Her answer came, finally, in an unlikely place: at a bar on Robson Street in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics. It was close to midnight, and she was waiting in line for a drink. All around her, people were partying—except for the two women in front of her, who were dissecting the differences between tax-free savings accounts and RRSPs. Simmons barged in to their conversation. “What do you want to know about TFSAs?” she asked. “What’s your goal?” She pulled the two aside and, for 20 minutes, gave an impromptu finance session. As a gesture of thanks, the two women bought Simmons and her group a round of beer. “I can’t afford financial advice,” one of them told Simmons, “but at least I can give everybody here a beer.” Then, Simmons felt like a cartoon megawatt bulb appeared over her head. It is all you can do, she thought. It is all you can do. There, in the middle of the crowded bar, she blurted, “Oh my god! I’m bringing barter back!”
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When barter has appeared, it wasn’t as part of a purely barter economy, and money didn’t emerge from it—rather, it emerged from money. After Rome fell, for instance, Europeans used barter as a substitute for the Roman currency people had gotten used to. “In most of the cases we know about, [barter] takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around,” explains David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics.
Bartering does have its limitations. Many bigger (i.e., chain) businesses will not entertain the idea and even smaller organizations may limit the amount of goods or services for which they will barter (i.e., they may not agree to a 100% barter arrangement and instead require that you make at least partial payment). But in an economic crunch, bartering can be a great way to get the goods and services you need without having to pull money out of your pocket.
Search for bartering partners. After you know what you have to offer and exactly what you need/want in a barter situation, find a bartering partner. If you don't have a specific person or business in mind, try word of mouth. Let your friends, colleagues and social network know about your specific need and what you want in a barter situation. Use Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
On paper, this sounds a bit like delayed barter, but it bears some significant differences. For one thing, it’s much more efficient than Smith’s idea of a barter system, since it doesn’t depend on each person simultaneously having what the other wants. It’s also not tit for tat: No one ever assigns a specific value to the meat or cake or house-building labor, meaning debts can’t be transferred.
In 2010, Shannon Lee Simmons had it easy. Though the economy was two years into its recessionary lurch, she had a secure job at Phillips, Hager and North, a boutique Bay Street investment firm. She was 25 years old and earning $55,000 a year, plus bonuses. She had no debt, no kids, and enough disposable income to jet off to Europe with her boyfriend and pay her credit card bills on time. Simmons is driven and effervescent, and has the charming tendency to slip into club-kid slang. Speaking of her time back then, she says: “I was ballin’.”
Nowinska says one of the biggest challenges Swapsity faces is that new barterers think they have nothing to offer. So they offer bad trades. Yet most people have hundreds of skills—from cooking to networking to scrapbooking. The trick is learning to recognize the value of your skills, your knowledge and your talent. Bartering attaches value to things that are not always recognized, or highly valued, in a cash economy—often hobbies that people can’t make a living on but love to do. One Barter Babe trades her homemade canned goods for gifts—mostly other crafted items—she can give away at Christmas. A Swapsity member has traded pounds of fiddleheads she picks at her mom’s house in the country for feng shui sessions.
It was the fifth lasagna that did it. Three months into the project, Simmons had signed up over 80 Barter Babes, and every time she bartered her financial services, she seemed to get a lasagna in return. She was trying to shove yet another five-pound pasta dish into her freezer when the tears started to flow. “I don’t need another lasagna!” she yelled at her boyfriend. “I need a haircut! I need a bicycle!” She was overwhelmed with doubts about her bartering experiment: I’m so ridiculous. What the hell was I thinking? This whole thing is never going to work. Trades weren’t happening at the frequency she had anticipated, and Simmons was feeling depressed. She couldn’t afford a dye job at a salon, and she had started gaining weight. She’d gone from ballin’ to having $200 in her joint account.
Economists since the times of Adam Smith (1723-1790), looking at non-specific pre-modern societies as examples, have used the inefficiency of barter to explain the emergence of money, of "the" economy, and hence of the discipline of economics itself. However, ethnographic studies have shown that no present or past society has used barter without any other medium of exchange or measurement, nor have anthropologists found evidence that money emerged from barter, instead finding that gift-giving (credit extended on a personal basis with an inter-personal balance maintained over the long term) was the most usual means of exchange of goods and services.
During economic downturns, when there is a keenly felt shortage of jobs and cash, people have historically adopted barter systems. The world’s most established bartering-style system is Switzerland’s wir: the German word for “we” as well as the abbreviation of Wirtschaftsring, which translates loosely to “economic circle.” In 1934, the economy in Switzerland had tanked—as it had in much of the world. Two businessmen who were facing bankruptcy, Paul Enz and Werner Zimmermann, gathered 15 of their associates in Zurich and hashed out a solution: a mutual credit system.