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Bartering 101: What to do When Money Has No Meaning

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

Bartering 101: What to do When Money Has No Meaning

The occurrence of a catastrophic natural or manmade disaster has the potential to swiftly render money obsolete. In a society heavily reliant on credit cards and occasional cash usage, barter might appear as a nostalgic remembrance of the past. Nevertheless, in numerous economies across the globe, barter remains a vibrant and essential method of conducting commerce and trade.

These cultures often reside in rural areas, characterized by a certain level of primitiveness, and in some instances, they grapple with civil unrest or economic breakdown. While one may easily believe that such circumstances are far removed from their own reality, the truth is that similar situations could indeed arise anywhere.

What is a Barter Economy?

Barter, also known as "Qui Pro Quo" or "This for That" in Latin, refers to a transaction where goods or services are exchanged in trade. The completion of the transaction relies on both parties reaching an agreement that the exchange is fair and of relatively equal value. However, several variables come into play, depending on the specific need one party has for an item or service, as well as its rarity.

During times of societal collapse, obtaining prescription medications becomes challenging, leading to them holding significantly higher value and commanding a greater exchange rate. On the other hand, basic commodities can be more easily negotiated, such as trading a dozen eggs for a loaf of bread. Ultimately, successful bartering depends on the possessions one has and the necessities they need to fulfill.

Barter Basics

In a well-established barter economy, the exchange of goods and services usually takes place in a cordial manner, often accompanied by friendly haggling. Haggling, in this context, is not an argument but rather an attempt to emphasize and elevate the value of the items being traded.

Whether it's showcasing the freshness of eggs, the sharpness of tools, the recent canning of jelly, or the expertise gained from 20 years of blacksmithing, any demonstration of the genuine value of the goods and services is encouraged during the bartering process.

Defining Value in a Barter Economy

Value can be influenced by scarcity. Even everyday essentials can hold significant value within a barter economy. In this context, the perception of value becomes subjective. Different individuals, based on their needs and circumstances, may place high importance on specific items and eagerly seek to trade for them.

While bullets are commonly considered valuable commodities for trade, for certain individuals, tampons might hold an even greater perceived value. This exemplifies how personal requirements and preferences can shape the worth assigned to different goods in a bartering system.

Goods or Services?

The key to successful bartering lies in what you can offer.

Having a substantial stockpile of certain items grants you a valuable resource for bartering until your supplies begin to deplete. Additionally, possessing a unique skill allows you to trade your labor for goods. Individuals with talents in timber-frame carpentry or blacksmithing, equipped with the necessary tools and skills, often find their expertise in high demand.

Handcrafted items can also enhance your bartering potential. Simple products like baked goods, knitted clothing, or freshly harvested fruits and vegetables hold value to those in need.

To ensure a successful trade, what you offer must be perceived as equivalent in worth to what you seek. For instance, exchanging a shovel for an ax may be a fair deal, but offering 4 dozen eggs for an ax might not be as convincing. However, offering 12 dozen eggs could do the trick.

Once again, understanding the needs of the parties involved is essential in the bartering process. If someone has been yearning for an egg for a long time, you may just secure that ax with your offer.

Know Where to Begin

Barter Trade Fair

In a swiftly evolving barter economy, your first encounters with the practice will likely involve neighbors and friends. Initially, people tend to share resources freely with family members, but as scarcity sets in, this generous spirit may diminish. Consequently, friends and neighbors will increasingly turn to bartering as a means of achieving fair exchanges.

As time progresses, it is advisable to seek out barter markets where a more diverse range of individuals converge. These markets attract a wider array of participants, offering a greater variety of options for exchanging goods and services. Engaging in such venues can enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of your bartering experiences.

Barter Exchanges are Final

Unlike traditional shopping in stores, in a barter exchange, there is no return policy. Once the trade is done, you are bound to the agreement, and if you end up dissatisfied with the item or service, there's no recourse. Therefore, it's crucial to thoroughly inspect anything you are interested in before finalizing the exchange to ensure it meets your expectations.

Similarly, when offering something in exchange, ensure that it will meet the other party's expectations as well. Reputation, whether positive or negative, spreads rapidly within bartering communities. So, it's in your best interest to maintain a good reputation by being honest and fair in your dealings.

Items With Value in a Barter Economy

To determine the worth of any item, it is essential to consider its availability in a deteriorating economy, where manufacturing and distribution systems are compromised. In such a scenario, you must ask yourself what items will be essential for people's day-to-day needs in a self-reliant environment. Anticipating the necessities in such a situation will help you gauge the true value of goods and services in the context of a failing economy.

This leads to some possible options:

Food Staples

  • Rice

  • Wheat

  • Flour

  • Corn

  • Beans (e.g., black beans, kidney beans, lentils)

  • Potatoes

  • Cooking oil

  • Salt

  • Sugar

  • Coffee

  • Tea

  • Canned goods (e.g., vegetables, fruits, fish)

  • Dried fruits and nuts

  • Eggs

  • Honey

  • Fresh or preserved meat (e.g., jerky)

  • Dairy products (e.g., cheese, butter)

Keep in mind that the availability of food staples in a barter system can vary depending on the region and local agricultural practices.

Food in a barter economy

Personal Hygiene

  • Soap

  • Tampons

  • Toilet paper

  • Toothpaste and toothbrushes

  • Shaving razors

  • Combs

  • Shampoo

  • Conditioner

  • Hand sanitizer

  • Deodorant

  • Feminine hygiene products (pads, menstrual cups)

  • Disposable diapers (for babies)

  • Wet wipes

  • Sunscreen

  • Lotion or moisturizer

Again, the availability of these personal hygiene items may vary based on the region and the circumstances within the barter system.


Tools in a barter economy

In a setting where conventional manufacturing and distribution channels have collapsed, the necessity for self-reliance will become a fundamental aspect of daily life. The value of hand tools, along with other essential instruments that empower individuals to craft and produce necessary items, will rapidly increase. As people rely on their DIY skills to meet their needs, the significance of these basic tools will be paramount.

  • Saws

  • Axes

  • Log splitting ax and wedges

  • Shovels

  • Picks

  • Hammers

  • Sledgehammers

  • Draw shaves

  • Ropes

  • Pulleys

  • Hand drills and bits

  • Planers

  • Chisels

  • Mallets

  • Screwdrivers

  • Pliers

  • Clamps

  • Logging tools (e.g., peavey, cant hook, crosscut saw)

These tools play a crucial role in facilitating various tasks necessary for survival and self-reliance in a barter-based economy.

Domestic Tools and Supplies

  • Knitting needles

  • Yarn

  • Fabric

  • Velcro

  • Buttons

  • Needles and thread

  • Leather

  • Clothespins

  • Candles

  • Sewing machine

  • Scissors

  • Thimbles

  • Iron and ironing board

  • Dyeing materials (e.g., natural dyes)

  • Sewing patterns

  • Zippers

  • Ribbons and trimmings

  • Beads and sequins

  • Quilting supplies (e.g., quilting needles, quilting hoops)

  • Embroidery materials (e.g., embroidery floss, embroidery hoops)

These domestic tools and supplies are essential for various crafting and homemaking activities in a barter-based economy, supporting self-sufficiency and creativity.


  • Nails

  • Screws

  • Nuts

  • Bolts

  • Washers

  • Hinges

  • Locks and keys

  • Lock hasps

  • Cable

  • Baling wire

  • Duct Tape

These hardware items are essential for construction, repairs, and securing various structures and objects, making them valuable commodities in a bartering economy.

Medical Supplies

Medical supplies in a barter economy

  • Adhesive bandages

  • Gauze pads

  • Surgical tape

  • Gauze trauma pads

  • Gauze wraps

  • Elastic wraps (ACE bandages)

  • Eye patches

  • Antiseptic ointment

  • Alcohol wipes

  • Antibacterial hand sanitizer

  • Tweezers

  • Scissors

  • Thermometer

  • Pain relievers (e.g., ibuprofen, acetaminophen)

  • Antihistamines (for allergies)

  • Antacids (for heartburn)

  • Oral rehydration solutions

  • Elastic bandages (for sprains)

  • First aid manuals or guides

Having these medical supplies available in a barter system can be invaluable for maintaining health and addressing medical needs in challenging circumstances.

Over the Counter Medicines

Over the counter medicines in a barter economy

  • Triple antibiotic ointment

  • Pain relievers (e.g., ibuprofen, acetaminophen)

  • Anti-fungal/Anti-itch ointments

  • Congestion relief (e.g., decongestant)

  • Benadryl (antihistamine)

  • Eye drops

  • Vitamins (e.g., Vitamin C, Vitamin D)

  • Minerals (e.g., calcium, magnesium)

  • Burn gel (for minor burns)

These over-the-counter medicines are valuable in a barter economy, as they address common health issues and provide relief for various ailments.

Medical Equipment

  • Thermometer

  • Eyecup

  • Tourniquet

  • Suture needles and thread

  • Basic First-Aid kits

  • Bandages (e.g., adhesive bandages, gauze pads)

  • Antiseptic solutions (e.g., hydrogen peroxide, alcohol)

  • Tweezers

  • Scissors

  • Splints

  • Surgical gloves

  • Face masks

  • Hot and cold packs

  • Pain relievers (e.g., ibuprofen, acetaminophen)

  • Antiseptic ointments (e.g., Neosporin)

  • Burn dressings

Having these medical supplies can be essential in managing health and injuries in a barter-based environment, where access to traditional medical resources might be limited.

Supplies for Cooking and Drinking Water

  • Cast iron cookware

  • Utensils (e.g., spatula, ladle, whisk)

  • Dinnerware (plates, bowls, cups)

  • Water filters

  • Activated charcoal for water filtration

  • Canning jars and lids

  • Canning supplies like lifting tongs and large pots

These supplies are essential for cooking meals and ensuring safe and clean drinking water, making them valuable commodities in a barter-based economy where self-sufficiency and resourcefulness are highly valued.

Creating Items for Barter

Creating items for barter

  • Soap

  • Activated charcoal

  • Apple cider

  • Apple cider vinegar

  • Hard cider

  • Rustic furniture

  • Knitted items (e.g., scarves, hats, blankets)

  • Beer and wine

  • Maple syrup

  • Eggs

  • Smoked fish and game

  • Firewood

  • Brooms

  • Garden herbs (e.g., basil, mint, thyme)

  • Wild foraged herbal remedies

  • Nuts

  • Baked goods (e.g., bread, pastries, cookies)

These handmade and locally sourced items represent a diverse range of valuable commodities within a barter-based economy.

Barter Items with Extreme Value

  • Antibiotics

  • Blood pressure medications

  • Insulin

  • Blood thinners

  • Prescription pain relievers

  • Antiviral medications

  • Epinephrine auto-injectors (EpiPens)

  • Asthma inhalers

  • Antihistamines

  • Essential vitamins and minerals (e.g., Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Iron)

  • Surgical masks and N95 respirators

  • Hand sanitizers

  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and face shields

  • Clean water filters or purifiers

  • Food preservation equipment (e.g., canning supplies, dehydrators)

  • Firearms and ammunition

  • Fuel (e.g., gasoline, propane, firewood)

  • Solar panels and rechargeable batteries

  • Tools for repairing and building (e.g., wrenches, screwdrivers, saws)

  • Seeds for edible plants and vegetables

  • Livestock (e.g., chickens, goats) for food production

  • Hunting and fishing equipment

  • Alcohol and distilled spirits (for medicinal and disinfectant purposes)

  • Salt (for preserving food and adding essential minerals)

  • Matches, lighters, and fire-starting tools

  • Blankets and warm clothing

  • Soap-making supplies (e.g., lye, oils)

  • Building materials (e.g., lumber, nails, screws)

  • Solar or hand-crank radios

  • First aid kits and medical supplies

  • OTC (over-the-counter) pain relievers and fever reducers

  • Personal hygiene items (e.g., toilet paper, tampons, toothpaste)

  • Barterable skills or services (e.g., medical knowledge, blacksmithing, carpentry)

  • Communication devices (e.g., walkie-talkies, two-way radios)

  • Entertainment items (e.g., books, playing cards, board games)

Please note that the value of items in a barter system can fluctuate depending on the specific needs and circumstances of the community. Additionally, the legality and ethical considerations of certain items, such as firearms and prescription medications, should always be taken into account.

Precious Metals

Coins and precious metals for use in a barter economy

In a barter system, precious metals play a significant role, but their practicality depends on the size and value of the metal. For instance, a 1-ounce gold coin, while worth thousands, may not be suitable for acquiring simple items due to its high value.

On the other hand, 1-ounce silver coins have a lower value but could still be more valuable than the average barter item. For more manageable transactions, smaller gold and silver coins, like the 1/10th-ounce sizes, are available, though they may still be more than what's needed for basic exchanges.

Coins with silver content, ranging from dimes to half dollars and silver dollars, provide a better option, offering flexibility in transaction sizes. Many U.S. coins minted in 1964 and before have varying percentages of silver content.

It's crucial to maintain a low-profile and avoid loudly announcing possession of precious metals. Understanding the importance of discretion is essential to safeguarding your assets. If this concept seems unfamiliar, it might be best to avoid acquiring precious metals altogether.


Guns, ammunition, and personal defense in a barter economy

In a barter system, the presence of weapons becomes a crucial aspect, indicating a society where traditional commerce has collapsed, and other systems are either failing or significantly weakened. In such a world, self-defense becomes a necessity for survival, and as a result, there will be a high demand for weapons and ammunition.

Choosing the right weapon for yourself is a matter of personal preference and needs. Some might prefer antique or outdated rifles that are still functional and safe, as they hold value to those who lack alternatives. Such rifles can often be acquired at a reasonable price, making them viable items for barter.

Handguns also hold relevance in this scenario, but it's imperative to ensure that any weapon offered for barter is fully functional and safe to operate. Safety is of utmost importance in a world where resources are scarce, and one cannot afford accidents due to faulty equipment.

Including ammunition as part of the transaction makes sense, but it's essential to be mindful of the rules set by gun-shop owners. Loading ammunition on-site might not be permissible in certain places, so it's best to exercise caution and follow the appropriate guidelines.

Indeed, engaging in weapons-related bartering can be risky, and trust becomes a significant factor in the exchange. If possible, conduct such transactions in a public and secure environment to minimize potential risks and ensure a fair and safe trade.

As unsettling as it may sound, the reality of a barter economy necessitates a pragmatic approach to self-defense and acquiring the means to protect oneself and loved ones. However, responsible and careful trading practices can help create a more stable and secure environment in these challenging circumstances.

Practice Bartering

  • Identify valuable items: Determine which items are in high demand and hold significant value in the barter society. These could include essential resources like food, water, and medicine, as well as tools, clothing, and other necessary supplies.

  • Develop unique skills: Cultivate and showcase unique skills or expertise that can be traded for goods or services. Skills like carpentry, blacksmithing, cooking, or medical knowledge can be highly sought after.

  • Establish a network: Build connections and relationships within the barter community to facilitate trading opportunities. Engage with neighbors, friends, and other members of the society to expand your network and access a wider range of items for bartering.

  • Participate in barter markets: Attend local barter markets or fairs where individuals gather to exchange goods and services. These events offer a diverse range of options for trading and provide an opportunity to interact with various traders.

  • Negotiate fair exchanges: Be open to negotiation and ensure that the items or services you offer for barter are perceived as fair and equivalent in value to what you seek in return. Flexibility and adaptability are essential in reaching mutually beneficial agreements.

  • Preserve valuable resources: Prioritize the preservation of essential resources to maintain their value and usability for future bartering. Properly store food, water, and other essential items to ensure their longevity and usefulness.

  • Consider long-term needs: Anticipate future needs and acquire items or skills that may hold increased value over time. Long-lasting goods, like durable tools or medical supplies, can be valuable assets in a barter society.

  • Be trustworthy and reliable: Establish a reputation as a reliable and honest trader. Trust is crucial in a barter economy, and being dependable in fulfilling agreements enhances your chances of successful bartering.

  • Respect the needs of others: Recognize the needs and preferences of potential trading partners and be willing to accommodate their requirements to foster productive and positive exchanges.

  • Keep an open mind: Be open to unconventional items or services for trade. In a barter society, the range of goods and services can be diverse, and being flexible in your approach can lead to surprising and beneficial exchanges.

The Evolution of a Barter Economy

As a barter economy matures, a fascinating transformation occurs not only in the economic aspect but also in the behavior and attitudes of the barterers. What becomes evident in countries and cultures that frequently embrace bartering is the development of a sense of calm and a well-defined protocol that simplifies the process of exchange.

Indeed, this evolution takes time and gradual growth, but as bartering transactions become more prevalent, so does the establishment of deeper relationships and genuine friendships. The act of bartering extends beyond a mere exchange of goods or services; it becomes a bonding experience that fosters trust and mutual understanding between individuals. In such economies, people come to recognize the importance of maintaining integrity and fulfilling their commitments in order to sustain the smooth functioning of barter interactions.

One can argue that a barter economy is not something to be feared or dismissed as archaic, but rather a system that highlights the richness of human connections and the potential for genuine cooperation. As opposed to the impersonal nature of modern-day financial transactions, bartering rekindles the human touch and reminds us of the power of face-to-face interaction in forming meaningful relationships.

However, it is essential to remember that the existence of a barter economy is often a response to unique circumstances and challenges that a society faces. These circumstances might include economic instability, scarcity of conventional currency, or disruptions in trade. Therefore, while we can appreciate the beauty of a well-established barter economy, it is equally crucial to recognize the underlying issues that gave rise to this system in the first place.

In conclusion, as a barter economy matures, it brings about a harmonious rhythm, not just in the economic exchanges but also in the interconnectedness of people. It exemplifies how human adaptability and ingenuity can shape and sustain a functional system of trade, fostering a sense of community and shared responsibility. While acknowledging the merits of a barter economy, we must remain mindful of the circumstances that gave birth to it and work collectively to address underlying issues for a more stable and prosperous future.