Kelly Athena, of Phoenix, has had her home remodeled, hair cut and car fixed, all without writing a check or swiping a credit card.
Athena barters her services as a portrait photographer, then banks "barter bucks" with Value Card Alliance, a Phoenix-based barter group.
She also uses its website to sell miscellanea she finds at garage sales, from $400 worth of comic books she bought for $25 to a mannequin that the buyer used to dress up for a bachelor party.
"I barter for so many things, I rarely shop at regular stores," Athena said.
Bartering is as old as the hills but is enjoying a renaissance. As currency evolved from cowrie shells to George Washingtons, barter remained a perennial way to trade.
Many still barter informally (known as "one-on-one" in barter circles), but formal groups have arisen to widen the networks of services and goods.
The 1982 Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act "legitimized the industry," said John Strabley, CEO of International Monetary Systems, a New Berlin, Wis.-based barter group. "That took bartering from the trades we all learned in grade school — a peanut butter sandwich for a jelly sandwich — to the multibillion-dollar industry it is today."
Americans barter $6 billion to $8 billion in goods and services a year, according to the International Reciprocal Trade Association, or IRTA.
The advent of email, Strabley said, has made it easier to barter and to join barter groups.
Something for something. One-on-one barter usually flies under the IRS radar screen. You dog-sit for your neighbor in exchange for produce from her garden.
By bartering his services as a bookkeeper, Jordan Merritt, of San Diego, has "bought" yoga and boxing classes, chiropractor and acupuncturist visits, tea, pet food, manicures for his wife, publicity for his business and a custom skateboard. He tracks his trades on a spreadsheet.
"It's a win-win situation," Merritt said. "I buy tea at retail price, but the (tea shop owner) bought it at wholesale, so he makes a profit. In return, I get paid in tea (or whatever) for my services."
Not everyone has the moxie to form one-on-one barter relationships, but Merritt views it as a chance to "meet new people and discover new services."
But barter groups argue that one-on-one bartering can result in resentment.
"The problem is, one person eventually gets the bad end of the deal," said Lori Baker, owner of The Barter Group in Scottsdale, Ariz., whose members' services range from pool cleaning to website design.
Formal barter organizations track your barters and issue you a 1099B form at the end of the year so you can report your transactions to the IRS.
Group members usually pay a yearly fee (typically $200 to $300, according to IRTA) and transaction fee (5 to 15 percent ).
By bartering through a group, you are not restricted to one other person's services. "One company wanted website design from us but offered dance lessons, which we didn't need," said Lee-Sean Huang, of New York City. Now he uses OurGoods.org, which offers a range of professionals from doulas to bartenders and gives each party a contract to cement the agreement. One of Huang's gigs is being the information architect for the group's site.
It behooves barter groups to encourage member interaction, so they profile members on their websites, promote their members' successes and hold get-togethers.
Value Card Alliance holds a trade show each November so its members can visit one another's booths and learn about their products and services.