If and when the end of civilized life as we know it arrives, there will be a period lasting from months to years before your community stops collapsing and develops a stable local economy. During this time, the agreed exchange of goods and services between residents is clearly preferable to looting and theft, but successful transactions will not be easy without a widely accepted replacement for money. People may still have cash, credit cards, and checks, but without a central government these are unlikely to be seen as a good exchange for essentials like food, clothes, fuel, or services. A local currency will eventually appear in each economic region, but until it does how can one replace money?
This is a significant question. There’s nothing wrong with the old standby of gold and ammunition for long-term preservation of value, but in realistic situations both are hard to use. Someone who doesn’t know you may ask themselves, “Is this a real gold coin or a convincing forgery? Will this apparently new ammunition actually work when my life depends on it?” You may find yourself thinking, “Do I want to hand over something like my gold coin, which I know is of real and ever-increasing value, for four old car batteries (or whatever). Will the 9mm ammunition I hand to this person for a box of corned beef today be used to take it back by force tomorrow?” What is needed for day-to-day commerce after collapse are items unlikely to inspire fear, uncertainty, and doubt. This means using things that could have been sitting around your house, that could have been found, or that could have been traded to you. In other words, they are things that are familiar and useful and whose condition and post-collapse value are immediately clear to both parties.
Let’s look more closely at value. Perceptions of an object’s value will change immediately and then more gradually over time after collapse. Many things that are cheap and common now will become more attractive when they are unobtainable. Former middle class professionals will be spending their days repairing clothes and houses, catching pests, trying to live without power or supermarkets, scrounging food, watching out for bad guys, and walking rather than driving. Every household will need to become self sufficient in a very short time. Perceived value will also change as a crisis persists. Some items that are of marginal trading power immediately after a collapse, when people will still have limited household supplies, will increase the longer the crisis persists. Candles are one example. Think through the stages of a crisis as you choose, acquire, and use your barter goods. Buy plenty of candles, but put them at the back of the cupboard.
The value of what you have for barter will also change depending on local events, the weather, and the season. If someone comes into the community with a trunk full of looted nylon cord and starts to barter it for food, the value of your own cord stock will drop as a result. (This is inflation in its monetary sense.) However, once that stock of cord is used up in a few weeks’ time, your own supply will start to rise in value. Being aware of the current state of supply and demand means you know to push something to the back of the store cupboard with the candles for a while.
Finally, perceptions of an item’s value also depend on where your community is situated. If you live in a northern state with cold winters that adds barter value to matches and candles (for half of the year at least). A rural community offers more opportunities for trapping and hunting, and increases the barter value of arrows and airgun pellets. The residents of an urban community, on the other hand, will look for street maps at all times of year.
Barter v. Trading
This article is about identifying, stocking, and using the post collapse equivalent of a pocket full of dollar bills. It should be enough that if someone is trading eggs or socks you can buy a pair without having to run back to the house, but not so much that if someone robs you at gunpoint, you’ve lost a major part of your savings. That’s barter.
I define trading being qualitatively different, because it involves much higher-value items. Trading involves some psychology on both sides, similar to buying a car or a house, as opposed to daily shopping. Also, it is less likely you will know the other person or people involved. Trading is the subject of another article, because you don’t want to have a reputation for doing it (or, more precisely, doing it for a living). Professional traders have always been distrusted, even by those they know. House flippers, car salesmen, and traditional horse dealers are good examples. However, if you continually trade goods (services are different and safer, because the buyer has a stake in keeping you alive and happy), you’ll also have to deal with people you don’t know. This is a temptation for the opportunists among them to follow you home. You might drive them off with gunfire, maybe wound a few, but the rest will still be out there, and you and yours have to leave the house eventually.
In a situation where a simple flesh wound, without professional medical attention, will kill you, it doesn’t pay to make anyone mad or envious. So rather than trading, you want to barter. Not only that, but after a social collapse it’s safest to appear as unprepared and panicked as everyone else. If there’s a food handout, be screaming and scrambling in the crowd with everyone else; this may not help your self-esteem, but you don’t want to be the nail that’s sticking up by not appearing as desperate as your neighbors. Ask around for stuff you already have, and make it sound genuine. If a few good people actually do give you something, take it and remember them.
Barter and donate. Use stockpiled items to gain that most valuable of assets in troubled times– goodwill. Give a few small items to people you know to strengthen the bond between you in the same way that buying them a beer would do now. Always be fair, and throw in something free like news and advice; there will be plenty of both needed after collapse. With any luck, you will be seeing and working with them again as you both rebuild your community.
The Qualities of Barter Goods
Let’s start by looking at the kind of items that people are most likely to accept in exchange for small amounts of food, fuel, or time. Note that we’re not talking about axes, chickens, or cans of gas, but portable items you can carry unobtrusively, in case you see something useful for possible exchange. Suitable barter goods will be:
- Cheap to buy now but will increase in value after collapse because they are not made or replaceable locally.
- Stable over a few years in cool dry storage.
- Provably in good condition at the time of trading by demonstration.
- Portable and robust; made out of durable materials like stainless steel.
- Usable by the recipient for further exchange or original purpose.
- Widely acceptable and recognizable; hard to counterfeit.
- Not so expensive per indivisible unit (like guns) that it is hard to make a fair trade.
- Impossible to use against you (unlike large caliber ammunition).
- Unlikely to arouse suspicion that you are a hoarder, a trader, or unusually well-prepared.
- Usable by you in ordinary life so that they can be rotated like any other stockpiled item
- Preferably packed in original containers to increase their perceived value, condition, and safety.
- Those containers, if reusable, will add to the value. Don’t forget to point this out as part of their value. This includes resealable bottles and boxes in glass, plastic, and metal.
Many things fit these requirements, and most can be found on a Saturday morning visit to Costco or IKEA’s household department. If there is a choice, don’t skimp on quality. A brand name item, even if it’s functionally the same as a Chinese knockoff half the price, will have more sales appeal for the same weight and volume. There’s going to be a lot of scavenged trash around, and it’s worth pointing this out. Underline this by having examples that look perfect with the original labels and stickers on them.
Examples of Durable Barter Goods:
- Precision airgun pellets and hunting arrows; slingshots and slingshot ammunition.
- Candles and waterproof matches.
- Small notebooks with pencils, eraser tops, and a small sharpener.
- Resealable waterproof containers such as ZipLok bags, Tupperware, and small Mason jars.
- Fishing line, which can be used for many things besides fishing, and galvanized wire.
- Waterproof duct tape. Choose dark neutral colors such as green or gray, not black, white, or orange.
- Bicycle and bike chain repair kits; sewing kits; first aid kits.
- Plumbing and irrigation repair items such as hose clips, extenders, and plastic valves. Keep them on the display cards.
- Stainless steel screws in common sizes; keep to Philips (cross) or slot head versions. If they come in snap-top, plastic containers so much the better. Also strong hooks, bolts, and padlocks.
- Small, good-quality, pocket knives or multipurpose tools with can/bottle openers.
- Small adjustable wrenches and stainless digging tools/camping knives.
- Camping and travel supplies, like vacuum-packed space blankets and collapsible water containers.
- LED flashlights, both battery and squeeze dynamo powered.
- Fifty-foot lengths of nylon or para cord with the ends heat sealed so they don’t fray, carabiners, small books of knots.
- Salt and sugar; cubes are better than loose sugar as they can’t be extended with fillers like plaster. You need to keep both salt and sugar dry, of course.
- Plastic-covered local street and regional maps or map books; colored chalk for marking buildings and routes. Small compasses with measuring features (the Silva range is recommended).
- Travel bars of soap and small bottles of rubbing alcohol, which is easy to prove it’s genuine with a sniff.
- Lightweight industrial type fixings, such as long zip ties and tie-down straps.
- 12-volt electrical system components and light bulbs, particularly long lasting and durable LEDs.
- Paperback survival and repair guides; to add value supply them with waterproof bags.
If possible get a piece of printed paper like store handouts you can hand out with items such as pocket knives and tools. These will be no cost to you when you buy, but they will increase the perceived value and quality of the item at trade time. Think like a salesman. Keep your trade goods clean and dry, taking particular note of the packaging and labels. Condition is a big part of the perception of value.
Examples of (Eventually) Perishable Barter Goods:
- Bite-size candy bars, like those sold in big bags at Hallowe’en. They’re much cheaper after the event, like most seasonal items, so use trick or treaters each years as a resource to turn over your old stock, and then replenish it cheaply the next day. Don’t worry, year-old candy is fine.
- Checkout favorites, like beef jerky sticks and salty snacks.
- Spirits, such as whiskey or tequila; small plastic bottles are best (not miniatures, though: too much of the weight is glass). Be prepared for the buyer to crack the seal and take a sample, but they should only do so after the deal is agreed, as a cracked seal significantly reduces trading value. Make a point of sticking around to be sure they’re happy, and point out that the bottle has value after it’s empty.
- Long dated AA-size packed batteries; you may need to prove their condition at the point of sale, so the packs that include a charge tester are ideal.
- Nutritionally useless but psychologically attractive foods, like instant coffee and cocoa.
- Slingshot elastic bands.
Unsuitable Candidates for Barter Goods:
- .22LR or any other type of ammunition. It’s a bad idea to trade ammunition or components with anyone, particularly anyone you don’t know well or who doesn’t have a stake in the community.
- Medicines, which can’t be proven they are what they look like. They’re always worth more to you than anyone else, as you know how old they are and that they are genuine.
- Seeds. As is the case with medicines, you can’t prove they will grow or indeed are what you claim at the point of sale. They will have little barter value and in any case you need them for your own use.
- Pepper spray. Unless you’re dealing with someone you know, that’s just asking for it to be used on you immediately when you hand it over. Also, you shouldn’t reduce defensive stocks.
- Cigarettes. They go stale, they’re expensive, and if you don’t smoke you can’t turn the stock over. If you do, then you’re not increasing your survival chances any.
- Any kind of food. There isn’t anything you will need more, and equally you don’t want to advertise you have more than you need to others, whether outside or inside your community.
To repeat the last item: Never give away durable food. Offering to trade food makes clear that you have more than you need, and this makes you an immediate target. You don’t want starving people following you home, and it goes without saying that you should never trade anywhere near where you live but far enough away that you can lose, or at least identify, people following you. I make an exception for bite-size candy bars or snack foods, as those are unlikely to be hoarded in large quantities, except by those reading this article. You can always say you found them in a vending machine and can’t eat them because you’re diabetic, or allergic to peanuts and have no more medicine. (Be sure to research and practice that story well before you need it, if you plan on using it.)
It’s never a good idea to keep your supplies in one place, either in your house or on your person while walking around. Think of how you behave in a dodgy neighborhood right now. Do you pay for a newspaper by peeling a bill off a thick wad? Of course not. After a collapse every neighborhood will be dodgy, with no police or medical services to call during or after a violent incident. So keep small collections of stuff around your person in pockets, jacket lining, backpack divisions, and so forth. If someone in your household is skilled in sewing and tailoring, get them to make secret compartments in your clothes and bags. Develop a leisurely technique of feeling around for items as if you only have a couple of them with you; keep people from seeing in your bag as you pull stuff out. Again, practice this before going out, and like a gambler going to a risky game, don’t take more than you can afford to lose.
Before you start to barter find out as much as you can about what the other person might want, without being too obvious about it. The reason is that you don’t want to bring out all of your stock, one thing after another, to find something tempting to them; the more you can keep out of sight the better. Not only does running through your stock show you’re carrying a range of useful items (to others as well as the person you’re bartering with), but it implies commitment to the deal and lowers your bargaining position. Keep it loose, ask questions even after you’ve figured out what will trigger a deal, and then as you’re leaving saym “Oh, by the way, you might be interested in this …” and bring it out. When you do, don’t just put it on the nearest horizontal surface. Look around for a place worthy of it, brush an imaginary speck of dust off the item, and put it down carefully. Celebrate the product, as I was told to do when being trained to show items in my retail days. The more respect you show it, the more value the potential purchaser will imply to it. (At least, that’s the theory.)
Don’t Take Out the Trash
You don’t even need to spend money to collect some possible barter items, as some trash now will have value after collapse. If there is space, and you anticipate staying put for a while after things go bad, think before you throw that weekly armload of containers in the trash. Empty wine bottles with corks will have value, as will clean screw top plastic bottles, pill bottles, screw top jars, spray bottles, small metal containers, egg cartons, and resealable plastic bags. Just like a stockpile of food, build it up to a reasonable amount and then start turning it over, replacing odd shapes and sizes with uniform types, changing damaged examples for perfect ones, swapping damp-susceptible items, like paper pulp egg containers for plastic. Choose items that pack efficiently, such as bottles with parallel walls that can stack on their sides without slipping. Some containers can be stored inside others, others can stack.
There is a kind of can opener that cuts round the top seam of the can, leaving it with no sharp edges and as as a metal container with a close-fitting top. If you buy one (or several) of these, then the cans in your stockpile can be recycled as useful containers. Deep drawn aluminum cans with an inset base will also stack securely. OXO makes a side cutting can opener– the Good Grips Smooth Edge Can Opener– that sells for around twenty dollars and has received rave reviews on Amazon. Buy one (or a dozen).
What Will Eventually Replace Barter?
Saved recyclables may have another value after collapse, and that’s when your community’s economy has stabilized to the point where it needs paper money. Perhaps with no power and certainly with little access to advanced printing technology, your town will need something else to serve the same purpose as paper currency but with the same qualities, including that:
- It can’t realistically be copied with current technology,
- It’s lightweight and easily recognizable, and
- Each element can be individually identified (if only with a hand-written number in permanent ink).
There is a simple and obvious answer– old magazines or newspapers. If you have several hundred identical printed magazines then they can be the basis of a simple currency. The older the better, in fact, as you can be all the more sure no-one else has any of the same issue in their house or corner store.
The lower right hand quarter of page 21 of a magazine, for example (no matter what the subject) can no more be copied in a survival economy than a hundred dollar bill, and it fulfills the same requirements, with the advantage that you personally own the entire stock and as a result become part-time banker for your community.
Perhaps that quarter page represents four hours of someone’s time, two shotgun shells, or a chicken. It can be redeemed for such, if the bill holder demands it from you, but the trick of banking is make sure that few or none actually do. The bills are more valuable as an exchange medium. If more are needed you then use the upper right corner of page 21, and you’ve just doubled the money supply, but be careful of the inflationary effect. If a lower denomination is needed, use page 25 for one quarter the value of parts of page 21. Glue examples to a noticeboard in the middle of town for reference.
This is how banks work right now, and this is also how, when the time is right, you can help move your community away from barter, with the bonus that such currency is of no use or value to anyone outside the group that mutually agrees to accept it.
Research and Practice
This short article can only skim the surface of barter in the post-collapse economy. It’s up to you to take this as far and in what directions you choose. One way is to read about similar situations elsewhere or in the past. What did people do to survive in Germany after 1945, in the Central African Republic during its numerous civil wars, and in the United States during the depression years? What kind of barter systems appeared and survived?
Look at documentaries about very poor communities in the U.S. and overseas. What discarded pieces of packaging do they reuse, and what do they use them for?
Read and think about post-collapse novels, particularly the slower, older, community-centered classics such as “Lucifer’s Hammer” and “Alas Babylon”. Most contemporary novels and indeed all movies are too short, too broad-brush, and too action-oriented to provide the detailed scenario needed for thought experiments like this. However, a serious novel will fill your mind with a richly-detailed community that you can re-purpose by imagining yourself in it and then reviewing strategies for survival, based on your own situation. Think about trade goods as you walk around Home Depot, IKEA, or Office Max, or any large store. What is cheap and plentiful today that may be valuable and unobtainable after collapse? You might think everything, but remember the requirements listed above. Viable trade goods are not as easy to identify as you might think.
Read or view a few videos on salesmanship, and practice haggling at common locations like flea markets and secondhand stores. The essence of bartering is that there is less pressure to make a good deal as there is less at stake on both sides; flea markets are a good way to experience this. It’s a quick and informal transaction with little pressure. To experience the other side of the transaction (selling rather than buying), hold regular yard sales. These both clear space for your supplies as well as give you the chance to practice bargaining.
Those who fail to prepare, prepare to fail.