The shaky economy has many of us thinking twice about parting with hard-earned dough. Maybe you're bargain-hunting, cutting back on travel, or skipping the gym for home workouts.
Another way to get the things you need--or just want--without spending a dime is by bartering. You know the basic principle from your grade school cafeteria: I'll give you my peanut butter sandwich if you give me your chocolate chip cookies.
The Internet is perfect for bartering. Dozens of websites can match you up with someone who has what you want--and vice versa. Better still, most of the sites are free.
Before You Barter
• Read the terms and conditions carefully before you initiate a transaction. Understand what kinds of things can't be bartered, including anything illegal; porn, alcohol, and drugs (in most cases); live animals; and other regulated goods and services.
• Make sure the site protects your personal information.
• Provide lots of details on what you are offering and what you are looking for. Include photos if possible.
• Identify the terms of shipping, including costs, before you agree to a trade. For obvious reasons (privacy, security), conduct all communication only via the bartering website.
• If you negotiate delivery locally, consider meeting in a public place during business hours. Don't invite strangers to your home or share unnecessary personal or financial information.
• If possible (via member ratings, say; some sites have such ratings, much like eBay), find out as much as you can about the person you're trading with before you agree to a transaction. The sites take no responsibility for fraud or other disputes.
• Trust your instincts. If something seems fishy, try to get more information and don't proceed until you feel comfortable.
Some Barter Sites
Craigslist: Look here if you want to stay strictly local. Click the 'barter' link in your local 'For Sale' category, and you'll find a wildly diverse range of items and services (legal, of course) that are right in your neighborhood.
Freecycle.org: Though a bare-bones site, Freecycle is efficient, and a perfect way to get rid of unwanted stuff--or to score, for free, something that your neighbor is dying to ditch.
Swap.com: This site has more than 500,000 users and 1.5 million items and services. You create an account by providing details such as your location and what you want to barter. You then upload photos of your treasures and go hunting. You and your bartering partner must work out terms and delivery.
This4That.biz: Here you use "barter bucks," which you earn by making trades with other site members. The company gives you 15 barter bucks when you join, and then 2 more a month.
ThredUp.com: If your kids outgrow their clothing 20 minutes after you cut the tags off, you may love this site. Simply order a prepaid shipping bag, fill it with gently used clean clothes, and send it in to earn cash or credit toward the next size up.
TradeAway.com: Through this site you may either barter or sell for cash. You must assign your item or service a monetary value.
U-Exchange.com: Besides items and services, this international site has listings for vacations, home exchanges, vehicles, boats, and more. Search listings by location.
A final reminder: Bartering can be a great way to save a few bucks, but keep your eyes open.