What’s a little barter between friends?

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By Crystal Whitney

We all worry about money.  That’s why we stay in jobs we hate, hoard cash away in bank accounts, buy stocks in companies that exploit labourers in developing countries, and invest in RRSPs for our retirement when we’re only 20 years old.  Money is an inescapable part of our lives.

However, it is possible tog et alone with less money and more reliance on people, really it’s all a matter of perspective.

For instance: if you were stranded on a desert island with no food, water or rescue in sight and a genie appeared and offered you $10 million or a week’s supply of bananas, what would you choose?  (Being a desert island, there are no 7-11s, Loblaws, or Burger kings around.  And you can’t bribe the genie, either.)

Suddenly, money isn’t so desirable anymore.  But strangely enough, in the real world, we believe little pieces of coloured paper decorated with markings and the faces of old men are valuable enough to trade for the necessities of life.  Really though, what’s useful are the goods and services money can buy.

If you’ve ever traded your school lunch, toys, comics books, or computer games, you already know what I’m talking about.  Bartering is a system of exchanging goods and services for less, or even no cash.

Most bartering systems in Toronto are corporate and deal with huge quantities of product and services.  BEST (Barter Exchange System Toronto) is one system that focuses on individuals and small business people who wish to trade their services for something other than money.  After starting up in last April, BEST has quickly grown to 75 members who offer bicycle repairs, holistic medicine, massage therapy, computer services, tutoring and translating.

At 326 Queen St., around the back of a small restaurant, and down the stairs is the official location of BEST. T eh group holds meetings about once a month in the small shared office where Eileen Vogn, membership co-ordinator for BEST, works form her little cubicle.  In addition to posters, pamphlets and a website, Vogn spreads BEST’s name and philosophy around through presentations to community groups and businesses.

Vogn says bartering at its most basic increases accessibility to expensive services.  By reducing the amount of cash needed for a purchase, more people can access the goods and services they need.  She says most people on the system have other jobs and barter as something extra.

Here’s how it works.

When you join, you receive a certain number of BEST dollars (a form of bartering credit), and a list of members offering different goods and services sold in Canadian currency, called federal dollars.  A percentage (usually between 10 and 25 per cent) of those good and services can be paid for with BEST dollars.

For example, someone who can fix computers would advertise for $50 an hour.  A BEST member would receive that service for 25 per cent less.  The amount of the discount (in this case $12.50) goes back to service provider, the computer repair person, as BEST credit dollars.  Which means that the computer fixer could go to another BEST member and barter or something worth $12.50, and not have to fork over any legal tender.


Heather Wilson, a registered massage therapist, has offered her services to fellow barterers for 10 years.  In her experience, the great thing about bartering is having the chance to make use of a wider range of skills and talents.  She says most people don’t use all of their abilities in their jobs, and bartering offers a chance to discover those untapped skills.  Anything form donating time to organize someone’s weekly schedule to a skill with crafts or languages can be used for barter.

Wilson says that when she was a kid whatever she didn’t want was traded, like toys for candy, in straight exchange.  When the economy started to slide in the mid ‘80s, she picked up again and started trading massages for an air mattress, sewing, baked goods, massage, aromatherapy, CDs, unique handmade crafts and chiropractic services.

Wilson says prospective members should be cautious of offering too much.  “Be sure you can do what you say you can,” she says.

“Otherwise it’ll come across badly.”

Sometimes people will put off a barter job to do a “federal dollars” job, resulting in time delays for a service.  She encourages people to view bartering as a professional business, with the same responsibilities and obligations.  Wilson says she gets referrals from other members before calling for a service, and asks about their qualifications.

Bartering works best when everyone has an equal stake in the system and treats it with integrity and respect.  Dori Charters, who has bartered for three years, says she finds it strange people need to organize bartering.

“People should be doing this anyway,” she says, trading needing an administrator.  Her older brother has lived his whole life without a bank account, instead, he’s traded for everything.  “Bartering encourages people to connect with each other to use skills without having to go through money,” says Charters.

Charters says people on the barter system end to be more alternative.  There are a lot of people offering holistic medicine, massage, homeopathy and fewer skilled tradespeople, who tend to view BEST dollars as a pure discount instead of an exchange.

Bartering systems must also combat a consumer mentality, that urges people to buy new things, and the lure of cold, hard cash.  But as mega shopping centres replace corner stores, the people who know you and will go that extra mile without any material compensation are forced out of business.  That’s the territory bartering is trying to recover.

Through trade fairs and swap meets, BEST people can meet and trade in person.  These events serve as a catalyst for meeting people in the community.  And since it’s a whole group, rather than one-to-one, trading can take place with completely different people, which reduces any sense of indebtedness and frees up people to go for the goods and services they really need.

For bartering to work, you need to have a stake in the system, either financial or ethical.  So, if you’re looking to save some money, have skills wasting away as you single-mindedly pursue your degree, or want to rebel against institutional control, try bartering.  What you get could be priceless.

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