In these lean times, your only limit to what you can trade (computer help for birthday cakes? artwork for dental work?) is your imagination.

By Hannah Wallace
Updated May 14, 2009
Real Simple March 2008
Credit: Lucas Allen

Tricks of the Trade

Follow these four steps when arranging a barter to ensure that both sides get a sweet deal.

Step 1: Figure Out What You Want to Get―and What You Can Give.
The first part is easy. Maybe you’re looking for a yoga class or interior-decorating help. The challenge is working out what goods or services you can exchange in return. Tapping into your professional expertise or considering what you studied in college is an obvious place to start. But also ask yourself:

  • What would you sell if you were having a garage sale tomorrow? Is any of it worth trading?
  • What hobbies could you teach someone?
  • Could you craft something to swap? (A pair of hand-knit mittens? A photo book or a scrapbook?)
  • Which common chores do you enjoy? (People have performed tasks as random as pulling weeds.)

“Everyone has something to offer,” says Amy Kirschner, founder of Vermont Sustainable Exchange, a business-to-business bartering network in her home state. She is also involved in a local bartering group whose members have run errands, given rides to the airport, or even walked dogs in exchange for what they needed.

Step 2: Identify a Trading Partner.
Make a list of friends, colleagues, or existing business clients who might have what you want and want what you have. Two years ago, Jennifer Garcia, a baker based in Dallas, was looking for someone to update her website regularly, so she offered her friend Sharon Harvey, a website designer, unlimited cakes and baked goods to do the job. The ongoing arrangement has “worked wonderfully,” says Harvey, saving both women hundreds of dollars.

Coming up blank on people you know? Try one of these more organized ways to find a match.

  • Join a local bartering club. Groups like Kirschner’s exist in towns and neighborhoods across the country, bringing people together to swap goods and services. Some are conducted online, others in person, and many are spread by word of mouth. So check the notice boards at schools, cafés, and community centers.
  • Join a Time Bank. It works like this: You register (for free) at your local Time Bank’s website and list the services you have to offer. For each hour of work you provide to another member, you earn a “time dollar,” redeemable for any service someone else has listed on the site. Find a Time Bank in your area, or learn how to start your own, at
  • Visit specialized bartering websites. New niche sites have sprung up where you can exchange almost anything: kids’ gear, legal services, cars, you name it. (For a few to try, see Online Trade, at the end of this article.)

Step 3: Pop the Question.
Bartering in a club or online? Skip to step 4.

But what if you want to offer, say, your accountant the use of your season tickets to the theater in exchange for doing your taxes? Just ask, advise the pros. Antonio Puri, an artist based in Philadelphia, was in his dentist’s chair, absorbing the news that he needed a root canal and a crown, when he noticed there were no paintings on the office walls. “So I said to my dentist, ‘You need art. How about doing a trade?’ ” Puri says. The dentist visited his studio, found a $1,200 painting he liked, and accepted it as payment for the two procedures.

Step 4: Hammer Out the Details.
Whether you’re bartering one-on-one, through a group, or online, set the terms of the deal up front.

  • Assess the dollar value of your goods or service. Trading something tangible, like a sofa or a bike? Research the price of similar items on or in local newspaper classifieds. If you’re swapping a service, figure what you would usually charge, factoring in supplies. Then make an even exchange―for example, a $60 birthday cake for three $20 manicures; eight hours of piano lessons for eight hours of math tutoring.
  • Don’t forget the tax man. In some cases, the law requires you to report bartering transactions on your tax return. “That doesn’t mean you have to declare swapping babysitting with a neighbor,” says Anthony Burke, an Internal Revenue Service spokesman. “But a barter between businesses is considered taxable income.” If you barter regularly, consult an accountant.
  • Set the time frame. Decide how long you and your bartering partner will need to fulfill your part of the deal, and set a deadline. If it’s ongoing, set a review date to make sure you’re both still happy.
  • Put it in writing. Take it from Nina Wurtzel, a New York City photographer who shot and designed a brochure for a local salon in exchange for services: “I wound up revising the brochure several times, but I received only one cut and color.” If the deal will last longer than one exchange, send an e-mail saying, “This is what I will do and what you will do in this time period,” says Amy Belanger, deputy director of Green America, a nonprofit that supports bartering as part of environmental sustainability. But if it is worth a lot of money or is ongoing, she suggests a signed agreement. The hallmark of a successful barter? If both parties are willing to do it again. “Once you start,” says Belanger, “it becomes part of your lifestyle.”

Online Trade

Save cash with these bartering websites.