But various anthropologists have pointed out that this barter economy has never been witnessed as researchers have traveled to undeveloped parts of the globe. “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” wrote the Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey in a 1985 paper. “All available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”
Communities of Iroquois Native Americans, for instance, stockpiled their goods in longhouses. Female councils then allocated the goods, explains Graeber. Other indigenous communities relied on “gift economies,” which went something like this: If you were a baker who needed meat, you didn’t offer your bagels for the butcher’s steaks. Instead, you got your wife to hint to the butcher’s wife that you two were low on iron, and she’d say something like “Oh really? Have a hamburger, we’ve got plenty!” Down the line, the butcher might want a birthday cake, or help moving to a new apartment, and you’d help him out.
Business to consumer barter may include things like free merchandise for a customer who is willing to provide sales leads. Person to person barter can include almost anything you can imagine. Auction sites are a good place to find others willing to trade for things you have. Classified ads, online or in print, are another handy way of conducting barter transactions, and so are barter clubs.
When exchanging services, it’s important to remember that bartering is considered income. While you may be able to write off expenses you incur during the barter, you must claim the fair market value of the services you provided as income. For example, if you charge $60 an hour as a massage therapist, and you trade a one-hour massage for housecleaning services, you may have to claim the equivalent income. When you trade assets, you may even be responsible for tracking capital gains or losses. If you have any doubts or questions, consult the IRS website.
If you don’t want to pay a membership fee but you’re looking for a free place to stay when you’re on the road anywhere in the world, CouchSurfing may be your new best friend. CouchSurfing is a non-profit organization, so they don’t charge you for using the site. They don’t allow hosts to charge travelers either. With almost 3 million members in 246 countries, chances are there is a free couch out there waiting. CouchSurfing also has an extensive safety section on the site, including references, vouching, and verification from other couchsurfers and hosts alike.
However, this isn’t always possible. For instance, you may have a $150 digital music player and want a small refrigerator worth $100. In this case, if both parties are certain of what they want and understand the difference in value, there should be no barterer’s remorse. Alternatively, you can ask for the mini-fridge plus $50 to make the trade – the worst anyone can say is “no.”