With barter, it may seem like you escape society’s pricing system altogether. In one sense that’s true, because you trade goods or services without money being exchanged. However, you get a different boatload of challenges.
First, barter rarely comes up as a mutual idea. Normally one person proposes it to another, and often there is palpable emotional pressure involved. “Can I pay for your consulting with one of my paintings?” asks an artist, and then you have to decide whether you like her paintings or have any use for one. There’s a tone of supplication and need in the barter request that can put you in the position of deciding whether or not to give a handout.
It would be cruel to reply, “I would never buy one of your paintings for myself and don’t know anyone who would like it as a gift.” Indeed, whatever you do say in reply runs the risk of insulting the person who asked. A huge advantage of money, on the other hand, is that it’s a neutral medium. With money, you don’t usually have to decide whether or not you like the type of currency someone wants to pay with.
Second, when barters involve not apples-to-apples or even apples-to-oranges but more like apples-to-computer-repair exchanges, how many apples “equal” getting rid of the malware on the client’s computer? You run a significant risk of second thoughts and resentment on one side or the other after you strike a barter deal because it’s hard to balance unequal things without reference to money.
In addition, when parties who don’t know each other well discuss the possibility of exchanging services, they may have no way of knowing the quality to expect from the other side. If someone proposes exchanging their cabinetry for your legal services, what if you don’t like the cabinet work they do or they feel you gave terrible advice?
Third, the two most common motives behind a barter request are nothing to feel proud about. Either it’s “I’m poor” (or “I’m stingy”), which reinforces a lack of self-respect or it’s “Let’s do this under the table,” which involves a lack of integrity. Christie Mims, a career coach, suggests that if you feel you can obtain something you want only through bartering, you might be better off holding back and waiting. “If someone has the time/space to barter their own professional service skill,” she says, “chances are they aren’t the best at what they do, or they aren’t that experienced yet. If they were, they’d be charging full price. Or any price! Ask yourself: ‘Is this [bartering arrangement] truly the best thing for my business right now, or is it better to do this when I have money to invest in getting the right help for me?’”
Fourth, people often don’t take barter agreements as seriously as they do paying with actual money. Yoga teacher Mirror Living says, “When there is fuzzy agreement around value in the trade, there’s also a tendency to not take swapped services as seriously as paid for with money services. Often people you’re bartering with may be slack, consistently late, cancel at the last minute, or let down their end of the bargain in another way.” And if you felt pressured to accept a barter deal that you’re not happy about, of course, you’re not going to have the same attitude toward the exchange as if money changed hands.
In the next lesson, you’ll hear my advice about how to raise your prices.