Bartering After SHTF

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If the world all went to hell in a hand basket today, you would probably be stuck with what you have now in your possession and what you know or the skills you have learned already. Assuming your city or home didn’t get destroyed and along with it all of your prepper supplies, you could either be pretty well off for some time or in a serious world of hurt almost immediately. Most of us reading this have made some attempts at becoming prepared. Even if you are new to prepping, you may have taken steps already to ensure you have stocked up some water and food for an emergency. Others have years’ worth of survival items stored up just in case.

For all of us, whether we have a ton of preps already stored or are just starting out; the concept of Barter eventually enters the conversation. Bartering is what people routinely used to do before there was the nearly universal concept of money that we have now. Bartering was a way of trading something you had for something you wanted and was widely used as the main form of commerce.

If you had been raising livestock, you could trade a chicken or some eggs to your neighbor for helping you put up some fence. If you were traveling through an area, you might trade a day’s work for room and board for the night. The details of the trade  was up to you and the person who had the good or service you wanted.

Many prepping blogs offer information about bartering after SHTF as the replacement potential for commerce if we ever find ourselves on the other end of some crisis that destroys the financial system. The concept sounds valid as in a SHTF world, you could expect to not have any money or a job and your entire existence would be simply trying to get by as best you could. To this end, many preppers recommend stocking up on supplies for barter after SHTF so that you would have a built-in supply of items to trade. These stored items would be one form of new currency in a grid-down world.

What are bad bartering items?

Like many of you, I read these articles and look at the comments on prepping and survival blogs to learn as much as I can, but in some cases, I think that the people stocking up extras are deluding themselves. It comes down to a couple of things, but you have to look at what you are planning to trade and what value those items are going to have to someone else.

Frequently, I hear people suggesting to stock up on toiletry items, toothbrushes, combs, notebooks, chap stick, scissors, buttons, coloring books and small knick-knacks like that. I don’t believe that too many people would ever trade for anything like that in the type of end of the world I am imagining that would destroy all modern forms of commerce. Could you find a use for them? Of course, but what would their real value be in contrast to the world you are envisioning?

Take this example: the world has turned so bad that you have no money, no home possibly, no food or shoes. Do you really think you would trade anything you had for a toothbrush? If you are so destitute and the world has devolved so completely that no stores are open anymore, do you really think anyone is going to find value with a pair of scissors?

OK, I can make the case that maybe well after the expected die off from this hypothetical disaster has ended – years down the road you might find someone who is willing to trade you a few eggs for those scissors. Maybe they want to start a new career as the town barber? But after the initial disaster, would those really be the most important items you can think of to trade? What would you give if the shoe was on the other foot in trade for those buttons or coloring books? Would you trade eggs that could feed your family? Would you work all day to give your kids a coloring book? Would you give away a clean shirt you have? Maybe, but I think that is a long shot.

I think that relying on anything that can be viewed as a “nice to have” would make a bad bartering item. Buttons would be lying all over the place on the bodies of dead people or in homes that are vacant. Scissors and paper would too for that matter most likely. Your bartering items are not going to replace the dollar store. You have to remember the viewpoint of anyone in a TEOTWAWKI scenario and think of what they are going to be looking for potentially.

What are good bartering items?

The flip side of this topic, would be obviously what are some good items for barter? This is easier to answer, but the problem with coming up with lists like this would be one of resources. If you have something that is valuable enough to trade, would you really want to part with it? It would depend on what the trade was in the end. I can see situations in dire cases where some women and possibly men will trade their bodies because they have nothing else of value. Food, ammo, weapons, tools, fuel. All of these make great bartering items, but would you want to part with them? What would be worth more than your food?

Anything you have after the grid goes down that will make survival possible will be a good barter item. If you have canned food, that will be valuable if there are no stores open any longer. If you have a surplus of .22 ammo or several other calibers, that would be valuable. Liquor and cigarettes would find a home I am sure as these are vices, not necessities. I can easily see people wanting to trade you for a small bottle of whiskey either because they simply want a drink or are having a small celebration. How about small bags of rice and beans?

Other bartering items to consider:

Water filtration kits – You can get Sawyer Mini water filtration in packs of 4 for about $75. Can you imagine the value of having clean, disease free water would be in a post-collapse world? Even if you didn’t trade for it, you could give these to family and save a life.

A good knife – Many people won’t have their own rugged survival knife on hand so if you have several extra you could trade, these would seem to make great bartering items. Morakniv makes a very reasonably priced fixed-blade knife that comes with it’s own sheath for under $15. I gave one of these to each of my family last Christmas. The would never carry something like this now, but if the grid goes down I have something that will cut and slice for each of them.

Coffee and Tea – This is from the same type of list as whiskey. It isn’t necessary, but it sure makes life better for someone coming out of caffeine withdrawals. I can’t see someone trading food for coffee, but you never know. Maybe they have a year worth of freeze dried foods stocked up but neglected to remember the coffee or their favorite camomile tea.

Spare batteries – We have moved to rechargeable eneloop batteries now, with a backup solar charger, but for people who didn’t have anything, small 4-packs of batteries would be very valuable.

Reading glasses – You have to be able to see and if the local optometrist is out of commission, just having a few pairs of cheap reading glasses could come in handy. Replacing broken glasses could be very important to some people. You can buy 6 packs of regular reading glasses for less than $20. It might not be the perfect prescription, but I could see value in these.

Condoms – Need I say anything more?

Seeds – Stocking up on seeds now is a smart plan for the future. I think you should already have a working garden, but having extra heirloom seeds for the people who haven’t thought as far ahead of you could be a relatively cheap barter item that would be very valuable in a post-collapse scenario.

What are risks of bartering?

I wrote about some of the risks of bartering in another post entitled the Pros and Cons of Bartering, but I think they primarily come down to getting ripped off or injured in the process of conducting the transaction. Bartering in my mind will be first done among your neighbors unlike some who envision a town market where people show up with everything they want to trade. I just can’t see that happening for a very long time and I can’t envision something like Bartertown out of the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome movie happening for a very long time. Maybe the bartering expo is a local event and you just have to walk one street over and set up a table or blanket in Mary’s front yard. That I can see, but you would be trading with people you knew or who lived very near you.

After SHTF, you may have to be more careful when you are conducting business.

After SHTF, you may have to be more careful when you are conducting business.

Trading with people you don’t know is where the danger comes in and this is even truer in a post disaster world. If we are looking at a world without rule of law (WROL), I can see double-cross being used by many unscrupulous people who care nothing for right and wrong, only what they can get.  You wouldn’t want to be conducting a transaction with a stranger without taking a few precautions. First, I would never trade unless I had someone watching my back. I think this will hold true for almost any situation where you are out in the open. Second I wouldn’t trade for anything sight unseen. The old excuse, “It’s just around this corner over here” would be a huge red flag. Do not go around that corner!!! I would be yelling at the TV right now.

The risks are that you could have what you are trading for stolen right from you or that, knowing you have items of value, the strangers – maybe even your neighbors would follow you back home in search of other items. All of these possible scenarios make me think that bartering would not see the light of day in an organized fashion without many hard lessons being learned first.

How to negotiate a trade

OK, assuming everything else is alright. You are in a safe situation and you are sure you won’t be taken advantage of criminally at least you next have to negotiate the deal in a way that doesn’t leave you on the short end of the stick.

1 – Figure out what you want and what you are willing to trade – Have this firmly in your mind before you ever speak to the person. Knowing an amount you would be willing to part with will help you know how much to initially offer and more importantly, what to walk away from. Don’t offer something you aren’t willing to give.

2- Remember, you do not have to agree to the trade if you don’t like it – Thinking back to point number one. If you don’t think the trade is worth it, walk away. This may actually work to your favor if the person trading really wants to deal. Being able to walk away puts you in control of the trade.

3- Spell out the details – If you have ever read any children’s stories, they are full of situations where the young hero agrees to something without getting all the facts. Yes, I will let you marry my daughter, but I didn’t say which one. And poof you are stuck with the ugly step daughter for a wife… If you are trading one good for another, be specific. If it is a good or service write down the details and have both parties sign. Of course this is only as good as the person’s word you are agreeing with, but it could clarify the deal in a way that saves your bacon. Oh, and it assumes you have paper, which I said was basically worthless as barter….

4-Trust your gut – If something doesn’t seem right, walk away. Trust your intuition and if the person or the details of the trade make your spidey senses start tingling, it is better to hold off.

Barter can be done right now without having any devastation. If you believe that bartering is in our future, you can go practice right now while there is so much less risk. Go out to flea markets or try yard sales. You won’t necessarily be bartering for goods you have, but practice negotiating. Find something you want and go through the process of the transaction to see how it feels. It may help you learn some things about yourself that could help you down the road.

So, now it’s your turn. Are you stocking supplies to barter? What do you have to trade?

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  • usmarinestanker

    I think you underestimate the role of small luxury items. I agree that paper, scissors, and things that most have already and can be easily looted won’t have a ton of value, but other things like entertainment could be a much welcomed distraction in a dreary existence.

    Coloring books or a deck of cards or small travel games could help a parent keep their starving children’s minds off their hunger pains. Just as you mention someone wanting a bottle of booze for a celebration, a parent might want something small to celebrate a birthday for a child who had to forgo it previously due to survival needs. Even kids in the depression had toys. They may have been homemade or secondhand but kids are still kids.

    The same could be said of hygiene items. In Iraq, female marines told me stories of checking women for bombs and discovering toilet paper hidden in their robes. The women begged the marines, crying, not to tell their husbands because they would be beaten since tp was western decadence and good Muslims used their lft hand to wipe their asses. The women didn’t agree. Women have hygiene needs different from men and most guys in our society want to / can be “convinced” one way or another to provide extras for their women.

    I liken a purveyor of these comfort luxuries to a midway carnie: nothing you have is needed but it’s just a nice thing to help people feel better while potentially making beaucoup bucks. I’m not saying bet the farm on these things, but a supply (if you’re stable) couldn’t hurt.

    • Thanks for the comments Matt,

      I can agree with you on the distraction part and I guess I was coming down more on the side of your first example. If that parent has a kid with hunger pains and they have something to trade… do you think they will more likely trade for food or that toy? I wasn’t necessarily saying that these items don’t have a place because I do agree that providing for entertainment is important. I was questioning their usefulness as barter items.

      Assuming you are trading with people who have enough food, water and security items, I guess I can see the benefit of the other items. You would be trading not with someone scratching to live, but someone who was looking for those nice to haves. I get that and can see a place, eventually.


      • EgbertThrockmorton1

        I think having specific types of items for barter is a great idea. While thread and needles may not hit your switch, they are great to sew up wounds and tears in clothing that is not replaceable.

        Each of us needs to “figure” out what is best for us and go with it.
        We do not know what kind of “reset” is coming, but, it IS coming. So, while I am no fan of chocolate bars, we’ve stashed a large supply of Hershey bars for bartering and some other decent trade items, if needed.(as an example)

  • Bobcat-Prepper

    I think the best things to plan to barter are those you can make yourself and take an unusual skill or equipment – you’re not going to trade away your last candy bar, are you?

    If you live in the Southeast, you could plant a few yupon bushes in your yard, as it is the only American source of caffeine you can grow. A good jolt in the morning will always be in demand.

    Likewise, you could stock up on brewing equipment & supplies, to provide liquor to the masses in exchange for more sugar or other needs; raise chickens for the eggs, etc.

    • BobW

      Honestly, anything you have assembled in your stash for a SHTF is A-grade barter. The problem, as Pat mentioned, is that if you stashed some, you are not going to want to trade it away, unless the gain is worth more than the loss.

      I agree with Bobcat’s thinking. I’m thinking simple crafted items that will make peoples’ lives a little easier or better will be in high demand. Home made machetes (lawnmower blades), leather goods (moccasins, belt pouches, packs, etc) can be solid plays. Obviously a survivor would need to learn the skills necessary to make these items, the tools to craft them, and a viable source for the raw materials

      If you are thinking of spending $$ to build a barter inventory, think cheap, useful, and desirable. Staples of survival that you have stashed, only get cheapo versions. The way I see it, ammunition, cutting implements, light, and food will be the core needs of folks in some dystopian future.

      I’m not trading ammunition for anything besides a higher need (food, medicine, fire making instruments, or water filtration), so that’s out of the barter pool. I carry a sweet ESEE4 fixed blade knife, Summit Scout flashlight (best dollar value in high powered LED AA sized flashlights), and stock long-life candles in my stash. I’m not going to buy extras of these more costly items to trade, but hitting Harbor Freight and purchasing a big box of those cheap-ass $2.99 folding knives, those little keychain thumb flashlights (the little CR2032 powered ones), cheap candles, and a few crates of SPAM or Tuna would start a strong barter inventory.

      For the under-initiated, Spam and tuna do have expiration dates listed on them, but have been proven to last upwards of a decade if stored in a basement or root cellar.

      None of these items are gearporn you want on your belt when the lights go out, but each of them are items you’d gladly haggle over if you’ve been robbed on your long walk home after the event happens, and no longer have a blade, light, or food.

  • Yeah, I think we will all have to live without toilet paper at some point if it gets really bad. That and feminine hygiene products aren’t going to easily be replaced without some adjustments in lifestyle.

    Leather-working would be a great skill though as long as you also know how to get the leather.


  • Bolofia

    Great discussion! Here are a few additional observations that are more applicable to TEOTWAWKI scenarios.

    1. Not specifically mentioned in the article or comments are hand operated tools, such as drills, saws, hand planes, etc. If the grid is gone, anything powered by electricity will be worthless. Would you trade your food for a variable speed drill?

    2. Another thought: At some point, perhaps very quickly, potable water might become a valuable item of barter. It’s a chilling notion, one loaded with ethical considerations.

    3. 12 volt cart/truck batteries will be stripped from store shelves, whether purchased or stolen, very quickly. Abandoned vehicles will become a source of supply for barter. Batteries will also enable you to rig lighting systems when the grid is down.

    4. Fuel tanks in abandoned vehicles will also be a source for gas. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to drain a gas tank. Safe storage is probably a greater issue, but a supply of fuel could be a highly valuable resource for barter.

    5. Antibiotics, blood pressure and diabetic medications are readily accessible and inexpensive at border towns. For example, amoxycillin has a long shelf life and takes very little shelf space to store.

    Given the choice, I would rather trade my labor for something that I need, rather than deplete my own stock of supplies.

  • high treason

    Very useful barter item that costs almost nothing except time is a list of edible weeds that grow in the area and how to prepare them. Done well with photos and laminated would be something that could be valuable to barter at some stage. I have mapped out the small local area for the edible weeds- do not want to travel too far from home to get them.
    Different items will be useful at different stages of SHTF time.The most essential thing is how to barter without someone desperate actually killing you for your stuff. Alas, weapons will be the most valuable item. Second on the list is water filtration. Once bought a whole stack of small carbon filters for a few cents each 20 years ago in anticipation of such a SHTF event. As it could be getting closer, it is time to mobilize these. Even 20 years ago I could see the value of these small carbon filters-they will be prime tradeable items which cost me almost nothing.
    Something few realize is that it is absolutely essential to have an escape route from a bunker. Once the horde knows where you are in the bunker, they will kill you and raid the stash. Bare survival kit near that escape hatch might be that last desperate edge. Certainly, nobody should be aware that there even is a stash somewhere. I have contemplated booby traps.Perhaps a powerful smoke machine run off a battery.
    There will be some things in plentiful supply when the SHTF. Abandoned cars will have tyres, which could be carved up to make sling shot material. For the more paranoid, making a slingshot that can take the rubber and having a bit of practice could give an edge.
    Possibly the most useful tools are a small axe and quality hand shovel. The axe should have a strap for when your group runs at rival groups in unison brandishing such axes. Something to bear in mind is that most people will have kitchen knives for defense, so they will be very poor for bartering. Never barter a tool that can be used against you eg a gun, pitchfork.
    Quality gaffa tape and paracord in particular are items that will be useful as most people would be able to see their value beyond immediate needs.

    A simple lock from the inside of the bunker will give the precious moments to escape. This can be made almost exclusively from scrounged material. A powerful jamming system will cost only a few dollars. The raiders would have to go back to get tools to smash through to the bunker. Once again, that precious time gives you the opportunity to escape with your life or better still ambush the raiders with what will have to be extreme violence.

    Wool blankets, although bulky, are a good bartering tool, but it will take some time before their value becomes apparent.

    Small binoculars are another great barter item. Must be half decent quality-nobody would barter a cheap plastic optical device. In general, cheap gear being traded will have a very low value.

    Jars or bags with hunger satisfaction portions of food will be easier to trade than say some 50 lb sack of sugar. The food hoarder will get vastly better trade out of splitting that 50lb bag of sugar in to 100 highly tradeable half pond portions. There will be few things that could actually be traded for that entire bag of sugar except a really good water filter or a gun/ammo, not that anyone would be stupid enough to trade a gun or large amount of ammo that the whole big bag of sugar is worth. It is for this reason I have been hanging on to plastic containers and glass jars. They may seem useless now, but when the time comes, they will allow those trades of small portions from the big stash. It will also reduce the chance of others finding out you have a stash. It is essential that nobody knows how well prepared you are, or they will probably kill you.

    Having a highly valuable skill such as knowing how to make fish traps, how to make sand and charcoal water filters, knowing those edible weeds etc may be a way of convincing someone you should not be butchered and eaten if cornered. I am lucky that I have a particular valuable and with time essential skill along with some of the equipment deliberately kept at home in anticipation that my particular skill will eventually be extremely valuable. Although a bit heavy, this equipment and training will make me irreplaceable. Kill me at your eventual peril. What is interesting is that my special skill will be almost impossible to calculate a barter value. In times of old, my skill could get a bag of apples in desperate times, whereas said essential service goes for $200 today which bought me 150 cans of beans and 100 rolls of toilet paper the other day for the stash(did get funny looks from the cashier.) Although the trade value in desperate times is undervaluing my special skill, the value will be in that others will know I am worth more alive than dead. Kill me at your peril. Kill me and others in the area will eventually lynch those who killed me when they eventually need my skills.

    • Excellent points and tips High Treason! Thank you for contributing to the conversation. I do agree that cars will be a source of great supplies of last resort.