Bartering may sound like a style of commerce more fitting to a backwater marketplace than a modern capitalist environment. According to the International Reciprocal Trade Association—an organization created to promote “just and equitable standards” in modern bartering—the U.S. barter market is a staggering $12 billion annually. In other words, $12 billion worth of goods and services are traded every year without any currency changing hands. Scott Whitmer, founder of trade exchange company Florida Barter, says that while 2011 saw positive signs of an economic recovery, many small and medium-size companies are still struggling. “Bartering has continued to help many [of these] companies grow and conserve cash,” he says. Though Florida Barter enjoyed a record 2011—a 12 percent increase in total trade volume; more than $17 million worth of trades among the 1,600 clients—Whitmer says bartering as a business practice is still in its infancy, “on the cusp of exploding.”
Just as with most things, there are disadvantages and advantages of bartering. A complication of bartering is determining how trustworthy the person you are trading with is. The other person does not have any proof or certification that they are legitimate, and there is no consumer protection or warranties involved. This means that services and goods you are exchanging may be exchanged for poor or defective items. You would not want to exchange a toy that is almost brand new and in perfect working condition for a toy that is worn and does not work at all would you? It may be a good idea to limit exchanges to family and friends in the beginning because good bartering requires skill and experience. At times, it is easy to think the item you desire is worth more than it actually is and underestimate the value of your own item.
You can use bartering to cut costs with your small business or to reduce personal expenses. For example, a handyman can trade services with a hairstylist. Each person is still getting paid for their work, in a sense, and it can lead to referrals to cash-carrying customers without costing a penny. However, the essence of bartering is simply to trade something you have for something you want or need – and you can do this whether you are struggling financially or have a steady income.
The man who arguably founded modern economic theory, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, popularized the idea that barter was a precursor to money. In The Wealth of Nations, he describes an imaginary scenario in which a baker living before the invention of money wanted a butcher’s meat but had nothing the butcher wanted.“No exchange can, in this case, be made between them,” Smith wrote.
No academics I talked to were aware of any evidence that barter was actually the precursor to money, despite the story’s prevalence in economics textbooks and the public’s consciousness. Some argue that no one ever believed barter was real to begin with—the idea was a crude model used to simplify the context of modern economic systems, not a real theory about past ones.
Communities of Iroquois Native Americans, for instance, stockpiled their goods in longhouses. Female councils then allocated the goods, explains Graeber. Other indigenous communities relied on “gift economies,” which went something like this: If you were a baker who needed meat, you didn’t offer your bagels for the butcher’s steaks. Instead, you got your wife to hint to the butcher’s wife that you two were low on iron, and she’d say something like “Oh really? Have a hamburger, we’ve got plenty!” Down the line, the butcher might want a birthday cake, or help moving to a new apartment, and you’d help him out.
In England, about 30 to 40 cooperative societies sent their surplus goods to an "exchange bazaar" for direct barter in London, which later adopted a similar labour note. The British Association for Promoting Cooperative Knowledge established an "equitable labour exchange" in 1830. This was expanded as the National Equitable Labour Exchange in 1832 on Grays Inn Road in London. These efforts became the basis of the British cooperative movement of the 1840s. In 1848, the socialist and first self-designated anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon postulated a system of time chits. In 1875, Karl Marx wrote of "Labor Certificates" (Arbeitszertifikaten) in his Critique of the Gotha Program of a "certificate from society that [the labourer] has furnished such and such an amount of labour", which can be used to draw "from the social stock of means of consumption as much as costs the same amount of labour."
In the United States, Karl Hess used bartering to make it harder for the IRS to seize his wages and as a form of tax resistance. Hess explained how he turned to barter in an op-ed for The New York Times in 1975. However the IRS now requires barter exchanges to be reported as per the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. Barter exchanges are considered taxable revenue by the IRS and must be reported on a 1099-B form. According to the IRS, "The fair market value of goods and services exchanged must be included in the income of both parties."
To try a time bank, search online for one in your local area using TimeBanks.org. How time banks are managed varies according to the region, so it is important (and often mandatory) to attend an initial meeting that explains the general rules of your local chapter. Once you do this, you’re ready to start trading away. Your services and contacts are identified through the local time bank website.
Finding a way to make a profit from bartering isn’t just a challenge to the people putting up their livelihood for trade. Even the brokers who act as bartering middlemen are searching for creative ways to make money from a service that isn’t about making money. A website like Swap.com—which connects people who want to exchange their unused household items—looks, at least on paper, like a financial windfall. Jeff Bennett, Swap.com’s CEO, claims that “the business has been doubling every year.” They’re closing in on 450,000 registered users, who’ve taken part in more than 4 million barter exchanges valued at approximately $13 million since the site’s inception in 2010. But as no part of that $13 million is in actual money, how exactly does Swap.com cover its overhead? Most of its capital comes from “related aspects of the business,” says Bennett, such as shipping fees and corporate sponsorships. “We’ve had very good experiences with companies like Gallo wines, LuLu’s Clothing, and ModCloth.” He also hopes to introduce a Swap.com subscription service in the near future that offers customers incentives for forking over a monthly fee, like an ad-free environment and early access to their favorite items.
Especially prior to the Christmas holiday season, a gift and craft exchange can take the pinch out of your budget. Contact people within your network and arrange a day where people exchange homemade holiday decorations. You may not find everything you’re looking for, but you will likely find at least a few stocking stuffers – and the perfect price.
Then again, it’s one thing to keep a community alive and well when everyone’s camping in a forest and they’ve all opted in to that vision. It’s quite another to imagine a gift economy enabling humans to build skyscrapers, invent iPhones, put air conditioners in every house, and explore space. (The same goes for collecting taxes and running large businesses.) Not that it’s an all-or-nothing situation: We already have gift economies among friends and family. Perhaps expanding that within small communities is possible; it’s certainly desirable.