College debt? Learn the barter system

And now, a true story of college smarts that really boasts bite: It involves Greg, a recent college graduate who, a few years ago, found himself neck-deep in college loan payments -- and couldn't afford the dental work he needed (his insurance had limits).

When his dentist mentioned during one office visit that she was planning a promotional newsletter, but hadn't gotten it off the ground, the grad ran with that comment and bartered thousands of dollars in dental surgery for several issues of her newsletter.

Wow. Can you say "Holy Molar?"

In the lean college years, bartering in the spirit of Greg the go-getter can be as handy as your backpack. It's everywhere you look, online.
, where you can trade anything with anyone all over the world, reports a 100% increase in bartering in the past year, while dozens of sites like,,, and have sprung up over the past several years, to make trading what you've got for what you need even easier.

But before you go clicking around, you've got to know the answers to the basic questions:

What do you want or need?
This is the easy part. Maybe you need help with your English paper, a hand-made gift for your grandmother's birthday or a few sessions with a personal trainer to keep the Freshman 15 at bay. There are ways to get it, even if your bank account is a desert wasteland. The trick is figuring out what you've got.

What skills, services or goods do you presently possess that you can exchange for what you want or need?
The answer to that question lies in YOU... in your head, in your hands and often in the back of your closet.

You've got skills
Identify your strengths, what you've excelled at that might be of use to others. Can you tutor someone in biology in exchange for help with English? Do you have a craft or a hobby that you could teach someone in exchange for a service they offer? There are plenty of real world opportunities out there to use what you're really good at to get what you can't afford. (See Greg's story.)

Don't overlook the obvious
Let's say you're a social networking fiend, with 1,000 Twitter followers and a Facebook page that gets more traffic than the library. And you've discovered a great little gift boutique near campus that you simply adore. Small business owners rarely have the time or know-how to use social media to get the word out. You could inquire about their use of social media for marketing purposes, then submit a short proposal of how you could promote their shop online. You set it up, post updates about their products and promotions, and in trade, you get that amazing handcrafted necklace for your grandmother.

Stuff you own
You may be living in the dorm, using public transportation and eating mac 'n' cheese, but the chances are good you've got something of value you could trade. Look in your closet, dresser, and in your car (if you have one). That extra iPod you got for Christmas, those expensive boots you never wear, the season tickets you don't have time to use -- they're all worth something. And if you can't sell 'em, you'd be amazed at how much in trade you could get.

If you don't have the goods, but you've got the time and energy to spare, you can barter everything from childcare, lawn care, cleaning services (car, dorm, apartment, dog, etc.), baking, cosmetology help, organizational help-the list is endless. Convenience is valuable, so if you can make someone's life easier and more efficient, the sky is the limit.

Setup for success
With any trade or bartering arrangement, be it online, one-on-one or otherwise, you'll want to set yourself up for success by lining up your ducks early:

Set the value
If you're swapping a service, do the math: Figure out what you would normally charge for the service, factor in supplies, then make an even exchange. To trade tangible goods, you've got to know the reasonable value of those items. Craigslist or classified ads will give you a good idea.

Set the time
Decide and agree upon the time frame for your trade with your trading partner. If it's a one-time trade, great. How long should it take you to complete your end of the deal? If it's an ongoing trade, set up a review date to make sure you both continue to be satisfied with the arrangement.

Put in in writing
If the deal goes beyond one exchange, send an e-mail detailing what each party has agreed to do and within what time frame. That way, you'll both be on the same page. If the barter is worth a lot of money (cash value), bartering experts suggest that both parties sign the agreement.

Tax time
The IRS is always going to tap you for its share. Bartering for goods or services is not tax exempt. You will have to report the fair market value of the products or services you received on your return. So keep that information on file.

More bang-for-your-bartering Web sites:

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