What is barter or a barter system? Definition and examples

Barter is the exchange of products and services for other products and services. In a barter system, people do not use money for transactions. The verb ‘to barter’ means to exchange goods and services for other products and services.

To barter can also mean to try to get a seller to reduce his or her price. In other words, it may mean ‘to haggle‘ or ‘to bargain.’ For example, I may say “She bartered with the street vendor and eventually got the second-hand watch for just $5.” That means she negotiated the price and managed to get a good reduction.

The Cambridge Dictionary has the following definitions of the term:

“1. (Verb) To exchange goods for other things rather than for money. 2. (Noun) The act or system of bartering goods. 3. (Verb) To discuss and come to an agreement about the price of something.”

Barter system uncommon today

In today’s advanced economies, barter generally only exists to a very limited extent parallel to monetary systems.

During a monetary crisis, some people may prefer to exchange goods rather than use money.

For example, if a currency becomes unstable, a farmer may prefer to trade milk for plumbing work rather than cash.

Barter system
If we all reverted to a barter system, our way of life would change dramatically.

Etymology of ‘barter’

Etymology is the study of where words came from, i.e., their origins. It also includes the study of how the meanings of words have evolved.



With the meaning “to trade by exchanging one commodity for another,” the term emerged in the mid-fifteenth century. It came from the Old French word Barater, which meant “to cheat, barter, deceive, haggle.” The Old French word also meant “to have sexual intercourse.

The connection between ‘cheating’ and ‘trading’ exists in many different languages.

The noun, with the meaning “act of exchanging, commerce by exchange of commodities,” emerged in the 1590s. It came directly from the verb.

Barter system – brief history

Bartering dates back a long way; as far back as 6000 BC, and probably earlier. Mesopotamia tribes introduced the system, which the Phoenicians later adopted.

International trade, during Phoenician times, involved the exchange of goods and commodities rather than money.

The Babylonians exchanged goods for spices, weapons, tea, and food.

Roman soldiers were paid with salt. Whether that was bartering, if people used salt as a currency, is debatable. If a commodity becomes popular for trading goods and services, it has become a form of money.

According to Mint.com:

“In the Middle Ages, Europeans traveled around the globe to barter crafts and furs in exchange for silks and perfumes.”

“Colonial Americans exchanged musket balls, deer skins, and wheat. When money was invented, bartering did not end, it became more organized.”



During the Great Depression in the 1930s, many people had little or no money. They would, therefore, exchange food, for example, for services. One person would receive some food in exchange for one hour’s worth of gardening or cleaning.

Barter system – prisons

Prisoners tended to use specific goods such as cigarettes to purchase things. In an article in The Guardian, Tony Thompson explains that noodles have replaced tobacco in US prisons as the most popular bartering commodity.

British prisoners, on the other hand, tend to prefer other foods, including tuna fish. Prisoners who like bodybuilding, especially, love tuna fish.

Thompson writes:

“For those wishing to gain muscle and lose fat, tinned tuna is an ideal source of nutrition that has the benefit of coming straight from a can rather than going through the mystical process that turns regular food into prison slop.”

Tobacco left the barter system

When cigarettes were banned at federal penitentiaries in the USA, their value as a barter commodity vanished. In many other advanced economies, tobacco products have lost their value for the same reason.

In a Wired article, Ben Paynter explains that mackerel, instant coffee, and postage stamps are popular in US prisons. Combination locks are also popular.

Regarding a combination lock, Paynter writes:

“Use keeping stuff secure. Plus, you can put it inside a sock to make a weapon.”

Barter system in Venezuela

Venezuela is in the middle of a disastrous economic crisis. Inflation has exceeded one million percent. People have lost faith in the Bolivar, Venezuela’s currency. Inflation refers to price rises. If inflation is at 1,000,000%, it means one million percent per year.



Consequently, bartering has become popular, and in many cases, the only way to buy things.

In a Reuters article, Andreina Aponte explains that fishermen today are not selling their fish for money. They are swapping snappers, for example, for rice, cooking oil, and bags of flour.

Fish in exchange for medications

Aponte writes about Mileidy Lovera, who wants to trade a cooler of fish for medicine to treat her son’s epilepsy. She will also accept certain foods so that she can feed her four children.

None of the fish sellers in the town of Rio Chico, on Venezuela’s Caribbean Coast, is accepting money.

Aponte writes:

“In the hyperinflationary South American country, where bank notes are as difficult to find as chronically scarce food and medicine, Venezuelans are increasingly relying on to barter for basic transactions.”

“Payment for even the cheapest of goods and services would require unwieldy piles of banknotes, and there simply are not enough of those in circulation.”