Most school children understand the concept of bartering, and we’ve probably all tried it as youngsters. Whether we were swapping snacks at the school lunch table or trading toys with other kids in the neighborhood, at an early age, we began to understand the magic of supply and demand, as well as the value of negotiation skills. Our childhood wins and losses may seem like ancient history now, but these bartering skills go back much further than our fourth-grade recess. At least 8,000 years ago, our distant ancestors began to trade valuable goods from one group to another.
As far as we can currently tell, ancient Mesopotamian tribes kicked things off in the realm of bartering (and we know this because they left their transaction receipts behind on clay tablets). Later, the Phoenicians and Babylonians refined the barter system. Trading the goods you have for other goods you want (without the use of money) continued into the Middle Ages and Colonial times. This age-old skill was even seen recently during the Greek debt crisis just a few years ago. It would seem that we have a long tradition of trading, but today we often have a minimal view of our trading options. Most barter students get hung up on the trade of tangible items, but bartering isn’t just limited to hard goods. You can also barter your skills and labor. Here’s how.
Trade Your Time
Unskilled labor can still be valuable, and in essence, you’re trading your time for the desired goods. Maybe someone needs firewood carried from point A to point B, or any number of other survival related chores. Labor has always been needed, in both good times and tough times, and it would still be a valuable commodity – even in a grid down or post SHTF scenario.
Trade Your Talent
If you’re really good at some useful task, then you’re a step above those only offering unskilled labor. Your talent might be in cooking, gardening, mending clothes, keeping kids occupied, or any other skilled task. You may have some convincing to do, to establish your worth as a qualified worker, but it would be a shame not to leverage your true talents during a time of need.
Trade Your Expertise
When you can do something useful that no one else can accomplish, your skills should be in demand (both now and after doomsday). If you’re a professional in a useful field, your hour of work should be worth more than anyone else’s hour of toil. “In demand” professions like doctor, dentist, auto mechanic, electrician, carpenter and security guard could have great value in trades. These could be standalone items, such as one medical or dental house call for your family, or you could add hours of service into a mixed trade of both goods and services. For example, a doctor might trade some meds, and two house calls for a specific amount of food. Details matter, so make sure you hammer out all possible trade details before you shake on it.
Make Your Case
Bartering doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It occurs between the smart and the dumb, the persuasive and the pathetic, and every other type of person in between. So if you’re planning to hock your skills or labor for some tangible goods, you’ll needto be able to make your case for the trade and inspire trust in your trading partner.Part of the business of bartering is the skill of haggling. Commonly called by other names (like quibbling, wrangling, and bargaining), haggling is a simple form of negotiation and price adjustment.
You might think it’s all about charisma, but haggling is more about effective communication with your potential trade partner. When you can accurately explain “what’s in it for them,” then your trading becomes much easier. You’ll have to successfully explain why you are qualified to provide the skill and why your trade partner should use your labor instead of someone else’s work – and you’ll have to establish a “worth” to your skills (and both parties will need to feel like they are getting a good deal).
All this may take some haggling, especially when it comes to establishing some basis of worth for your goods and services. In a crisis, you’d expect the value of needed goods (like food and medicine) to be many times their former dollar value. You might also see the value of skills adjusted downward. For example, a two-pound sack of rice costs about $2 right now, but its trade value may be more like $50 after a lengthy crisis.
Furthermore, if you’re a $100 an hour tradesman before the collapse, and you have a needed skill – that formerly $2 bag of rice might just be a good trade for your hour of skilled work (doing automotive repair, medical care or carpentry work). At first glance, it seems like the service provider is getting screwed but look at the real worth. That 2-pound sack of rice contains roughly 3,200 calories. It’s essentially someone’s rations for a day and a half. Would one hour of work be worth a day and a half of food? In a situation where food is scarce, I’d take that trade and feel good about it.
Mix and Match
Trading wouldn’t have to be for either skills or goods. You can trade for a bit of both. When your goods aren’t quite good enough to secure the trade, add in some labor. When your skills aren’t quite enough to tip the scale, add in some goods. Barter has always been a fluid art form, a back and forth negotiation. And if it turned out that you were really good at barter, you could even barter your skills at bartering – by acting as a trade agent for others (and taking a little cut for your payment).