Barter and trade is not dead! I’ve long touted this unconventional system as a fabulous way to circumvent paying for services, but I’ve sensed hesitancy to dive in from many of you. And so, today I bring you tales of other people (not just weirdo me!) utilizing the ethos of barter and trade for everything from free dance classes to haircuts to childcare.
I posed the question to our Frugalwoods Facebook group–something I do periodically (last month’s query was on frugal Valentine’s Day celebrations)–and folks responded with innovative stories of frugal barter and trade. I love learning from you all and I’m so grateful to each of you for sharing your wisdom.
The Three Methods of Barter And Trade
Through my own experience, and from hearing your stories, I’ve come to realize there are three modes of barter and trade: formal, informal, and skill-based. Allow me to elaborate.
When we lived in Cambridge, I had a formal arrangement with my yoga studio whereby I worked at the front desk in exchange for free classes. I checked people in for class, processed their payments, then mopped the studio floor and took out the trash after class. This was a system the studio offered to anyone who was interested. There was a brief orientation/training program and then an even exchange of one free class for each desk-staffing stint.
Conveniently I could attend the classes I worked at the desk for. I was responsible for informing the manager in advance if I needed to miss one of my shifts. I took a brief maternity leave when Babywoods was born and then went back to my shift a month or so after her birth. This was very much like working an hourly job where I was expected to show up at a certain time and I received a specified exchange rate for my services. I absolutely loved it since yoga classes at the studio were $18 each!
The second type of barter and trade is a more informal system, often between friends or neighbors that lacks the precision of my yoga trade. I currently have this style of trade with one of my very generous neighbors.
My neighbor, who is in her 60s, along with another neighbor who is 9 years old, come over together once a week for an hour or two to watch Babywoods. The three of them go on hikes, read books, and play. It’s the most amazing gift two work-at-home parents with no formal childcare could ever hope for. And just last night, our neighbor came over after Babywoods went to bed so that Mr. FW and I could go out on a date!!! I’m filled with gratitude every time they come over and in fact, they’re watching Babywoods as I write this!
My neighbors don’t charge me for this service, rather, we’ve agreed on an informal, loose barter and trade system whereby Mr. Frugalwoods and I will help them out when they need it. We’re currently helping our neighbor select and set-up a new computer and phone, which is a small way we can start to repay the favor. There’s no formal agreement or contract and we don’t keep track of hours. I’ve found this type of barter to be quite common up here in our small Vermont town, where neighbors often lend a hand to one another.
However, rural Vermont isn’t the only place for such arrangements. Back in our city days, we had a network of friends we swapped dog sitting with. This wasn’t a formalized process–we’d watch one another’s dogs whenever we were able to and if one person couldn’t take a dog, they’d refer them to another family. It was a perfect way to ensure none of us had to pay to board our dogs. And the dogs had a much nicer time hanging out at a friend’s home as opposed to in a kennel.
Another excellent example of informal bartering is the Buy Nothing Project, an international organization with hyper-local branches–facilitated through Facebook–where neighbors give unneeded items away to each other. There’s no tracking system of who gives what or how much or how often. It operates on karma and the system works surprisingly well.
The idea behind Buy Nothing is to decrease spending, consumption, and waste. The premise is simple: I have something I no longer need and you would like to have it! Check to see if there’s a Buy Nothing group in your area, or, consider starting your own. In addition to Buy Nothing, I’m a member of several local email listserves and other swap/garage sale/parent groups through Facebook that are excellent sources for giving and receiving hand-me-downs.
We all have a skill to share! Traditional service skill sets–hairdressers, mechanics, photographers–are professions that lend themselves well to bartering for services. But non-traditional skills are also barterable–such as writing, editing, computer help, and more! Quite a few readers cited utilizing their professional aptitude–from social media management to cooking–in exchange for other goods. Get creative and think of what unique skill you can offer.
Do It For Your Kids
One of the biggest challenges I hear from frugal parents is the issue of how to pay for the various lessons their children want to take. Tennis, ballet, swimming–this stuff can add up! However, it seems our frugal braintrust has come up with a solution: barter and trade! As you’ll read in the below list of examples, quite a few clever parents have negotiated a barter/trade system for their child’s lessons. Brilliant! This is definitely something I’ll explore when Babywoods is old enough to express interest in taking a class.
But I Can’t Ask People To Do Things For Me!
I often hear this rebuttal from readers and I completely understand where you’re coming from. It feels awkward because our culture has all but eliminated the barter and trade mentality. We live in a society that expects us to pay for everything–we barely do anything for ourselves anymore, let alone give of our time to our neighbors!
But the frugal philosophy advocates that we buck this mainstream convention and instead seek out ways to circumvent using money to solve our problems and do our chores. In addition to insourcing–aka doing things yourself–bartering with neighbors is a central tenet of effective frugality.
I’m a proponent for building a strong community, whether it’s with your entire town, your cul-de-sac, or your friends–we all need the benefits of community. The intergenerational aspect of community is also profoundly important and largely absent our hectic, siloed modern lives.
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. And the worst that anyone can say is ‘no’–although I’ve never had anyone tell me that. 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. It’s a rewarding, humbling experience. And, regardless of what the IRS might wish, most bartering is small scale and below any reasonable level of tax reporting. Please do note that I’m not an accountant and am not offering tax or legal advice.
Don’t Take My Word For It
You’re probably tired of hearing from me at this point, so let’s turn to the plethora of Frugalwoods readers who weighed in with their own real life examples of barter and trade. Thank you to everyone who shared their story and I’m sorry I couldn’t fit everyone’s suggestions on this list! You can check out the full conversation here.
How Frugalwoods Readers Barter and Trade:
Tara, a photographer, used to trade photography for haircuts and once did a photo shoot in exchange for a custom mantle piece for her fireplace.
Matt, a lawyer, has traded legal services for homegrown produce and eggs.
Michelle snagged discount swim lessons for her kids in exchange for promoting the school to her neighborhood.
Candice barters homemade food–soup, pirogies, cabbage rolls, and more–for everything from haircuts to child care.
Nora’s husband is a mechanic and they’ve bartered car repairs for home repairs, chiropractic services, and more!
Jana manages the social media for her local gym in exchange for free personal training sessions. This is something she arranged individually with her gym, not a formal program like my yoga studio barter. So if your gym/studio doesn’t offer a program, propose one!
Michelle works at an organic farm in exchange for a CSA share of food.
Darcy volunteers for the Charleston, South Carolina County Parks and Recreation Department for 35 hours per year in exchange for free annual passes to local attractions including museums, the aquarium, parks, and more. I’m keeping this one in mind for the future–sounds like a wonderful deal!
Jill’s friend is a hair stylist and she cleans her house and/or watches her kids in exchange for free haircuts.
Amy swaps her organizing skills for personal training.
Renee trades knitting for home canned salsa and pickles. Yum!
Laura participates in a twice yearly community clothing swap.
Jessica gives flute lessons in exchange for massages.
Stefanie shared that on her recent trip to Colombia, the owner of the hostel where she was staying took her to lunch to ‘pick her brain’ about marketing to millennials in exchange for several free nights at the hostel.
Teresa watches her cousin’s kids every summer in exchange for carpentry work from her cousin, who is a contractor.
Melody built a website for her mechanic in exchange for car repairs and a website for her handyman in exchange for hanging and framing a door in her home. And, she once traded her old car in order to have her basement finished into an office!
Patricia traded house cleaning for child care.
Ashley’s husband did graphic design work for a local drum teacher in exchange for free drum lessons for their son.
Laura offered free room and board to a nursing student in exchange for caregiving assistance for her child with significant disabilities and medical issues. The nursing student lived with Laura’s family for almost three years, was a huge help, and got substantial experience working in a complex pediatric care situation, which she was able to translate into a good nursing job upon graduation. A win win!
Jessica taught toddlers ice skating in exchange for free ice time and group lessons. Sidenote: as the parent of a toddler, it’s highly likely that Jessica is a saint since I imagine it’s sort of like trying to teach feral cats how to ice skate… thank you for doing what you do, Jessica!
Jeff is a beekeeper, his friend is a hunter, and they exchange honey for meat.
Jannene traded piano lessons for yard work.
Lacey owns a dance studio and has parents that clean the studio, mix recital music, and cut/color her hair in exchange for dance tuition credit.
Tracey-Jayne gets a reduced rate for her daughter’s music lessons in exchange for meals she prepares: eggs from her hens, freshly baked bread or muffins, veggies from the garden, and sometimes lasagna or curry.
Amy works at a local quilt store in exchange for fabric.
Lauren trades babysitting with other parents in her mom’s group.
The Auxiliary Benefits Of A Barter and Trade Lifestyle
I was blown away by the creativity and wide range of things people are bartering and trading for–and this isn’t even the full list! As you can see from the above, it’s entirely possible to barter and trade for just about anything–from legal services to ice skating. But aside from the transactional benefits–namely, that you’re able to employ your time and skills instead of your money–there are other, far more profound benefits to this lifestyle. Chiefly, that you make friends and build community.
Aside from free yoga classes, I loved being part of my yoga studio’s community. I made friends, I created wonderful relationships with my yoga teachers, and I went to yoga on a frequent, regular basis. In my current barter and trade situation, it feels like I now have family members up here in Vermont, where I previously didn’t know a single person.
My community involvement is still nascent since we’ve only lived here for ten months, but I hope to expand and amplify my bartering, trading, and sharing as the years go by. I firmly believe we can combat the mainstream’s clarion call to spend, spend, spend and instead foster meaningful relationships and deep community bonds by, well, helping our neighbors.