Bartering 101: What to do When Money Has No Meaning
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In a society where transactions are driven by credit cards and the occasional use of cash, barter seems like a quaint recollection of the past. But in many economies around the world, barter is still a very active method of commerce and trade.
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Many of these cultures are rural, somewhat primitive and, in some cases, plagued by civil war or economic collapse. It’s easy to think, “It can’t happen here,” but it could.
What is a Barter Economy?
Barter is a transaction defined by the exchange of goods or services in trade. It’s referred to in Latin as “Qui Pro Quo” or “This for That.” When two parties agree that the exchange is fair and of relatively equal value, the transaction is complete. But there are variables that come into play depending on the need that one party has for a certain item or service, or its rarity.
In a time of societal collapse, prescription medications can be hard to come by and could have significantly more value and command a higher rate of exchange. In other instances, basic commodities can be easily negotiated such as a dozen eggs for a loaf of bread. It all depends on what you have and what you need.
In an established barter economy, the exchange of goods and services is typically done in a good-natured way with a bit of friendly haggling. Haggling is not an argument. It’s an effort to highlight and enhance the value of something.
The eggs are fresh, the tools are sharp, the jelly was canned last week, I’ve been blacksmithing for 20 years—anything that demonstrates the real value.
Defining Value in a Barter Economy
Scarcity can define value. Everyday basics also have value. In a barter economy value is often subjective. Certain people at certain times need certain things and are anxious to trade to acquire those items.
Bullets are often thought of as a valuable commodity for trade, but for some people, tampons might have greater perceived value.
Goods or Services?
Barter success is defined by what you have to offer.
- If you have a significant stockpile of certain items, you have a resource that you can use for barter until you start to run out.
- If you have a unique skill, you can trade your labor for items. Someone who is an accomplished timber-frame carpenter or has the tools and the skills for blacksmithing can often find their talents in demand.
- Items you make can also add to your barter larder. Something as simple as baked goods, knit clothing, harvested fruits or vegetables—if someone needs it, it has value.
What you offer in barter needs to be perceived as equal in value to what you hope to get. Offering a shovel for an ax may be a fair trade. Offering 4 dozen eggs for an ax may not succeed. Although 12 dozen eggs may do the trick.
Here again, one of the keys to barter is the needs of the bartering parties. If someone hasn’t eaten an egg for a year, you may get that ax.
Know Where to Begin
Your initial experience with barter in a rapidly occurring barter economy will probably be with neighbors and friends. It’s most likely that we’ll continue to share freely with family, but as resources run low our generosity will fade and friends and neighbors will soon be looking to barter as a fair exchange.
As time goes on you should try to locate barter markets where a more diverse group of people will bring a greater variety of options to exchange.
Barter Exchanges are Final
This ain’t Walmart. If you’re dissatisfied with anything after a barter exchange, you’re stuck with it. Inspect anything you are interested in until you’re satisfied that it’s what you expected.
Make sure anything you offer in exchange will meet expectations as well. Both good and bad reputations spread quickly.
Items With Value in a Barter Economy
To assess the value of any item, you have to anticipate its availability in a failing economy where manufacturing and distribution are compromised. What are the things people will need on a day-to-day basis in a self-reliant environment?
This leads to some possible options:
- Baking soda
- Baking powder
- Cooking oils
- Dried beans
- Wild harvested or grown fruits and vegetables
The list speaks for itself.
- Toilet paper
- Toothpaste and brushes
- Shaving razors
In an environment where traditional manufacturing and distribution resources have broken down, the ability to do-it-yourself will become a daily fact of life. Hand tools will quickly appreciate in value along with other basic tools that allow people to make and create the things they need.
- Log splitting ax and wedges
- Draw shaves
- Hand drills and bits
- Logging tools
Domestic Tools and Supplies
- Knitting needles
- Needles and thread
Hardware may be high in demand in a barter economy when making things from scratch becomes the norm rather than a hobby.
- Locks and keys
- Lock hasps
- Baling wire
- Duct tape
When there is no pharmacy.
- Adhesive bandages
- Gauze pads
- Surgical tape
- Gauze trauma pads
- Gauze wraps
- Elastic wraps (ACE bandages)
- Eye patches
- Triple antibiotic ointment
- Pain relievers
- Anti-fungal/Anti-itch ointments
- Congestion relief
- Eye drops
- Burn gel
Supplies for Cooking and Drinking Water
- Cast iron cookware
- Water filters
- Activated charcoal for water filtration
- Canning jars and lids
- Canning supplies like lifting tongs and large pots
Creating Items for Barter
- Activated charcoal
- Apple Cider
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Hard Cider
- Rustic furniture
- Knitted items
- Beer and wine
- Maple syrup
- Smoked fish and game
- Garden herbs
- Wild foraged herbal remedies
- Baked goods
The Barter Items with Extreme Value
1. Prescription Medicines
- Blood pressure medications
- Blood thinners
- Prescription pain relievers
2. Precious Metals
- If you have a 1-ounce gold coin that’s worth thousands, it’s worthless to you if you’re trying to acquire simple items.
- 1-ounce silver coins will be worth much less, but the value could still be above the average barter item.
- Gold and silver coins are sold in smaller, 1/10th-ounce sizes but even they may be more than you need for a simple transaction.
- Coins with silver content are a good possibility and the various sizes and resulting weights from dimes to quarters to half dollars and silver dollars give you some room to maneuver. Most U.S. coins minted in 1964 and before have varying percentages of silver content.
You’ll also want to keep a low-profile and not announce too loudly that you have any quantity of precious metals in your possession. If you can’t figure out why that’s important, you should avoid acquiring precious metals.
If things have deteriorated to the point where all commerce is transacted through a barter economy, it’s a good bet that other systems have failed or are severely weakened as well. Self-defense will be a fact of life on a more frequent basis. Weapons and ammunition will be in high demand.
Which weapon or weapons you acquire is a matter of personal choice. Acquiring weapons for potential barter is another matter.
- Antique or outdated rifles that are still safely functioning will have value to someone without any alternative. They can often be purchased for a good price.
- Handguns also apply, but make sure any weapon you offer in barter is functional and safe to operate.
- Ammunition for the weapon makes sense as part of the transaction but keep the gun-shop owner’s rules in mind. “Don’t load it here. Save it for the rifle range.”
- This can be a risky transaction unless you are in an environment that is very public, and you feel you can trust your trading partner.
Practice at a Barter Fair
Swap meets take place in parking lots, fairgrounds, and parks, and people gather and exchange things. You can find them on the Internet or local classified ads.
Visit one and walk around your first time and see what people are offering. On your second visit, bring along some items and a coffee table and you’ll get the hang of things fairly quickly.
As a Barter Economy Matures, So Do the Barterers
What has become apparent in countries and cultures that often engage in barter is that a certain calm and protocol emerges to make the act of barter a fairly uncomplicated transaction.
This takes time, but as transactions increase and grow, so do relationships and friendships. A barter economy is nothing to fear. It’s the circumstances that created it that should give us pause.