Who Needs Money When You Can Barter?

Barter sign posted on a telephone pole

Irina Slutsky / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A big part of frugal living is figuring out ways to 'circumvent using money to do our chores.' Sounds like time to resuscitate the ancient practice of trading for goods and services!

You may have thought bartering and trading had gone the way of the dodo bird, but there seems to be a resurgence of interest in these old-fashioned ways of paying a debt. Rather than whipping out a credit card or counting out cash, the exchange of services between individuals has multiple benefits. It saves money; it connects you with a community and neighbors; and it’s satisfying to challenge the societal expectation that we must pay money for everything we get.

Frugality blogger Mrs. Frugalwoods explored modern takes on barter and trade in an article for her website last week. There are three main types that take place – formal, informal, and skill-based.

‘Formal’ bartering happens when you strike an arrangement with another person or company, i.e. The babysitting exchange that I had with another parent in town, where we provided the same number of hours of childcare each week to the other’s child. It lasted three wonderful years.

‘Informal’ trades lack precision, or carefully laid-out details. These usually occur between friends or acquaintances who are able to help out on a given day, and then the recipient pays that back at some point. For example, you might weed someone’s garden and receive some homemade bread the following week. (One commenter notes that, while informal barter arrangements may work for small-ticket items, it’s a good idea to formalize agreements for any expensive exchanges so nobody feels like they’re getting short-changed.)

‘Skill-based’ trading is when people give their specialized skills for other specialized skills, things that we would otherwise pay someone to do, i.e. When a woman with a cleaning business wanted to buy a painting done by my artist mother, she cleaned my parents’ house for a set number of weeks in exchange for the painting.

As Mrs. Frugalwoods points out, creating barter and trade relationships is important for anyone wanting to embrace frugal living, because a big part of that lifestyle is figuring out ways “to circumvent using money to solve our problems and do our chores.”

To those people who think it feels embarrassing to ask others to barter and trade, she doesn’t think it will be an unwelcome suggestion:

“What I’ve found is that while we’re often afraid to initiate a barter and trade conversation, it’s highly likely the person on the other side will be overjoyed at the prospect! Yes, it does take some creativity and initiative to establish barter and trade relationships, but I find it’s tremendously worth it. There’s a sense of humility in barter and trade; we’re admitting that we need help and that we need the support of our community members.”

I love the idea of bartering’s community-building power – the way in which it can pull together networks of people who might not usually have contact with each other and create connections among them. It has the potential to bring out the best in us; it’s a chance to show off skills that we may have honed but not necessarily found opportunities to use professionally or practice regularly; and it satisfies the desire to give and to see others pleased with our gifts.

The Internet has become our new communal meeting place, offering great potential for the creation of bartering networks. Use it to your advantage. Instead of hiring someone to do a job next time you need it, think about posting first to Facebook or a local forum, asking the people around you what you could offer in exchange for those services. You might be pleasantly surprised by the response.