During the economic recession in the early ‘70s, I was a stay-at-home mom with three children. My husband was a public school teacher, raking in $22,000 a year. Our income was stretched pretty thin, so we looked for ways to save money by swapping goods and services with friends and neighbors. While it didn’t exactly provide a windfall, the money we saved helped pay bills and allowed a weekend getaway from time to time.
My father helped us out by buying us a chainsaw that my husband used to cut firewood for our wood stove, and he surprised me one day with a new typewriter. A lot of the teachers that my husband worked with were pursuing Master’s degrees. Since I had always been an ace in English composition, I put the word out and got jobs editing thesis papers. I worked while the kids napped or at night. Sometimes I got cash; other times I would trade for things like tax preparation, garden tilling, or babysitting (teenagers forced into it, but nonetheless welcomed!). Once I got a bushel of apples as payment. I canned several quarts of homemade applesauce, some of which I traded for other goods—who knew apples could be turned into dollars!
Times back then were definitely slower. My neighborhood was small, and I knew most of my neighbors. We chatted while waiting with our kids for the school bus or when we got together for cookouts, Little League, birthday parties, or church services. We engaged with each other; we were a community and pitched in to help each other when needed.
One year, on Thanksgiving, we got over 30 inches of snow in less than 48 hours. Because our community was somewhat rural and off the main drag, we were one of the last neighborhoods to be plowed. Needless to say, a trip to grandma’s wasn’t gonna happen that year… so we planned a neighborhood Thanksgiving feast! A kind neighbor volunteered to host us and everyone brought a dish. I think it was one of the most memorable Thanksgivings I’ve ever had.
So what does that have to do with bartering, you ask? Not a lot. But my point was that folks in our small community got to know each other pretty well. There was no internet back then. We had close connections with neighbors, connections that opened the door to bartering. Trading for things we needed seemed like the most normal thing in the world—bartering just kind of happened organically.
Bartering has been around longer than money as we know it. Since man first set foot on the world stage, humans have traded for food, tools, weapons, and other essentials for life. The history of bartering dates as far back as 6000 B.C. Introduced by Mesopotamian tribes, the practice of bartering was adopted by the Phoenicians. Babylonians also developed a bartering system where goods were exchanged for food, tea, weapons, and spices. Salt was another popular item exchanged—it was so valuable that Roman soldiers’ salaries were paid in salt, which they used as currency to obtain goods. In the Middle Ages, Europeans traveled around the globe to barter crafts and furs in exchange for silks and perfumes. Colonial Americans exchanged musket balls, deer skins, and wheat with Native American tribes. And, of course, today’s politicians barter all the time to get their pet projects through (“You vote for my bill and I’ll vote for yours”).
Due to a general lack of money during the Great Depression, bartering helped people through really hard times. But once economic stability was regained, and, especially with the advent of “dual-earner couples,” bartering fell by the wayside.
The old adage, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” is still true today. With the rise in the cost of living since the pandemic, people can trim their budget by trading goods and services, often without any money changing hands. As a retiree with more time on my hands, I’m able to offer canned and baked goods and services like house sitting and pet sitting in exchange for odd jobs such as shoveling snow, carpentry, and dealing with computer issues (my nemesis)—jobs I don’t have the expertise, tools, energy, or patience to do.
Back when I bartered to stretch the family budget, trades were made mostly with friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Today, there are dozens of internet sites devoted entirely to bartering. BarterOnly.com, eBay, and Barterquest give anyone who wants to barter access to a huge market. There are even specialized bartering sites devoted to a single product or service. SharedEarth matches people looking for local gardening plots with landowners. Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist.org, and Nextdoor.com are primarily used for buying and selling, but also provide avenues for trading. Even sites that don’t include a section devoted to barter can still be used for this purpose; just post a “For Sale” listing and include the words “for trade” in the title.
If you’re interested in bartering, but don’t think you have anything to trade, here’s a list of suggested activities to give you ideas and help you get started.
Raise chickens. You can grow chickens for meat or eggs or both. Chickens require little maintenance, and fresh eggs are perfect for swapping. I let my customers know that my hens free-range (lots of good insects!), and are fed the best organic layer feed money can buy. In addition to cash customers, I’ve traded for fresh-cut herbs, clothes alterations, and even a haircut.
Plant a garden. Fresh food is a highly sought-after commodity for people looking to eat healthily. You can advertise your produce locally on Facebook Marketplace or Nextdoor.com, or set up at farmer’s markets and fairs. Be sure to mention that you are interested in making a trade, and include what you might be willing to trade for. My daughter runs a wedding and event venue on her farm in Maryland where she hosts a farmer’s market twice a year that brings in huge crowds. Vendors can sell anything “farm-related, handcrafted, homemade, or homegrown,” but the primary focus of her events is small livestock and agricultural produce. In addition to selling their wares, vendors can swap with other vendors
Learn to cook or bake. People have to eat, and with their busy schedules, not everyone has the time to cook. Focus on one or two specialty dishes that you can market in your community to acquire things you need. While it might take a while to build a clientele, word of mouth will reward your efforts to provide a quality alternative to commercial takeout.
Learn a new skill. Learning a new craft or skill will not only save your family money because you’ll be able to do it for yourself; it will also give you a service to barter. Years ago, I took an H&R Block income tax course, and instead of going to work for them, I created my own business doing basic tax returns and sometimes did trades with customers in lieu of payment.
Hone a skill you already have such as tree trimming, sewing, lawnmower repair, or basic carpentry. Passing out flyers in your community can help drum up business. Make it known on the flyer that you’re open to bartering.
Plant a flower garden. There’s a growing market (pardon the pun) for fresh-cut flowers. I gave up buying expensive sympathy and “get well” cards years ago, realizing that a flower bouquet may not last as long as a card, but is just as uplifting, if not more so. My daughter has a beautiful flower garden that she opens up several times during the season to the public. She has a large network of local buyers who come to the farm and accepts trades, especially a good bottle of wine or homemade cheese!
Start a bartering club. A great way to save money and create connections with neighbors is to start a local bartering club. You and your neighbors can trade for things you need while creating a close-knit community and keeping more of your hard-earned money. Grassrootgrantmakers.org has some excellent advice on how to start and operate a neighborhood bartering club. Once you find a core of interested people, you can get together to discuss club rules and how it will work.
In times of high inflation and tight money, bartering can leave more cash in your wallet.