The benefits of barter

This article was written by Andréa Coutu.

So you've got big ideas but no way to pay for them: a home renovation, weekend getaway, successful business, dream dinner date, leaner body, new bedroom suite…the list goes on and on.

Maybe your bank account has seen better days, or maybe you just don't want to tie up more money in pursuing a dream. Well, money is just one medium of exchange. By using barter, you can tap into a range of goods and services — all without spending a dime.

Barter in Real Life

When bartering services, you trade your time for someone else's specialized time. For example, a personal trainer I know exchanges training sessions for childcare, marketing, advertising, photography and other services that help her business thrive. Of course, to make the barter work, she has to find someone who can offer the services she needs — and that person needs to see value in what she has to offer.

A graphic designer friend often does work for high-end restaurants — the kinds of places that charge $40 or $50 just for an entrée. She puts together restaurant advertisements, newsletters, menus, postcards, direct mailers and other projects. In exchange, the restaurants pay her in gift certificates. The great thing about the gift certificates is that she can give them to friends, relatives, and corporate clients. By trading her services for an hour or two, she can treat her husband or her top client to a $200 dinner.

Through bartering, you can gain access to a wide variety of services. A marketing consultant I know has traded consulting services and been able to build a thriving empire. She's gained executive coaching, website development, photography, graphic design, advertising, writing and strategic business consulting. In fact, she even connected with my personal trainer friend to swap childcare and personal training sessions.

Banking on the Barter System

But what if you have time to trade, but no one willing to use it? You can join a formal barter exchange. That way, you can “deposit” your time into a “barter bank” and “withdraw” it for later use. Say you mow lawns for a daycare center, for example, but you have no need for childcare. The daycare can pay you “trade dollars”, which you could use at another business in the barter network.

So, in exchange for mowing the daycare's lawn, you could use those trade dollars to pay for a fancy dinner at a local restaurant, get your mower repaired by a technician or advertise your services in the Home & Garden section of the local newspaper. Most barter companies charge an initiation fee and monthly, annual or transaction-based fees, so make sure you're going to use services more valuable than those fees.

The Benefits of Bartering

You might wonder why you'd barter when you could just pay for the services. Well, unless you are running your business or personal life at full capacity, you probably have a little downtime now and then. If you've got a business, you have fixed costs to pay whether you're working round the clock or not at all. So, by trading otherwise unused time or products, you can generate revenue.

For example, if you would otherwise not have any lawn mowing clients on Monday mornings, you could provide barter services during that slot and earn credits, without needing to sit idle or discount your price. All you're giving up is some time, but you might earn credits worth $100 or $500 for that time, depending on your charges.

Some barter exchanges will also allow you to charge a minimum fee, to cover the costs of hard goods. So, for example, if you provide painting services, you might charge a $15 an hour fee plus a $25 an hour barter credit. That way, you can pay for paint and rollers, while still trading your time on barter.

Tax Implications

Depending on where you live, you may need to report barter as income. In the United States and Canada, you need to include bartering in your income taxes. If you receive $100 worth of bartering services to a friend or colleague, you need to declare that “income”, even if you swapped your time for it.

So, if you think barter might work for you, try approaching people with your ideas. Some businesses list barter services on their websites, whereas others are happy to talk off the record. Just ask around — it never hurts. And let your friends, colleagues and — if applicable — your customers or blog readers know that you have services to barter. You may find that opening yourself up to barter helps expand your professional network.

Andréa Coutu runs the Become a Consultant Blog, in addition to a thriving marketing consulting firm. She is the author of Discover Your Inner Consultant and Consulting Fees: A Guide for Independent Consultants. She happily considers barter services.

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