(image credit: Oliver Tacke)

Let’s get one thing straight: bartering is NOT working for free.

Instead, bartering is an occasionally useful alternative for freelancers who want services… but don’t have a lot of cash to throw around. Though bartering can be more complex than agreeing to financial transactions, swapping services can be a great way to get what you need.

So when’s the right time to barter? When is it time to find a good bargain?

1. When it’s a much-needed solution

Say you desperately need a new website – your current site is practically chalk markings on a cave wall – but you cannot pay for a web designer.

Enter the well-designed barter: Services that you can easily provide may be just a freelance web designer may be seeking. Swap your services – and you’ll never have to get out your wallet!

Start out by taking an inventory of your current situation: who do you know that may be willing to barter? Friends and acquaintances are often much more open to considering a trade than strangers – don’t be surprised if a cold call gets you the cold shoulder.

If nobody within your network is the right fit, there are certainly bartering partners available online – but (as I’ll detail in the next section) do your research before committing.

Next, evaluate what you can offer a bartering partner in return, and what is the approximate value of your services. If you’re dealing with a friend or colleague, think about what solutions you can offer to them.

Many people are open to creative swaps, especially when they are presented as mutually-beneficial miracle cures for business maladies.

Join Freelancers Union (it's free!)

Become a member

2. When you’ve done your homework

As I’ve said, bartering can be a great option, especially for cash-strapped freelancers who need creative solutions. But any barter should be carefully researched before you jump onboard.

Protect yourself: make sure that you’re collaborating with trustworthy individuals. Research the people involved – if you’re finding bartering partners online, be extra vigilant. Ensure that all parties involved know exactly what terms the barter will accommodate. I’d strongly recommend getting something in writing.

Make sure that the goods or services you’ll receive are of commensurate value with the services you’ll provide – for example, beware of making the dubious trade-off of hours of work for “exposure.” Be very thorough in your preparation; it may save you frustration in the long run.

3. When you can be specific

Open-ended, vague barters are a one-way ticket to dissatisfaction. When mapping out a swap, be very specific about how and when goods and services will be exchanged – it can head off potential discord down the road.

When and how will you receive services? When and how will you deliver your goods? What is the deadline for a swap? Will you measure services in hours worked, goods received, or final product delivered?

Be more exact than you think you have to be. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; both parties benefit when terms are mapped out beforehand.

With these ground rules in mind, bartering can be a fantastic alternative to shelling out money – as long as you do your research and be specific about the terms involved. And remember, if it feels like a bad trade, DON’T DO IT – you can always walk away before a bargain is made!

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.