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Reviving the lost art of bartering

A few years ago, we had the “adventure” of being without a fridge for over a month. When the old fridge quit working, in order to pay cash for a replacement we squeezed our budget and put other financial plans on hold while we saved up to purchase a new one.

It took us about six weeks to save enough to purchase a no frills model and I was really proud of us for being disciplined. We made do, we did without. I considered it a victory for frugality.

However, in our pride, Christopher and I didn’t tell anyone and kept our fridge problem to ourselves, quietly taking care of things and making do while we saved up. Later, after the purchase, a friend found out and exclaimed, “why didn’t you tell me? We had an extra fridge we just got rid of, we could have given it to you.”

Whoops. The time we went without was character building, to say the least, but it was an unnecessary hardship that could have been quickly remedied if our pride hadn’t prevented us from putting the word out we had a need.

Now, Christopher and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable just taking the fridge without exchanging it for something, of course. I’m confident we could have worked out a deal with our friend.

Which brings me to the point I want to make today: the often overlooked practice of bartering and swapping and why it’s a valid practice more should consider.

Sure, most folks who think of simple living think of DIY, purchasing second hand, or even going without. Bartering is an option that, in my experience, isn’t the first thought when we need or want something. But I’m here to make the case that it should be.

Bartering is frugal, it’s a win-win for both parties when done fairly, and it’s a simple way to get needs met and wants fulfilled.

For instance, our printer recently quit on us and, as a homeschooling family, it put me in a little bit of a panic. Enter our friends who had an old printer which wasn’t compatible with their new computer AND their need for a toddler bed, which we just happened to have sitting in our garage after our youngest outgrew hers. They got a bed, we got a printer and everyone ended up happy.

But a barter doesn’t just have to be item for item. For the last three Christmases I have used my knitting skills to make presents for my husband’s aunt that she has given away to others. She tells me what she’s looking for and then I knit the projects for her. To “pay” me for my time and effort, she babysits our kids one night during the holiday season. She gets hand knit items to give to loved ones and I get a night out with my husband, plus a good excuse to make time for a hobby I love.

Other recent barters, trades, or swaps that have been successful for us:

  • We exchanged outgrown girls’ winter clothes in good condition with my beekeeper brother for beeswax and honey.
  • My homesteading sister brought us homemade applesauce for our freezer in exchange for our empty wine bottles (she home brews) and our old busted printer (for her sons’ garage tinkering lab).
  • Our old car was traded to a relative in exchange for some work on our house that we didn’t have the skills to do ourselves.
  • We garden sat and took care of a neighbor’s chickens and ducks while they were on vacation and in exchange we got some chicken meat for our freezer and all the fresh veggies and eggs we could carry.
  • My husband and I do jigsaw puzzles and so does my dad and once a year or so we trade him our old puzzles for his old ones and everyone ends up with new to them puzzles.
  • When we first moved and didn’t have a mower of our own, we bartered yard work in exchange for the use of a elderly neighbor’s lawnmower – we used his mower to mow his yard and ours. We worked out a similar deal with the snow blower in the wintertime.

I’ve also heard of curriculum swaps, book swaps, Halloween costume swaps, maternity clothes swaps, and of course I do love a good holiday cookie swap.

The next time you find yourself with a need or a want, don’t be afraid to speak up. Someone may have something that might be the solution to your problem and you could have a skill or item that is of value to them.  If everyone is in agreement about the fairness of the trade and the timeline it needs to be completed by, both sides can get what they want or need and no money need exchange hands.

That sounds like a good deal to me.

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Leslie

    I used to do tons of bartering on a website called Diaperswappers. But be careful; it can be addicting!!

    • Kara

      I’ve heard that 🙂

  2. April

    This makes me realize how fortunate I am to be in the community I’m in. We all give freely without expecting anything back, because we know that when we have a need someone will give freely to us, even if it’s not the same person we gave to. Because we all help where we can as often as we can, no one feels slighted.

    For example, when we moved here and then quickly got pregnant (a surprise to us) we got tons of baby clothes and equipment as hand-me-downs. We had nothing to offer in return, but these families insisted we take them anyway. Now that we’ve been here five years and a few other families have moved here, I’m freely giving to them (showing them around so they know where the grocery stores are, giving them furniture we’re getting rid of but they need, etc.). I don’t expect anything in return, because this is how I’m paying back for when people helped us. And I know that when these new families are settled, someday they’ll pass kindness and helpfulness on to others who need it. Everyone here does this for each other, whether they’ve been here forever or are new, so it feels fair to everyone when doing it this way, even if they aren’t directly paid back (via cash or goods or services).

    It’s similar to bartering, but without having to keep track of who owes what or calculating the value of what you’re exchanging. We all give what we are able and we all receive what we need. Both sides feel good. It’s a win-win.

    (Not sure if this would work in normal communities—maybe small towns?—because we are an expat community in a foreign country.)

    • Kara

      I love this! What a wonderful group dynamic and way for everyone to get what they need. It sounds like you live in a very terrific community and I love how, as you said, both sides get what they need and everyone ends up taken care of. Fantastic!

      And, thinking on it, I’m sure it would work like this – and often does – in our small town. I know there’s a pretty active Pay It Forward group. I should probably check that out a little more closely 🙂

      Ten years ago when we first moved in and didn’t know anybody yet, being able to use a lawnmower and be able to “pay” for its use with a little labor gave us a way to not feel like we were taking advantage of our neighbor’s kindness and to show him some kindness in return. We do still do lots of trading and borrowing back and forth across the street with them to this day.

  3. Cindy

    I am somewhat sad to hear this. Bartering with close family. Why not just give? I try to give everything from extra furniture to clothes to toys. And then I sometimes get what I need. No keeping track, nothing. Just giving. That’s how it should be done. Paying it forward…

    • Kara

      I can safely say that my family would definitely step up and fill a need, without receiving anything in return, because they have and do many, many times with no keeping track.

      But, I also don’t see that making trades and being able to both give and receive is wrong if both sides have a need or a want that the other one can meet. We’ve been trading since our baseball card days. It’s pretty informal, there’s not a record book or anything, and we all feel good about it. It works for us 🙂

    • Guest

      Maybe because the family members need items, too? Or because the author and family are teaching their children to work hard and to be creative in meeting their needs? Or because they want to avoid a situation where anyone ever feels taken advantage of?

  4. Deidra

    As grad students we never would have been able to afford professional photos. But I swallowed my pride and asked a professional photographer acquaintance if she would be willing to trade. We traded three times in three years, mostly sewing, but when I listed a trampoline for sale before we moved she pounced on it. Best trade because she wanted it, I didn’t have to sew anything at a stressful move time, or haggle prices with anyone else! I got beautiful memories recorded of our growing family because I was decided it was worth asking. And we went from acquaintances to friends!

    • Kara

      I love this! And, yes, it does take a little bit of pride swallowing sometimes, but I think it can be worth it.

      Love how you went from being acquaintances to friends – that’s the BEST! 🙂

  5. Stacy

    I love bartering! I wish it was more “the thing” than it is…some people think it’s weird. I think it’s GREAT! We all have something we can give, be it a skill or an unused item.

  6. Alicen

    Great post!

  7. Katie B.

    I think bartering is a great idea, but the fact that it’s an even exchange needs to be clearly stated and understood by both parties. Otherwise, it’s too easy for one person to think they’re doing a favor for the other and keep track of it, expecting a bigger repayment than the first person had in mind.

  8. Maggie

    I love this… I have a dream that all my friends could just move to the same neighborhood and each have like an awesome talent (hair cutting, baking, sewing, etc.) and then we could just be our own little system!

  9. Krista

    I have been able to barter services a bit and would love to do more as long as it can feel like a genuine win-win for both parties.

  10. Emilia

    When my family and I moved from the West Coast to the East Coast we got rid of many of our possessions so as to not have to move them cross country. Two great bartering stories came out of our many Craigslist posts. My husband ended up trading his mountain bike for a case of wine made by a winemaker who happened to be an old childhood friend (from another state!). And I traded my bike for dental work after a conversation with my dentist during my final checkup. He pulled up the Craigslist ad while I sat there and offered to take $200 off of my bill if I could deliver the bike to his office.

  11. Nancy Davis

    I have recently started bartering with a neighbor in a small town in northwest Indiana. It is fun. Nancy

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