Barter, Baby, Barter

Sharon May 7th, 2009

The first year we lived here, Eric’s job was half-time, and we (Eric, me, Eli, new baby Simon) lived on 17,000 dollars a year.  About half of that went to our mortgage, since we were trying to pay it down quickly.  $3K of the remainder when to replacing the well lines, which exploded the first time it froze.  It was very little exaggeration to say that we had no money. 

What we did have was time – despite the fact that I was pregnant or had a new baby, Eric was teaching only about half time, and I was home with the kids, claiming to work on my doctoral dissertation, but really not doing any such thing.  From our efforts to substitute time for money came a whole lot of good things - first our gardens, then our small CSA, which made a big dent in our budget.  And a whole lot of barter.

In those first few years, we bartered a number of things - babysitting for our kids, a time-shared vehicle with another family, vegetables and gardening help for help with other projects, eggs for firewood.  I remember experiencing every transaction as a breath of air – here was something that I could not afford in dollars, but that I could fairly and honestly obtain for my family and offer something good in exchange – and know that although we couldn’t afford credit card fees and borrowing, we had a measure of credit that didn’t come with fees – the good credit and relationships that came with barter, and that meant that neighbors were willing to go out of their way for us, because they knew we’d do the same.

We have a bit more money now, but we still barter a lot – for example, I barter the use of our large pasture and day to day sheep tending work for lamb, help with fencing and wool.  I have gladly bartered my books for other author’s books, and happily accept barter for participation in my classes (although many people still use paypal, since it can be hard to barter long distance).  I still feel that sense of gratitude whenever I have a bartered relationship with someone – the idea that we could function out of the money economy is a great joy to me. 

Which brings me to the marvellous Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest essay, which is just a delight – in it she properly takes aim at the idea that the newly unemployed should work full time at job hunting, and argues that this is keeping us artificially passive.  She offers a list of useful things one could and should do with their time, now that they are unemployed, to which I’d like to suggest “get as far out of the money economy as possible.”  Now this is not a magical panacea, and for households with a single earner, or multi-earner households where all earners are unemployed, at some point, someone is going to have to get a job if at all possible, even if it is a crappy one.

But until a job appears, the reality is that there are things one can do to minimize one’s dependency on the formal economy – and those things include thrift, subsistence labor (ie, making, scavenging, growing, preserving, fixing the things you would ordinarily pay for), and barter.  Frankly, I think that these are more productive and better things for the world as a whole than many of the things we do as jobs, and to the extent that it is possible for one to spend one’s unemployment fighting for justice or even just growing beans (ideally both), I think that most of us do less harm this way, and a great deal more good.

Moreover, I think that the loss of our time, and the trade we’ve made of time for money hasn’t always been a good one for us – it makes us more passive politically and dependent personally, and the first things lost when we lose time are human relationships.  We simply don’t have time to depend on one another – so we move further and further into the money economy, where money acts as a shorthand for what talk and meals together once did for people.  We become more dependent on the public economy as a whole at each step. 

I’m particularly fond of barter because while it is often not possible to pay the property taxes that way, barter can cover an awful lot of other territory.  It is astonishing what barter can bring about – and while I like barter networks and other programs, and can see their advantages, I am particularly passionate about barter that takes place in human relationships – because I think it kills two birds with one stone, not only does it save money on the particular exchange, but it helps us give up our general dependency on money in place of community.  I see all the uses of internet barter networks, which give you credit you can use with people for what you need, even if the person who has the other thing doesn’t need your resource.  And yet, direct barter – the oldest form of human exchange, in which my eggs and your honey meet one another, has something special going for it.

And that is the reality of human exchange – in monetary exchange, and I think by necessity to an extent in barter networks, things have  a fixed valuation.  This is convenient, of course, but it also changes the nature of the relationship.  When your eggs equal on “barter buck” or “credit hour” you are shopping for the best possible bang for your buck.

But when you and your neighbor who have a relationship are figuring out how many eggs a week are worth a cord of firewood, something more is at stake besides the precise exchange – you have entered into a relationship that can’t be commodified fully, one in which you have to talk to each other, have to interact.  And this is always just the beginning – someone who eats eggs will probably keep wanting them.  Someone who heats with wood may want more firewood.  The relationship will be based on two things – your perceived equity (ie, it was fair) and your pleasure in the relationship – this is also true with some kinds of shopping, and is why people like going to farmer’s markets and hate Walmart (in part).

But the thing about barter that I find true is that it brings out the best in us for the most part – because it is never possible to full equate eggs with logs, because they are fundamentally not the same, in barter, you are never fully sure that the price paid is a fair one – you can’t be.  And what I see in barter relationships is a turning around of economic exchanges – because we want fairness even in ourselves mostly, because few of us like to beholden, or to look cheap, we find ourselves feeling as though the relationship is never fully even – at its best, both barter participants always feel that they got the better of the deal, that they paid too little, and thus, “owe” a little on next time.  Instead of *getting* the best bang for your buck, barter becomes about *giving* the best bang for your time.

One of the things that worries me about our present economic situation is how very vulnerable we are in our total dependence on the formal economy – and we are taught to look only there for our security.  So when the formal economy fails us, it seems that there is nothing left, that all that remains is the empty rote of enacting participation that we cannot truly succeed in.  I don’t claim that barter will save us from poverty – it won’t.  But it may save us by offering us a kind of livability that the formal economy when it cracks and fails cannot.  What we may get back in this crisis, difficult as it is, is time – and the chance to use time instead of money.

Moreover, it offers us credit we can afford – when I and my neighbor make those first tentative gestures towards exchange, we are at first still caught in the monetary economy, still calculating what is fair.  But after a time, we are in relationship in such a way as to know that we can trust one another not to take advantage (and it should go without saying that if anyone does, that’s it for the relationship), and thus, the valuation of things change – a good exchange is one where you feel you are invested already in the next one, relieved from the pressure of the money economy, because your credit ”is good with them.”  In a society where credit is disappearing, this may be the only kind we have.   


41 Responses to “Barter, Baby, Barter”

  1. Jerry says:

    We use to use a form of barter in the 1950′s where we would harvest crops with the neighbor and then have him help us harvest our crops. It always worked out pretty well. Two generations later I still share machinery with my neighbor, with no money changing hands. It allows both of us to save what little money we have. Well, it’s time to round up the cows and I had a good day today since I saw a Baltimore oriole when I was moving my electric fence for tonight’s pasture.

  2. kathy says:

    It occurs to me that we met through barter in a way. Our first exchange was an exchange of books which led to an exchange of ideas. We have never met face to face but are friends none-the-less.

  3. kathy says:

    It occurrs to me that met through barter. Our first contact was and exchange of books which led to an exchange of ideas. We have never met face to face but are friends none-the-less.

  4. MEA says:

    Your comment about growing bean and working for justice reminds me of W. W. Law…

    I’m also become increasingly aware that the idea that you can only be one thing or do one thing at a time seems to be so accept as to be almost unstated.

    As for barter, I have terrible time saying I’ll do this or give you this if you do that or give me that — I’d rather a gift economy (which I think works the same way except 1) you set the price of what you get by what you give bace and
    2) what you give back doesn’t have to be to person who gave to you, just to someone else in the large community (you can give outside, but obviously it breaks down if that’s done too much).

    I think we’ll go the way of the barter economy. I have a feeling, and I may be wrong, that you have to report goods you get in barter to the IRS.


  5. Sharon says:

    MEA, you are definitely supposed to report barter as income. Ummm…. ;-)


  6. MEA says:

    Well, that’s a plus for the gift econony idea, I think. I’ve never heard of have to report gifts (except large sums of money or things like companies).


  7. Diane says:

    Anthropologically, gift economies can be pretty weird, northwest Indian potlatches and ancient Greece come to mind. They are actually very formalized. Then the latter invented coinage. Barter seems to take place when the money economy, actually more flexible, isn’t usable for some people. Governments hate informal economies (how do you tax them?) but some are recognizing that they are life savers for the poorest people. I follow this blog which is mainly political in nature but might generate ideas for informal opportunities. I hope you don’t mind that I am recommending it:

  8. Theresa says:

    Reading this eased some anxiety I didn’t even know I had – thanks again Sharon!

  9. mnfn says:

    My experience of barter is that it’s not just about building relationships, or belonging to a community, but also about belonging to a place.

    We’ve recently moved across the country to a place with a very different climate. I know it’s time to plant bulbs now, because I was given a box of daffodil bulbs dug up from an overfull garden bed. We’ve promised a return of seeds from our very successful squash. My BB’s workplace has what I’ve labelled a ‘black market in preserves’ where fruit and vegetables, seeds and cuttings circulate the network, returning later as pickled cherries, tomato chutney, quince jelly. Each item speaks of this place – what can be grown, when it can be harvested, how it can be kept through the winter – and of these people.

  10. gen says:

    I just told some friends last week that I planned to stock on N95 masks, oil, and chocolate. I should then be able to barter with any moms in my area for anything I don’t have in my personal storage. :)

  11. Raye says:

    Thanks for confirming my approach to an extreme change in my life. I am not employed by anyone right now, for the first time since I was sixteen (long, long ago), with the exception of three years of schooling. I have a business, but shall we say I am “between clients?”

    Rather than fret, since there is a family member with a job, I have been expanding our food-producing gardens, economizing like never before, saying “yes” to some opportunities to serve the community, and working to develop a local network of food producers who can swap and share to the benefit of all involved. Much of what I have to offer is brainspace. My education and experience are ecology- and agriculture-related. I often help people sort out what to do about their gardens or a drainage problem.

    If it weren’t for my connections to the One Who made us, I think I would be much more nervous and unsettled. But I have a sense that I am walking in the way that is best. I am learning ways that my parents’ generation chose not to follow. It is a steep learning curve.

    Thanks for help navigating this path.

  12. Bill says:

    What’s this argument about barter? Trading stuff has been the basis of exchange since folks started to think “I got this…You got that. Let’s swap.”

    Some misplaced identification with, or loyalty to, a central authority leads us to avoid thinking about barter as a way of commerce and life. The “Central Authority” has only the power given it by the slaves. Taxes???

    Once we decide we aren’t slaves and can swap and trade whatever the hell we want, we might be able to rightly call ourselves free people!

    Barter is the economy of the future. Those folks interested in living in this sort of world would do well to establish their connections now.

    Jim Kunstler calls our current situation a “clusterfuck”. I agree with Jim, but, considering the implications, I’m not finding the whole thing anywhere near orgasmic.

    In decades past, one of the matras used to be “turn on, tune in, drop out”. I don’t turn on that much these days but, being a retired old fart with way too much time on my hands, I have to think that the time for dropping out has come round again. Tuning in is a no-brainer. My constant question is “How can anyone put faith in this corrupt and evil ‘capitalist’ system”.

    With not too many years left, my thought is that it’s time to jetison capitalism and all the evil bloodsuckers that go with it. Finding barter relationships leads us to discovering relationships that are honest, trustworthy and worthwhile. We may encounter some that aren’t that worthwhile, but that’s life, eh?

  13. Rebecca says:

    Barter is great. I love it. I’ve swapped jams, clothing, all kinds of things. And like you, I’ve recently discovered I can swap my book for other author’s books.

    The informal economy is the biggest sector in most countries, and I expect that to quickly become true in the U.S.

  14. dewey says:

    Yes indeed, the IRS says that if we swap your eggs for my honey, both of us have INCOME which we must then pay taxes on (triple tax to account for the self-employment penalty). Never mind that neither of us has more material resources than before, whereas a hedge fund scuzzbag is paying hardly anything on his billion-a-year income because it’s “capital gains.” So please, if you’re bartering substantially, keep it under your hat.

    If you give me a gift of money, under a certain reporting limit, I do not have to pay income tax on it. (You, of course, already have.) Likewise, if I give you a jar of honey for a Chanukah present, you don’t have to pay income tax on it. Therefore, viewing and speaking of mutual survival efforts as a gift economy is for now much safer.

    BUT, some years ago the IRS tried to claim that the labor offered by traditional farmers to their neighbors in barn-raisings and harvest help should be reported as income. Likewise, under FDR the prohibition on farmers’ growing food for personal use was upheld as falling under the commerce clause, on the argument that they would otherwise have had to buy wheat, which might have come from some other state. So I think it is not impossible that as the PTB get increasingly desperate, the attempts to keep us docile and fragmented will become more savage. In the extreme: if you grow a garden instead of buying the corporate food, could you be required to pay income plus self-employment tax on the value of the produce obtained? In occupied Gaza in the 1990s, people were not supposed to so much as plant a single tomato without a permit.

  15. Sharon says:

    I agree with you, Dewey. What I also think is that as things get more stretched, the laws will be more repressive, and the actual enforcement, probably more lax from lack of people to do the enforcing. This does not get one off the hook – that is, arbitrary occasional enforcement is pretty horrible too, but it does make me feel that the right technique is yes, to object to such strictures, and yes, also to ignore such strictures as much as possible and safe.


  16. Deb says:

    The book A Midwive”s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is about a midwife in Maine from 1785 to 1812. She left a diary of her dealings with her neighbors that detailed births, payments for births, barters and exchanges of labor. Ulrich takes the diary and compares it against town records, probate records and anything else she can find to trace how this woman functioned as a wife, mother, neighbor and business woman in a small village right after the Revolutionary War.

    It’s a very interesting book, particularly when Ulrich discusses the use of barter in the distaff side of the economy vs the use of money for purchasing goods and services which seemed to be the male method.

    If you havent read it I highly recommend it–it’s a good a very good read.

  17. Tina says:


    I really needed to read this post today, thank you.

    I am so thankful for having read your book. It really changed the way I think…I suppose having read your book, combined with the collapse of the economy was the “perfect storm” that actually prompted me to make significant changes for our family. You know most of my situation from having read my stuff in the AIP class, but we have made the decision to leave Phoenix. This decision has been huge for us. The stress is almost unbearable, but I know when all is said and done we will be way better off for it. So we are leaving our beloved irrigated suburban gardens for 18 acres of farmland that we are renting in NJ. The deal is not sealed yet, which is accounting for a huge amount of the stress we are currently feeling, but something will work out, even if not this particular piece of property.

    Your writing is inspirational (all the housewife stuff AND the policy analysis…)


  18. Chris R. says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I couldn’t agree with you more with trying to incorporate more barter exchanges in our lives along with consuming less and buying local, maybe with local currency, when we do buy at all. Especially resonant was your connection between time and the money economy.

    The lack of time generally has seriously weakened our culture, our families, and our own lives. We lack time, as you note, for meals together, conversation, and other less obvious tasks like listening, observation, and reflection. We do not have time to participate politically or engage in community service. The ramifications of time dearth are staggering, complex, and nearly ubiquitous.

    There is no question that developing a parallel culture and economy is of the utmost importance. Thanks for getting the discussion started.

    C. Ryan
    The Localizer Blog

  19. linda says:

    I think bartering is going to be a necessity and that it will depend on the community unless you can use your business networking in some way, i.e. husband is in construction so he can extend his service to his business associates. In these cases, the professions are very specialized so the carpenter can’t do masonry for example. Yet it doesn’t have to be limited to services within one industry either as you said Sharon. Years ago, my husband bartered dental services for the both of us in exchange for paving a patio. We didn’t have insurance at the time but needed some major work. I have bartered haircuts for new clothes from a buyer for a well known fashion house for a long time. Only stopped when I moved away. You can imagine how happy everybody was. Its so worth it as long as the agreement is up front and everybody is on the same page.

  20. Ani says:

    I really like barter in general , BUT it depends. I’ve done some barters where it seems to have worked out well for both of us- in some cases there are dollar values of a sort attached to what we bartered, and in others I have no idea how you’d ever attach a value to it in dollars-it just works for us. My biggest problem is with some people I know who sort of like the idea of barter but generally it consists of them trying to foist something they have no use for onto me in exhange for something I have that they want. Now if I wanted what they had to offer that could be ok but I generally don’t, or else the values are really skewed in their direction. I sort of try to avoid any dealings of these sorts with these folks- they seem to think they are just being shrewd or something, but I just think they’re cheap….

    I have no idea how to deal with them really- I just have learned to try to gracefully bow out when they suggest another “deal”. So I’d say that “buyer beware” extends to bartering as well-”barterer beware”?

  21. Carolyn says:

    Sharon -
    Thanks so much for this post and the Ehrenreich essay.

  22. Sharon says:

    Ani, I do know what you mean. I would distinguish, however, between people who are making first gestures, and may not really know what you want, and people who are just jerks ;-) . That is, sometimes the first barter trade offers aren’t necessarily ideal, because people are just testing the waters, seeing whether you are open to the idea or not. They don’t know you well enough to know what you need, and are not quite sure what they have. Obviously, you get the distinction, but for those who haven’t done this, I think it is important to realize that someone that wants to trade their cutesy craft item or old sofa may just be trying to establish a relationship.


  23. Jct: But better to join or start up an official group of barterers to get on the Time Standard of Money to be compatible with the rest of the timebanks around the world.
    when the local currency is pegged to the Time Standard of Money (how many dollars/hour child labor) Hours earned locally can be intertraded with other timebanks globally!
    In 1999, I paid for 39/40 nights in Europe with an IOU for a night back in Canada worth 5 Hours.
    U.N. Millennium Declaration UNILETS Resolution C6 to governments is for a time-based currency to restructure the global financial architecture.
    See my banking systems engineering analysis at

  24. Stanley Ravi says:

    Taxes, profitability, survival, borders, guns, freedom, food security, security, security for women and children, the bearers of my progeny, and what not, eventually need to be bartered. How? or Do it yourself?

    Tha’s what the guys at the white house have to offer, but then can they really do so now?
    They’ll be doing it with our sons. In the name of patriotism.

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