Ron Trejo’s advertising agency caters to small companies around Lake Tahoe and Sacramento, and when they cut their budgets, he feels it fast. But the economic downturn that hit his business hard didn’t stop him from taking his wife on a luxurious weekend getaway to Monterey last spring: three days in a cottage at Pacific Grove’s tony Sea Breeze Inn. The Trejos shopped on Monterey’s historic Cannery Row and cruised the coast in a rented 1968 Cadillac convertible, winding up in a romantic restaurant on the cliffs of Big Sur.
Foolish? No. The Trejos did it all for $350 by employing one of the oldest—and newest—tricks in the book: bartering. “The best thing about bartering,” Ron says, “is it allows people to do things they couldn’t afford to do normally.”
But for Ron Trejo and a growing number of other creative consumers, bartering isn’t only about getting a piece of the good life. In his downtime, Trejo has done ad work in exchange for relatively basic things, like new tires and carpet cleaning.
Business is booming in the barter economy. On craigslist, the classified-advertising website, requests for bartered goods and services were up 125 percent in the past year, making it one of the site’s most popular categories. Recent posts include “dining chairs for computer,” “litigation services for a reliable van,” and “my BlackBerry for your digital camera.” At u-exchange.com, the number of members posting goods for trade has almost doubled over the past year, to over 64,000, including more than 16,000 who joined in the first half of 2009 alone.
Established trading networks like the Lake Tahoe region’s Barter Club, which Trejo belongs to, are resurging too. Members receive a kind of alternative currency based on the retail dollar value of what they have to trade; they can spend those credits with anyone else who participates. Rick Tracewell, a deejay and a website designer, uses the club to treat his big family—he has five kids ranging from 4 to 16—to Italian and sushi dinners. “Money is always tight,” Tracewell says. “To be able to go out to a nice restaurant with them is really awesome.”
In addition to the Tahoe club, Trejo belongs to a large regional barter network called ITEX, which he tapped to find merchants in the Monterey area willing to supply his hotel stay, restaurant meals, and rental car.
Recently, Trejo did $2,000 worth of advertising work for a trendy local restaurant. “It’s not my favorite place,” he says. “But it’s popular.” So rather than dine like a king, he hired a housepainter for his living room and kitchen and paid him in restaurant credits. The painter turned around and got his car serviced using those same restaurant credits to “pay” the garage. Weeks later, some of that free dining was still circulating around the local barter crowd.
Heidi Pliam, a lawyer in Minneapolis, has seen more people looking to exchange goods and services— rather than money—for her counsel. “People need legal services and don’t have the money,” she says. She recently arranged a trade with a small printing company that was being sued. She donated 14 hours of legal services and received a printing credit of $2,500. With that, she made up promotional banners for her business.
Pliam also put together a nifty three-way trade: She did legal work for an entrepreneur who helps people organize their things. “I’m pretty neat,” Pliam says, but she knew a handyman who needed clutter control. After the expert helped the handyman with his files, he repaired some of Pliam’s windows and prepped her basement for painting. Everybody won.
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