Yesterday, I was reminded of the good old-fashioned barter system.
A friend of a friend is working on getting a website up that would sell Magic cards. He is in a last, big push to get his inventory sorted — about 50,000 cards are left. I mentioned to this guy that, should he ever need inventory help, Tim is usually pretty free and knows his cards well.
The man was definitely interested, even more so when I told him where we lived (apparently not far from him) and that we had a car.
Of course, the big question he wanted answered: What would Tim want for his labor? I told him that the two of them would need to work that out between themselves. But that Tim would probably be amenable to trading his labor for cards.
Since this guy buys wholesale, it’s really win-win. He gets cards cheaply and uses some of those to trade for even more valuable cards. In other words, he hasn’t paid anything close to face value for any cards he gives us. Meanwhile, Tim does help me with some of my contract work. But he still has a lot of free time. Other than some potential stiff muscles and maybe a little eye strain, working to sort cards wouldn’t take a lot out of him, nor would it cut into his other responsibilities.
And so the barter system lives on — for good reason. After all, money is what you use to buy goods or services. If you don’t have the money, you can sometimes skip that intermediary and just trade based on overall value.
My mom got a deep discount on some dental work. Her sister is a dental hygienist, so my mom knew the dentist had kids and was always on the lookout for a decent babysitter. My mom got good money for quite awhile as a babysitter, because people were thrilled to have someone over the age of 14 watching their kids. (And because babysitters make bank these days, anyway.)
In this case, it was just about ideal. The dentist had to pay for some supplies, I’m sure. And, by blocking out an appointment, she was potentially losing income. But she was also able to schedule the work for a less-popular time slot, which insured she wasn’t booting many paying customers. Meanwhile, my mom had to pay for gas to and from the babysitting destination and actually save up the energy to wrangle two kids. But she didn’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for much-needed dental work.
Certainly, we’re not the only ones around who engage in this trade. If you look on Craigslist, there’s a whole category for barter/trade. You’ll find some pretty strange stuff on there. A lot of contractors (ie, uninsured) are looking for medical/dental work in exchange for home repairs or improvements. But you’ll also see people looking to swap gift cards locally and people who post just to see what they can get. (Massage therapists have a lot of ads, and I imagine they get plenty of responses, too.)
I think the hardest part is settling on a fair valuation system. For something you do professionally, it’s easy enough — you know what you charge. But for something like card sorting… Well, Tim and I are going to talk to our mutual friend. He is already setting up the guy’s website as part of a barter, so he’ll be able to give us a good idea of what the guy values labor — and cards — at. Then we can bring him an offer that won’t shortchange us, but also won’t be asking too much.
The great thing about bartering is that, cliche though it is, anyone can do it. We all have skills that other people don’t — or time to put the skills to use, at the very least.
And it’s not always the most obvious skill set that will sell, either. I once read about a woman who was rabid about a carefully organized kitchen. A neighbor was so envious of the time- and effort-saving effects, she hired the woman to organize her cupboard. Which got so much admiration that the neighbor’s friends started calling, and so a very successful business was born.
In the past, I have helped one or two people organize their card collections and sell them for a percentage of the profits. I also scouted a good deal on some cards for a Magic player, in exchange for a 10% commission on the purchase price. So, in my case, my Excel and Internet knowledge happened to come in very handy — even though I consider both sets of knowledge to be pretty mundane.
Of course, there are plenty of more mainstream options: babysitting, cleaning houses, repair (house or auto), massage, personal training, etc. But there are smaller things too: Hemming pants is a far more valuable skill than most people with sewing machines will ever realize. Being able to organize things might come naturally to you, but someone like me would squeal with joy to have you come in and set up a system in my house.
There are really a host of options — though I should take a moment to remind everyone that barter is considered income by the IRS, so the value of what you trade for is supposed to be marked down on your tax return… and I’m sure no one would ever forget to do that (cough, cough) — and I doubt any of us really take full advantage of our skills.
Beyond making money, bartering can make fantastic gifts. Any new set of parents my mom knows gets a couple of free nights of babysitting once they decide they’re ready. Free to her, invaluable to them — everyone’s happy.
On a slightly different front, she leaves notes for people who have fruit trees/vines in their yards. She’ll pick in exchange for a couple of jars of jam. The people don’t have to pick up dead, unused fruit and they get jam. She then has free fruit for her yearly homemade jam — one of everyone’s favorite Christmas gifts.
So what, if anything, do you barter for? What would you love to get in exchange for some skill you have?