How to barter your skills

Feb 25, 2021

Freelancing can be a rewarding career path, and many freelancers achieve financial success. However, to build toward stability and keep your career sustainable, you need pay close attention to your cash flow. There may be times, whether by the nature of the gig economy or crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, that you find yourself receiving lower income than usual.

While getting more work is always a nice solution to this issue, it is not always the most realistic one. You must develop strategies that can help you to be more creative and effective in managing your outgoings in a way that avoids the necessity to get into debt. Alongside making a realistic budget and keeping monthly household bills to a minimum, one of the key strategies for cutting your expenses is bartering your freelance skills, rather than paying cash for services.

Bartering is seeing a resurgence in our communities, with online groups helping to fill the need for cashless trades. But although this method of commerce has existed for centuries, many freelancers are not entirely confident about the process. It’s only natural that you want to avoid coming across as disrespectful, but that shouldn’t discourage you from reaching out to make a mutually beneficial trade. So, let’s take a look at a few of the positive ways that you can approach the process.

Develop Relationships

Bartering successfully doesn’t just come down to trading; it is predicated on a certain amount of trust and consideration. There needs to be mutual faith that what each of you is offering will be provided promptly and of the highest quality. While having a good reputation can help you here, there aren’t many freelancers who can barter purely based on their names. Therefore, you need to approach your bartering process from the basis of building a positive relationship.

This is important not just for convincing your target that they should barter with you, but for your own peace of mind. Not to mention that the process is so much more pleasant for everybody involved if neither of you feels as though your interactions are purely transactional — that there’s a genuine connection there. It’s the same approach as you should be taking with networking. People are likely to be much more receptive if you both care about the relationship. This is why it can be easier and more comfortable to barter for services with people with whom you already have a history: There is already a mutual bond of trust and respect that you can build on.

Whether or not you already know your potential collaborator, you need to put effort into forging and maintaining professional relationships with them. Talk to them about what they care about in their profession — seek to understand their challenges and what drives them. Share your own needs. On the most basic level, this helps to establish or strengthen a genuine connection. It also gives both of you insights into whether this is an appropriate time to barter for services, and how you can best serve each other’s needs through an exchange of skills.

Understand Value

Whatever you’re bartering for, whether it’s healthcare or plumbing services, one of the most difficult aspects of bartering your skills in exchange for services is valuation.

Your approach here should consider:

Your Worth

Freelancers, particularly in creative industries, are often victim to the fact that their work is frequently undervalued by the general public. As such, it can be easy to find yourself falling into the trap of accepting others’ views that your work has lower — or in some cases, no — true monetary value. Sometimes it can be helpful to gather resources on current industry rates for your work, or how the quality of the services you can provide add value to businesses. This understanding also extends to gaining the confidence to communicate your self-worth. You understand what you do and why it is valuable, work on expressing that.

Their Worth

To negotiate from a position of strength, you also need to gain a full appreciation of the comparative industry value of their work. If you’re undertaking a big project such as a home renovation and are seeking to barter with a contractor, you’ll likely have already done some research into material and labor costs. Indeed, bartering shouldn’t be your first or only call — it’s important to explore other cost-saving measures, such as planning to complete in affordable stages, hiring tradespeople in more affordable months, and even engaging in some DIY. Whatever the situation, understanding what goes into their pricing and having well-researched points of reference can help you gauge a realistic, fair exchange for everyone involved.

Making Your Pitch

It’s also vital to remember that, even when you have a prior relationship with your potential collaborator, this is not a “friends doing favors” situation. You are both professionals. Go into the situation with supporting information. This could be in the form of your portfolio of work or case studies to show how your services can add value to theirs. Approach it from the perspective that you have taken careful consideration into the business aspects of the matter, rather than seeking a casual cashless transaction.

You may be able to help your chances of success if you prepare a formal proposal in advance. This can outline the scope of services that you are looking for each party to provide, how they will be delivered, and the expected timescale. Don’t treat this as a hard contract at this stage. Rather, use it as a tool to open the dialogue between the two of you; it’s a basis to begin negotiations, and a way to progress the conversation in a positive, professional manner.


We live in a changing commercial world, and many of us have returned to bartering skills and services rather than rely on cash transactions. It’s not always an easy process, but it’s important to approach it from the perspective of building a genuine relationship and proceeding in a way that shows mutual value and respect. With some preparation, empathy, and confidence you can make the exchange successful for everyone involved.

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send us your blog post.

Noah Rue

Noah Rue is a journalist and a digital nomad fascinated with the intersection between global health and modern technology.