their own perfect lives. They’re not tied down to one job because they need a pension. They think, “I’m going to do what I want to do in this particular moment to make me happy and make the economy work for me.”

I think a lot of the ideas about what you have when you get older, like savings accounts and 401(k)s, are going to have to change. Personally, I’m relatively good at saving, but then I usually blow most of that on a trip and then start building it back up. I think that’s okay.

​Todd: So people are just going to live the way they need to, and society will have to catch up with systems that work in that reality.

Reutzel: For example, there’s the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, which they have in a couple places in Europe. I’ve been talking to a guy in Maine who thinks this is going to be necessary as machines take over human jobs.

Usually, when blue-collar jobs get automated, that tends to push people into colleges so that they can get white-collar jobs. But now white-collar jobs are getting automated too. So maybe there’s a breaking point.

​Todd: I’m wondering about your approach to avoiding poverty tourism. By which I mean that some journalists fail to capture people’s real experiences of poverty because they offer only a superficial look at their circumstances or impose their own ideas on their subjects. So how do you make sure you’re fully representing people even though you may have a limited amount of time in each place?

Reutzel: Yeah, this is definitely a struggle. My blog has started out pretty philosophical, with me imposing my ideas about a scene. But it’s been good as I was trying to figure out what exactly it was that I was trying to find out and interested in covering.

I’ve now come up with several consistent questions I’ll be asking the people I meet. For example, “Is capitalism failing us?”

I’ve always wondered whether I’m a writer first, and then a journalist, or vice versa. And this is part of that. There has to be some outsider looking in, explaining the world that they are not a part of. But then you also need to make sure your ideas align with what is actually going on out there.

I find that most people are very willing to tell their life story, especially those that are marginalized. Maybe that’s because they already get judged based on their outside appearance, so what’s it matter if they say something that makes someone uncomfortable? For instance, one transient in Burlington, Vermont, just divulged that he’d been on acid for three days. I didn’t ask—he just told me. And to him, what’s it matter if I think that’s insane? I had already given him a couple bucks and there wasn’t much else I was going to do for him.

But I spend a lot of time talking to locals and just listening. And some of the best information comes when you’re just listening, when you let people take you on their own journey.

​Todd: How are you funding Moneytripping?

Reutzel: Earlier this year [while working as a financial reporter] I was housesitting for a friend of a friend in London. Since I didn’t have to pay much rent, every paycheck I got just went into savings. People are also tipping me on my website via PayPal and Bitcoin.

​Todd: Do you know what’s next for you when the road trip is complete?

Reutzel: No. I have a lot of ideas about what I want to do with my life and projects I can work on, but as far what’s coming next, I have no idea.

​Todd: How do you feel about that?

Reutzel: It’s nice to not know. Sometimes. Maybe when December rolls around I’ll freak out. But I want to be sure I check my privilege, because I have family in Missouri and a house where I can stay if I need to. I know some people don’t have safety nets or families to go back home to.

This post appears courtesy of The Billfold.