When I was a boy, we had a parrot. Sammy was a yellow-headed Amazon and quite a character. He had a wide vocabulary and an uncanny intelligence. He was a rascal.

During one particularly bleak period in the early eighties, my parents traded Sammy to the local barber. They exchanged him for one hundred haircuts. This was an excellent deal for everyone involved: my parents, who were struggling financially, didn’t have to pay for our haircuts again until I was in high school. The barber kept Sammy in his shop, where he proved to be a big customer draw.

Bartering can be a fun and creative way to save money. Matt Haughey at A Whole Lotta Nothing recently wrote about discovering the joys of bartering.

Lately I’ve run into family members and non-web nerd friends that need help building web sites. I’m having a blast helping them because instead of money, we’re doing small barters of favors or cheap goods. Here’s why it’s working:

  • It’s incredibly low stress compared to paid client work. When you’re not billing someone $100/hour for your time, they’re not edgy when you don’t finish a task immediately.
  • I trade my work for something friends/family produce or get at a massive discount. It’s always for something I want or need, and I save a few bucks by getting it free.
  • I tend to be bashful with clients. But if you’re building a site for your uncle, you don’t have to explain why XHTML/CSS web standards are important or worth the effort, you can just code it.
  • It’s almost always a new site, so there aren’t legacy code/design/support issues and there’s often low-to-no expectations from the “client”. Anything you do will wow them so you’re free to explore possibilities.

For example, I received a year of free haircuts in trade for building a site for a salon. The salon owner would probably have to pay someone local $500 or more for something similar. Now I get a nice $30 haircut every month or two, saving a couple hundred this year. The cost of their time for cutting my hair is much less, so everyone’s happy.

If you’re a designer/developer, try asking around your local friends and close family — chances are they could use your help and can get you something small for the low-stress work.

Read the full (unedited) version at Matt’s site.

I think his advice is applicable for more than just web developers; it’s an excellent idea for anyone with a useful skill. Do you play in a band? Barter gigs for meals at local restaurants. Are you a photographer? Trade your services for a discount at a local retail outlet. Are you a mechanic? A carpenter? An electrician? Do you knit? Paint? Write? You’d be surprised at the opportunities that await you, even on a small scale.

My group of friends practices tacit small-scale bartering all the time, and I’ll bet yours does, too. I might help a friend move a piano if he agrees to help me paint my house. I may make dinner for another friend if she shows me how to prune my grapes. These are small transactions, but each one saves time and money for both parties. Large-scale opportunities are available for creative thinkers.

Craigslist is a great source for finding people who want to barter. I’ve used Craigslist to trade:

  • A Nintendo Gamecube for a digital camera.
  • Trading cards for a personal computer.
  • Rose plants for manure.

(And just how tempted am I to trade with this guy right now? Don’t ask.)

Be aware that large-scale bartering may carry tax implications. One commenter at Matt’s site warns:

Keep in mind when bartering that there are tax implications. The IRS has lots of rules and regulations regarding what needs to be reported, and how to report it, and has ways of equating bartered goods/services as real income. If you barter, always check with your accountant or tax attorney to make sure you’re documenting things correctly. The IRS really does keep an eye on these things because most corruption and tax evasion behavior looks a lot like bartering.

[A Whole Lotta Nothing: For the Love of Bartering]

This article is about Frugality, Odds and Ends