Originally published in The Pulse

How the “barter economy” is still alive and well in Chattanooga

Moola. Loot. Pesos. Paper. Coin. Bank. Clams. Bread. Dough. Cheddar. Greens. Bringing home the bacon. No matter what you call it, with an ever fluctuating economy, the value of the dollar holds different value for everyone.

The budding farmer may not feel as passionate about growing that 401K as much as growing a team of farm hands and paying them in produce. The graphic designer may need an editor to review the children’s book in which she is getting paid to draw the pictures.

The ancient art of bartering, exchanging goods or services for other goods or services, has been around since the beginning. Trade, which I thought meant the same as barter before this article, by definition is a transaction where one buys or sells a good or service.

The practice of barter is recognized by the IRS and every trade dollar earned should reported like cash…should be. When a recession hits and money is tight, people will lean more towards a barter economy to assist in supplying some sort of stable way to provide food on their table, or even provide the table itself.

With online economy platforms like the controversial Bitcoin or the up and coming Simbi, citizens are looking at new ways to expand their income to include more than just a hard earned dollar. This modern approach to an antiquated system of bartering is now providing more opportunities to those who are low on cash but who have an abundance of skill and talent. This intangible economy is finding new ground and taking root in Chattanooga in several forms.

“Your Money’s No Good Here”

“We toil away for cash and corporations, our lives bought and boxed…it’s time to stop working for salaries and hierarchies and start working for each other.”

That’s a quote from Simbi, an online marketplace that connects individuals who need or offer services and are willing to swap for no cash exchanged. “By offering services that bring you joy, our community gives you the opportunity to share your hobbies, skills, and talents in a whole new way.”

However, Simbi has their own form of currency with “Simbi Dollars” to add more options to an almost complete barter system, but then, like other cryptocurrencies or in-store credit cards, it is limiting.

Let’s get to the real trade dollars we all know and love: the McKay’s yellow trade. Going in with books that have already been read or dusty CD’s that we no longer listen to because of Pandora, then walking out with new-to-us items is a really cool concept (almost as cool as the store itself). I’ve heard negative comments regarding how little value is given for traded in items, but if one really stopped to think, “Where would anyone give me cash for this?”, then any amount of money or trade is invaluable.

Another Chattanooga business interested in items you no longer have an interest for and an avid supporter of the trade system is Four Bridges Outfitters in Northshore. Owned and operated by three generations of Bartoletti ladies (Jenny, Lynn and Joann), Four Bridges Outfitters has been offering store credit or consignment for gently used outdoor clothing and equipment.

“Consignment is a great way for people to make a little extra money on something they have outgrown or perhaps are no longer interested in doing” said Jennie who was the Farm Manager at Crabtree Farms before partnering with her mom to open Four Bridges in 2012.

She understands the need for a business where adaptability is crucial in an ever changing economy and environment. “We are excited to help increase the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) in the retail industry as well as offer an affordable alternative.”

When a customer turns in an item for consignment, Four Bridges Outfitters provides two options for payment. The customer can either receive fifty percent cash or sixty percent store credit from the ticketed price. Like McKay’s, the value Jenny places on the price tag is based on age, condition and comparisons from other retail sources, so it may not be the beaucoup bucks one was hoping for but it is better than some other alternatives.

Unless hosting a time consuming yard sale or posting on the Facebook marketplace (which may introduce you to a new creepy consumer), there are really no other outlets to rid oneself of household items. Now, there may be no bartering as you have to take the offer they give you, but again truly consider, who would even consider making you an offer for your old stuff?

I am not a fan of these recently popular clothing swaps because, as I am a large and in charge kind of gal, I rarely ever find anything to fit me, so more often than not my stuff gets gone then I’m left even more empty handed. What I do like and wish I saw more of are seed swaps where gardeners and other dirt diggers get together and trade plants, herbs and the likes. One size fits all on Mother Earth.

Sweat Equity

So now, for the person who has no tangible item to trade, what is left is just some sweat equity with good old physical labor. Labor is usually what costs the most, just think about your mechanic or hairstylist, and the outdoor workforce can be brutal especially in the heat of mid-July.

With the farm to table movement having so much momentum in Chattanooga, local farmers are depending on an allotted amount of regularly, scheduled seasonal volunteers to pitch in and get paid in greens…or collards…or tomatoes. A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) workshare is a partnership where a person promises to volunteer for a certain amount of set hours for the season in exchange for produce or goods harvested from the farm.

Some perks of the workshare program, according to Crabtree Farms’ website is, “It offsets your cost for a share in our CSA program, allows you to build a relationship with your food by being involved with its production, and is a great way to get a dose of fresh air and step away from your daily pattern.”

The farming industry is not the only grassroots business communicating with their neighbors and building a more well-rounded customer base through bartering. Jenny Cate, owner of Vanillr Designs, a freelance graphic design company, did work for Renegade Silver and Rustic House where she received jewelry and candles in exchange for her services.

“It’s a great way to support other local businesses and artists,” Cate says as she shows off her custom earrings from Renegade Silver.

Tit For Tat

Bartering items or work could create an ideal economy but there are a couple hiccups that prevent us from moving forward with that cashless concept. First, how do you find the services that you are looking for? I may be in need of a plumber but that plumber may not want the services or goods that I would trade.

When the stars do align and both parties involved agree to need each other’s services or goods, there is a technical term and it is called the Double Coincidence of Wants (wow your friends with that one at the next Trivia night).

The creation of Facebook groups such as the “Chattanooga Natural Living Barter and Trade” is one way that has allowed the self-employed to remain sustainable without exchanging money. It’s pinned post states that, “If you grow, cook, or create things, or offer some kind of service and are willing to barter, this group is for you. Let’s share the things we have and cut down on spending and waste while making friends and fostering a community of people who help each other out.”

There is no room here for a playpen or lawn mower that the seller only wants cash. With less than 300 members, there has been several stories of success within this group including a licensed massage therapist trading her skill for someone’s handmade soaps and a farmer trading her eggs for another homesteader’s elderberry syrup.

My Two Cents

It’s a sign of hope that larger parts of society are embracing the barter system but when it expands too big, we lose the connection of community that the feeling of barter is supposed to create. How many more online economy programs are going to pop up and fabricate a more restricting system with a broader reach generating a less intimate market?

The general population is already so out of touch with where things come from that people can’t even make it to the grocery store to do their own shopping, nevertheless take time to speak face to face with a local business and work out a deal.

This should be a challenge for you to see what you can barter this week. Even if it’s a pair of sunglasses for a pint or watching your friend’s kids if they detail your car. I would love to hear what local services or goods were swapped in our eco-conscious, scenic city.

Just this week, I traded storage containers for broccoli and cookies for rabbit meat. Get creative and understand that the common denominator in the barter system is discovering, respecting and accepting someone else’s value as well as your own.