A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about how to master haggling to save money. This week I’m giving tips on how to barter successfully. Like haggling, bartering isn’t often done in the U.S. I think part of it is because, as with haggling, people are embarrassed to barter. Some people feel uncomfortable suggesting that they trade resources or talents. We also lack many of the close community relationships that make bartering easier. When you’re close with your neighbors, church members, or coworkers, there’s a lot less discomfort in trying to arrange a deal.
Bartering is nothing more than trading one skill or resource for another. Maybe you trade an hour of mowing the lawn for an hour of babysitting your two-year old. Or you trade some old clothes that your kid has outgrown for some books that your neighbor wants to get rid of. No money changes hands when you barter and that’s the beauty of it. Each party gets something they want or need, but they don’t have to pay for it. If you want to try to barter, here are some tips to get you started.
Know what skills or resources you can offer: Think about your skills and resources. Can you sew? Fix computers or appliances? Do yard work or babysit? Build a deck? Make a website? Do taxes? Do you make great jelly? Maybe you have a lot of tools or landscaping equipment that you could loan to someone. Inventory your stuff and think about what might be in demand. Everyone has some skills or resources that can be traded. Once you know what you can offer, you can begin to think about what you might want.
Be specific about what you want: When looking to barter, be very specific about what you want. Simply saying, “I need someone to clean my house,” isn’t specific. Potential trading partners have no idea how big your house is, how dirty, or what you mean by, “clean.” A better way of phrasing it is, “I need someone to clean my 1,200 square foot house once per week, including vacuuming all carpets in the common areas, cleaning one and a half bathrooms, and mopping the kitchen floor. I’ll handle the bedrooms and provide all cleaning materials.” When you get specific, people who might want to trade with you can better determine if what they can offer is comparable in value to what you want.
Assess the value of what you want vs. what you’re offering: While “value” is often subjective, it is possible to assign a value to the skills/resources you’re offering in comparison to those you want to acquire. The first place to look is on the open market. What does what you want cost in the marketplace? If an hour of cleaning is $100, you need to offer something that’s approximately the same price. If your tool rents for $20 per day, you shouldn’t really ask for an hour of cleaning (at $100) in return unless the person wants to rent for five days. Look online or call some local businesses and ask what they charge for what you want and what you can offer.
Identify people you might trade with: There are many ways to find people who might trade with you. First, think about who might need what you have to offer. Then think if there’s anything they can offer you. Maybe you’ll come up with a neighbor who has a broken deck you can repair and you know she’s good with computers and can take a look at yours which has been acting up. If you want to move beyond the realm of people you know, you can advertise on Craigslist or in your local want ads. You can directly approach business owners in your community. Maybe you can offer to clean the gym in exchange for a free membership. Finally, there are bartering clubs that you can join, both online and off. As with anything, make certain you aren’t dealing with scammers. Find out as much as you can about the people you’ll be dealing with and try to avoid getting ripped off.
Don’t take advantage, or be taken advantage of: If you’ve agreed to do five hours of labor and you reach that point, don’t let your bartering partner talk you into more unless you are getting more, too. I know a guy who does construction work. He bartered some car repairs with someone who needed a garage finished. Both tasks were valued about the same. Well, after my friend completed his work, his bartering partner kept pushing for more. Being a nice guy, my friend did some of it before he finally put his foot down and said that the deal was no longer fair. Since he didn’t need any more car repairs, the other guy had nothing to offer to continue to make the deal fair. My friend was being taken advantage of and finally had to walk away, leaving bad feelings on both sides. Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of, and don’t be the schmuck who’s always pushing for more.
Be fair: You want to strike a deal that’s fair to both of you and leaves you both satisfied. If you can’t agree on terms, it’s better to walk away than to try to push the other person into a deal that doesn’t fit. There are a lot of potential trading partners in the world. Don’t use guilt or threats to try to force a bartering deal.
Bartering, done well, can be a great way to save some money. It is also a great way to build relationships amongst neighbors and other communities. Nothing brings people together like striking a good deal.
You can also use it as a springboard to bigger things, in some cases. If, for example, you trade some jewelry you made with a few people for some other things you need, word might get around that you make nice jewelry, resulting in paying customers. The same applies to skills like graphic design, computer maintenance, landscaping, or tutoring. You may end up not only saving money but making money, as well.