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8 Ways You Can Barter and Save Big
You may think of bartering as an old-fashioned way to exchange goods and services. But you’d be surprised by how often it still happens - especially between small business owners.
Your skills - and your time - have more value than you know. And that goes double for folks with specialized knowledge, like web design or copywriting.
Whether you’re a born haggler or you’ve never asked for so much as a discount, bartering your services can save you big in the long run.
We gathered our favorite tips for saving big - no matter what you’re in the mood to barter for.
1. Know What You Have to Offer
The great thing about bartering is that there’s not a single way to do it - your offer depends on who you’re bartering with.
First: assess your skills. Are you an incredible photographer? A brilliant wordsmith? A whiz with QuickBooks?
No matter what your skill happens to be, someone else out there will need it. Look for opportunities to speak with other skilled people about how you might strike up an exchange.
Maybe you can offer to help a local business - like a new restaurant - with publicity in exchange for a discount on meals. Maybe you can write blog posts for your children’s summer camp to make tuition more affordable.
Once you know what you have to offer - you just have to get the guts to ask for what you want!
2. Know What You Want
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Are you asking to trade for a box of vegetables from a local farmer? Or 10 hours of babysitting time from your niece or nephew?
Whatever your ask happens to be, make sure what you’re offering in exchange is fair and balanced, whether in terms of effort, skill, or time.
This mindset has even transformed small business transactions in both the U.S. and the U.K. In England, a group of local business owners started Bartercard UK, which allows businesses to offer their products or services in exchange for goods and services from others in the scheme. All retail values, and exchanges, are reflected in pounds sterling.
“We’re not there to take away any of the current cash business, but to sit alongside it,” Bartercard’s managing director Mark Williams told The Guardian.
Bartering exchanges free up cash-strapped business owners and allow them to exchange the value of goods and services that might not otherwise sell on the open market.
By assigning products and services a real-world value, the site helps keep everyone honest - and happy with the value of their exchange.
3. Develop Good Relationships
Like all good relationships, bartering becomes easier over time, as you establish trust with your negotiating partners.
Identifying the careers and skillsets of friends, family, and colleagues in your extended networks is a good starting point, says Britt Menzies, founder of the custom toy business StinkyKids.
In order to get her fledgling company off the ground, Menzies bartered for crucial services, including web design and PR.
"I made a list of all my friends and family members, people I knew in high school or in college or even went to camp with," Menzies told Entrepreneur. "Then I found out what each of those people did for a living."
Don’t be surprised if your initial negotiations don’t pan out - or you need to put in more face time for your proposed exchange to be taken seriously.
Bartering negotiations take time, practice, and a willingness to go back and forth to find an exchange that works for everyone.
4. Time Has Value
Crucially, you don’t always have to exchange products or services - your time has value to other people, too.
Take this example from Chicago jeweler Rebeca Mojica, who offered volunteers store credit, “the equivalent of time-and-a-half in jewelry and supplies,” in exchange for their help at a local trade show.
“All of them went for the latter, saving [Mojica] $800 - the difference between what it would cost her to hire them at an hourly wage and the cost of materials to make the jewelry,” reports Gwen Moran at Entrepreneur.
If you’ve ever sold used books or videogames to a local retailer, you’ll recognize the principle behind Mojica’s offer. Store credit is often “worth” more than cash, especially if you regularly patronize a store or service provider.
This same exchange tactic can help you save money or time with your friends, family, and neighbors, too.
At Time, working mom and preschool teacher Elissha Park describes her efforts to barter with family and friends to reduce her childcare costs.
“I talked [both friends] into taking my son for a day each week, by bartering my own babysitting services on the weekends and making sure to always bring something in thanks when I came by with my son,” Park writes.
Not only did Park save a considerable amount on childcare, but she also offered a fair exchange - hour for hour - like a real bartering pro.
Like haggling in a marketplace, bartering is a game of give and take.
Just because you offer a particular service, doesn’t mean your negotiating partner will think you’ve given them a fair shake.
Bartering works best when everyone present is honest and transparent about the value of the exchange, explain the editors of the Harvard Law School blog.
“[Remember] that sellers have a tendency to overvalue their assets,” caution the editors. “To bring your estimates in line with reality, research the value of the items or services you’re bartering thoroughly and present your negotiating partner with evidence of their worth.”
For some business partners, that can mean agreeing on an actual cash value of services or products ahead of time.
Remember to stay flexible - and be aware of your bottom line.
6. Discounts Count
When it comes to bartering, don’t adopt an all-or-nothing mentality. You can negotiate for a discount on a product or service - and that can also have value.
For Kevin McLaughlin, co-founder of Resound Marketing, bartering with restaurant clients for discounted services helped launch his business and establish his reputation in a new field.
"We wanted to build a practice around food products and restaurants," McLaughlin told Entrepreneur.
He signed potential new clients at a discount, "with the understanding that we'd increase that rate once we'd demonstrated value."
But you don’t have to be a mogul for this tactic to work in your everyday life. Remember: saving 20% off a major service - like car repair or a root canal - still saves you a bundle of money.
What do you have to offer?
7. Write It Down
When it comes to less formal exchanges, like exchanging babysitting hours with family and friends, you may not need to put your bartering agreement in writing.
But if you’re conducting an exchange of services for your business - or bartering with someone in your local community for a professional service - it’s worth spelling out your agreement on paper.
Even an email will help you stick to a timeframe and deliverable, says Amy Belanger, the deputy director of Green America.
“[Write out] ‘This is what I will do and what you will do in this time period,’” Belanger explained to Real Simple.
If you’re a small business owner, these agreements will be even more important at tax time - when you have to report bartering exchanges as part of your income.
8. Barter Online
From Craigslist to Freecycle, there are plenty of online resources for swapping and bartering your way to new stuff - or stuff that’s new to you.
Expand your bartering networks with these online trading communities:
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