The Art of Barter: When Money Has No Meaning

You See the Precedent Throughout History. A Collapse of the Government, Economy or Catastrophic Disaster Can Make Money a Thing of the Past.

In many undeveloped countries a barter system is an accepted way to do business. People meet at local markets and exchange things for things. Haggling is part of the process and is often done in a good-natured way. Everyone knows the rules and most transactions are successful.

There are probably some of us who wouldn’t do so well if we were suddenly thrust into that marketplace. That’s why it’s a good idea to give some thought to what barter is all about.

Barter Fairs are Happening Now

They’re called “Swap Meets.” They take place in parking lots, fairgrounds, and parks and people gather and exchange things. Tools show up quite often when a certain tool for a specialized project is no longer needed. Many of the items are handmade or unique and either can’t be bought in a store easily or fall in the category of something “rarely needed.”

That can all change quickly if catastrophe strikes resulting in the grid going down or a collapse of the supply-chain and the economy that supports it. Poverty can also create a need for many people to look to barter when money can only go so far.

Bartering Basics

1. Quid Quo Pro (This for that)

To some degree, what you offer in barter needs to be equal in value to what you hope to get. It needs to be perceived by both parties as an even exchange. Offering a shovel for an ax may be a fair trade. Offering 4 dozen eggs for an ax may not succeed. Although 12 dozen eggs may do the trick. That’s because one of the keys to barter is the needs of the bartering parties. If someone hasn’t eaten an egg for a year, you may get that ax.

2. Know Where to Begin

Your initial experience with barter in a rapidly occurring barter economy will probably be with neighbors and friends. It’s most likely that we’ll continue to share freely with family, but as resources run low our generosity will fade and friends and neighbors will soon be looking to barter as fair exchange. As time goes on you should try to locate barter markets where a more diverse group of people will bring a greater variety of options to exchange.

3. Barter Exchanges are Final

This ain’t Walmart. If you’re dissatisfied with anything after a barter exchange, you’re stuck with it. Inspect anything you are interested in until you’re satisfied that it’s what you expected. Make sure anything you offer in exchange will meet expectations as well. Both good and bad reputations spread quickly.

Should You Stockpile for a Possible Barter Economy?

That’s up to you and your mindset about preparedness. It’s obvious that the best time to accumulate items for a barter economy is before its onset but keep the Y2K caution in the back of your mind. Are you prepared for nothing happening?

Good resources for accumulating items include garage sales, flea markets, estate sales, liquidation sales and yes, swap meets. If you have a barter mindset you may see the potential value of something that is priced very cheaply but will worth much more in a compromised economy. Even antique tools intended for display pieces on a wall can be found in antique stores for prices far below their functional value in a self-reliant culture.

Items with Value in a Barter Economy 

Canning jars as barter

Canning jars as barter

The stereotypical assumption is that bullets are going to be the new gold-standard for barter, but something as simple as canning jars and lids may be in higher demand from more people. To assess the value of any item you have to anticipate its availability in a failing economy where manufacturing and distribution is compromised. What are the things people will need on a day-to-day basis in a self-reliant environment? This leads to some possible options: 

Food staples:

  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Flour
  • Baking soda
  • Baking powder
  • Yeast
  • Spices
  • Herbs
  • Cooking oils
  • Vinegar
  • Rice
  • Dried beans

The list can go on but the general benchmark for a food staple that can be stored for barter is shelf-life. Can the item be stored without refrigeration for a reasonable period of time without spoiling? Many foods offered as options for long-term food storage and sold in bulk fit in this category.

Personal Hygiene

  • Soap
  • Tampons
  • Toilet paper
  • Toothpaste and brushes
  • Shaving razors
  • Combs

There are certainly other items but the priorities for personal hygiene vary from one person to the next. Don’t dismiss the importance of some of these items.


Various tools for barter

Various tools for barter

Tools are best if they don’t depend on electricity or gas to operate. Both of those things may be in limited supply if conditions are so bad that we’ve devolved to a barter economy. If conditions are normal and you’re simply going to a swap meet tomorrow, make sure you can demonstrate that the power tool works. Here are some thought starters on hand tools that will provide good bartering power:

  • Saws
  • Axes
  • Log splitting wedges
  • Hand held log splitting axe
  • Shovels
  • Picks
  • Hammers
  • Sledge hammers
  • Draw shaves
  • Ropes
  • Pulleys
  • Hand drills and bits
  • Planers
  • Chisels
  • Mallets
  • Screwdrivers
  • Pliers
  • Clamps
  • Candles

Tools will be high on the list for barter interest. In a barter economy where commerce is driven by trade there will be few manufactured items that can be easily found. If you want something you may have to build it yourself and everyone will need tools to do that. They’ll also need hardware.


  • Nails
  • Screws
  • Nuts
  • Bolts
  • Washers
  • Hinges
  • Locks and keys
  • Lock hasps

Hardware may be highly in demand in a barter economy when making things from scratch becomes the norm rather than a hobby.

Medical Supplies

Red Cross

In time, basic medical supplies run out after a natural or manmade disaster that has long-term impacts. These supplies can either be bundled into kits or packaged in smaller quantities as barter for trade with less valuable commodities.

  • Adhesive bandages
  • Gauze pads
  • Surgical tape
  • Gauze trauma pads
  • Gauze wraps
  • Elastic wraps (ACE bandages)
  • Eye patches

There are natural cures for many things, but some people either don’t have the knowledge about how to find and make those cures or nature simply can’t match the effectiveness of some over-the-counter (OTC) medicines.

OTC Medicines

  • Triple antibiotic ointment
  • Aspirin
  • Acetaminophen
  • Ibuprofen
  • Congestion relief
  • Benadryl
  • Eye drops
  • Activated charcoal

Medical Equipment

Medical equipment isn’t easy to stockpile in depth for barter, but some low-cost basics could have value.

Supplies for Cooking and Drinking Water

Cast iron barter

Cast iron barter

This isn’t about crockpots and toaster ovens. Things that require power will need power to operate. If the grid is down electronic appliances have no value. Many people will have some of these basics, but certain items will continue to have value as demand outstrips supply.

  • Cast iron cookware
  • Utensils
  • Dinnerware
  • Water filters
  • Activated charcoal for water filtration
  • Canning jars and lids
  • Canning supplies like lifting tongs and large pots

Creating Items for Barter

Homemade barter

Homemade barter

Many items that will have value as barter can be made. Some require simple equipment that can be improvised and quite often the materials are readily available. The Internet has plenty of info and YouTube videos that might be worth a watch if you have any interest in creating tradable products from scratch. They include:

  • Soap
  • Activated charcoal
  • Apple Cider
  • Apple Cider Vinegar
  • Hard Cider
  • Rustic furniture
  • Knitted items
  • Beer and wine
  • Maple syrup
  • Eggs
  • Smoked fish and game
  • Firewood
  • Brooms
  • Garden herbs
  • Wild foraged herbal remedies
  • Baked goods
  • Fruits and vegetables

There are obviously many other items, but the rule is simple: if you can make it and someone wants or needs it -you have something new to barter. What’s good about creating your own barter products is that they have the potential to be a renewable resource. You can only barter so many things from a stockpile before they’re gone.

The Barter Items with Extreme Value

There are some things that will have significant value in times of a barter economy. They fall into three categories:

1. Prescription Medicines

This is a dangerous area. Prescription meds have side-effects and after-effects and interactions with other drugs. Bartering prescription meds in a barter economy reduces them to the level of street drugs. People aren’t sure what they’re getting and sometimes aren’t sure what they’re offering. In a worst-case scenario, they’re offering a counterfeit. There’s a book called the Physician’s Desk Reference that can help. It shows a picture of exactly what a prescription medicine looks like and its usage and side-effects plus general notes on dosage. It’s a good book to have on hand.

The reason that’s important is that every prescription medicine is required by Federal law to be made in a unique combination of shape, color, and a unique code displayed on the pill. If someone is trying to barter 12 Amoxicillin tablets you can easily look up Amoxicillin and match the pill to the photo to make sure the combinations are authentic and not a fake.

Another factor affecting prescription meds is the expiration date. It’s unlikely you or the person bartering will know how old the medicine is. The only consolation is that if you or someone you know has an infection you have nothing to lose if the verified Amoxicillin tablet is expired and there are no alternatives.

But there are some meds that are dangerous when they have passed the expiration date. Tetracycline is one of them. The Physician’s Desk Reference clearly flags medicines with this danger. It may be best to simply and carefully keep what you have in stock and do your best to verify any prescription meds you try to acquire through barter.

2. Precious Metals 

This seems like a no-brainer but it’s worth some careful thought. Precious metals will have tremendous value if you’re living in a barter economy. It’s most likely that the value of any precious metal like silver or gold will significantly increase if a natural or manmade disaster has made a barter economy an everyday reality. That’s why buying gold an ounce at a time could be problematic.

  • If you have a 1-ounce gold coin that’s worth thousands it’s worthless to you if you’re trying to acquire simple items.
  • 1-ounce silver coins will be worth much less, but the value could still be above the average barter item.
  • Gold and silver coins are sold in smaller, 1/10th ounce sizes but even they may be more than you need for a simple transaction.
  • Coins with silver content are a good possibility and the various sizes and resulting weights from dimes to quarters to half dollars and silver dollars give you some room to maneuver. Most U.S. coins minted in 1964 and before have varying percentages of silver content.

Precious metals are good to have on hand but make sure you think about how you may ultimately use them for purchases and the value of what those things may be. You’ll also want to keep a low-profile and not announce too loudly that you have any quantity of precious metals in your possession, anywhere. If you can’t figure out why that’s important you should avoid acquiring precious metals.

3. Weapons

If things have deteriorated to the point that all commerce is transacted through a barter economy, it’s a good bet that other systems have failed or are severely weakened as well. Self-defense will be a fact of life on a more frequent basis. Weapons and ammunition will be in high demand.

Which weapon or weapons you acquire is a matter of personal choice. Acquiring weapons for potential barter is another matter.

  • Antique or outdated rifles that are still safely functioning will have value to someone without any alternative. They can often be purchased for a good price.
  • Handguns also apply but make sure any weapon you offer in barter is functional and safe to operate.
  • Ammunition for the weapon makes sense as part of the transaction but keep the gun-shop owner’s rules in mind. “Don’t load it here. Save it for the rifle range.”
  • This can be a risky transaction unless you are in an environment that is very public, and you feel you can trust your trading partner.

As a Barter Economy Matures – so do the Barterers

What has become apparent in countries and cultures that often engage in barter is that a certain calm and protocol emerges to make the act of barter a fairly uncomplicated transaction. This takes time but as transactions increase and grow, so do relationships and friendships. A barter economy is nothing to fear. It’s the circumstances that created it that gives us pause.


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