No money? No problem. Why bartering may be better than busting out your wallet.
As I got off the subway last week and took the escalator instead of the stairs, I thought to myself, “Body, we should really take a dance class.” I often find myself daydreaming about all the sexy transferable skills I could glean from after-work lessons—fluency in Spanish, the ability to touch my toes—if only I had the time and, more importantly, the funds.
But maybe the solution to my dearth of extracurriculars isn’t money at all. Bartering, the mutual trade of goods and services with no cash involved, has been gaining popularity as a cost-saving practice. Granted, this isn’t the 18th century: No self-respecting business owner is going to trade their inventory for a robust calf, but, believe it or not, bartering is alive and well in 21st-century Toronto, if you know where to look.
One local hotbed is Trade School Toronto, a four-day seminar series running next week that offers classes on everything from gluten-free cooking to self-hypnosis. Instead of paying cash to attend, students are asked to come with materials or services to barter with the seminars’ instructors.
Shannon Simmons, a 27-year-old financial advisor hosting Trade School’s “Finances 101” class, is intimately familiar with the benefits of bartering. In 2010, her job dealing with white-collar clientele at a finance firm started to make her feel claustrophobic. Frustrated, she began researching Gen Y’s money struggles and seeking creative, low-cost ways to offer her services to that demographic.
Inspiration struck her in an unlikely place—waiting in line to get into a bar. After explaining the concept of tax-free savings accounts to a couple of financially confused strangers, they bought her table a round of drinks as thanks for sharing her expertise. It was that first alcohol-based trade that spawned Simmons’s “Barter Babes Project.”
Simmons advertised her plan to barter full-time on her blog; after local media caught wind of it, she spent the next year acting as a consultant for over 300 young women trying to get a grip on their finances. She wasn’t paid in cash, but accepted things like a new iPhone, and less practical things, like crossbow lessons, as compensation for her services.
Bartering was an ideal way to tap into a growing number of young people searching for alternative ways of making ends meet, who couldn’t justify forking over $200 an hour to a fee-for-service financial advisor. “If you go on Facebook, this generation is, like, ‘I’m on a recession budget. FML!’” says Simmons. “We’re already okay with saying, ‘Ugh, I’m so broke, let’s go to a cheap bar,’ or, ‘I’m trying to save money, let’s have a clothing swap.’”
The concept of bartering isn’t exactly news to business owners, some of whom work it into their company model. (Some Moksha Yoga studios offer an “energy exchange,” where patrons can assist with cleaning or administrative duties and then receive unlimited yoga in return.) But the recent rise in person-to-person trades proves that the average bartering virgin can become a savvy swapper, too.
To get started, Simmons recommends meeting with a financial advisor to strategize. After accounting for crucial expenditures like rent and food, bartering should account for about five per cent of the rest of your discretionary income. (For example, if you have $500 left over, spend $475 of that on new, store-bought items and barter for the rest). Then, create a running wish list to make sure you’re bartering for items and experiences of value to you, instead of, as Simmons puts it, “endless lasagna.” Setting up a fair trade takes time, so don’t count on exchanging a pie for moving help if your lease expires within a week.
Once you’ve drafted your list, wet your trading toes by organizing in-person swaps with friends or attending meets across the city. Websites like swapsity.ca allow you to scope out a person’s bartering “profile,” and will even match you with like-minded barterers, sort of like online dating or what would happen “if Facebook and Craigslist had a baby,” says Simmons.
She also suggests thinking about the skills you have to offer outside the confines of your job. “Sure, I’m a financial advisor but I’ve played chauffeur for a day,” she says.
Simmons’s Barter Babes experiment ended almost a year ago, but she’s still an advocate for trades—she’s currently bartering with a local artist for a painting. Sure, she’s not asking all of us to quit our steady jobs and protest the oppressive use of currency, but she’s proof that when it comes to providing for yourself, maybe money isn’t everything.
Shannon Lee Simmons teaches “Finances 101” at Trade School Toronto (Harvest Noon, 16 Bancroft Ave., 2nd floor) on Sept. 30 at 6:00 p.m., tradeschool.coop/Toronto.