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Should You Prep For Bartering?
I guess you could say my wife and I have been “preppers” for several years. We have always believed in a debt-free lifestyle, and except for a couple of home mortgages decades ago, that philosophy has served us well. My wife and I both have had steady jobs through the years and never fell victim to the conspicuous consumption routine of “keeping up with the Joneses”. (That alone keeps a lot of stress out of family life.) Without going into details, I can say that my spouse and I are fairly comfortable with our preparations for most things old man Murphy could throw at us, short of something like a nuke or serious asteroid strike close to our home. Water? Got it. Food? Got it! Defense? Got it! PM’s? Got some! BOV and camper? Got it! Remote bunker? Working on it! We even have a friendly and supportive MD and have managed to get important medications (thankfully we don’t need many) stocked up.
During the course of reading up on prepping, talking to others, listening to “experts”, etc., the issue often comes up about acquiring goods for “barter” in the wake of some wide-spread calamity. This got me thinking. Should anyone deliberately acquire goods they know, or at least are pretty sure, they themselves won’t use but are just acquired for trading purposes?
This begs a couple of questions.
First, how do you KNOW you won’t need something? After all, circumstances change, and what is prepping all about anyway but preparing for the unexpected? Like it or not – we don’t know what we don’t know.
Second, should you spend your limited resources acquiring things you believe will be important to others but which you presume you will have little or no use for yourself? And, which “others”? If the time comes, the line of “others” is apt to be quite long, diverse and needy.
Let’s play pretend for a minute. Here are four possible scenarios which, I hope, will help illustrate the point.
- You are a tea-totaler! You have no use for alcoholic spirits. Since you have stocked up on disinfectants such as hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, soap, topical antibiotics and other medical supplies, alcoholic spirits are irrelevant to you. But one of the most common barter items mentioned by preppers far and wide is booze. In normal society, alcohol is widely available, relatively cheap, has a long list of uses other than just for drinking, and has a tremendously long shelf life. After any significant catastrophe alcohol will likely disappear within hours. Demand is certain to outrun supply many times over. Should you purchase a supply of booze as a trade good?
- As a prepper you have a comfortable (at least to you) supply of firearms and ammunition. At a garage sale you find several hundred rounds of XYZ ammunition, and for an unbeatable price. You do not have a firearm that uses XYZ ammo, you don’t know anyone who does, and you have no intention of getting one. XYZ is not one of the top popular calibers, but it is somewhat common. Do you purchase the ammo, knowing that, for you, it’s only a trade good?
- Here’s a tougher one. You are allergic to penicillin. Do you stock up on Fish Mox, (Amoxicillin)?
- In several recent inner-city riots, news reports usually focused on liquor stores as targets of looters. Since we considered alcohol in the first scenario let’s move on to another item pretty high on the list of looter targets. (Guns, cash, and jewelry are of course top targets of looters, but these things are more easily removed from view, already protected with infrastructure or receive extra protection from security forces.) Believe it or not – disposable diapers. OK! You do not have diaper dependent toddlers in your group. Do you buy some anyway?
No doubt you can think of dozens of other scenarios and items based on your unique view of the world. And there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to acquiring goods solely for barter. Google “preppers and trading” and you will get hundreds of suggestions about what to stock up on now to trade after TEOTWAWKI. Some lists are well over one hundred items long. As none of us has unlimited resources, it’s a fool’s errand to try to acquire some of “everything”. So what should you do?
In the minds of some, I’m going to touch a third rail here. My advice is no. Don’t do it. Do not deliberately acquire preps just for barter.
The typical prepper (is there a “typical” prepper?) has a limited horizon of people and assets to protect. As altruistic as you may be, you cannot save the world. Your first and highest priority is to those you choose to throw your security blanket over. Thought, effort and expense devoted to trade goods diverts resources from your primary goal of protecting loved ones. Anything you envision trading for after the fact should already be on your ‘A’ list.
And what about storage space? A place to put all those trade goods may be of no real concern for a suburban homeowner with rooms to spare, but for some, storage space is limited. If you are an apartment dweller do you really want to use some of what little space you have to store things you might, someday, somehow, be able to trade for something, maybe, you are not sure what? All those trade goods will have to be put someplace; protected from weather, deterioration, theft, etc.
Consider also that in the event of widespread calamity; most of the needy will likely have little to barter with. You could well find that most of your trade goods will acquire next to nothing in return, thus making them nearly worthless in their ability to improve your situation. Even worse, your barter goods could make you and your family an even greater target of violence. If someone or group wants what you don’t need you may decide to give it away to avoid confrontation. Paradoxically, giving away goods, even things you don’t want, can make you an even greater target than before. Reference the many suggestions that for your own safety you should distribute welfare through front organizations such as churches – not through your front door.
I have nothing against bartering. It is a time honored tradition and a textbook example of a free market. When two people freely exchange goods, both gain. But bartering should not be a strategy depended on in the early/middle stages of a catastrophe. Successful bartering needs a relatively stable economic and social environment; something unlikely in the early/middle stages of the kind of event most preppers envision.
In defense of barter as a tool, it is likely that many preppers will make mistakes in their acquisitions. I know I have. Most of us will over-prepare in some areas and under-prepare in others. Still other items or categories may be completely overlooked. Nobody has a crystal ball that says you will only need this much X, and that much Y. Who among us can foresee every need? Careful bartering after some calamity may have a place but it should be practiced the way porcupines mate – very carefully!
My guess is that most people who talk about bartering after TEOTWAWKI envision something like a friendly get together at a flea market type environment where everyone has a good time and goes home with goodies they didn’t have before. If that is how you see post-apocalyptic trading taking place, I strongly suggest you take off the rose colored glasses and start thinking realistically. It may take months or even years for that kind of order to be restored. Bartering in a disorderly lawless world is apt to be a very dangerous activity. Tempers will flare and you may not be able to safely ‘back away’. Someone who envisions themselves or their family desperately in need of something you have is probably going to be pretty insistent. Wouldn’t you? When order and some semblance of civilized society return, barter will probably flourish, but for now, the longer you can stay away from it – the better.
Realize also that historically, bartering goods and services is cumbersome, inefficient and a tremendous drag on individual and societal economic improvement. Even under ideal circumstances bartering is a slow hit and miss proposition. That’s why money was invented. Money speeds up a society’s improvement in lifestyle and security. Consequently, in any post-apocalyptic environment, some type of “money” will eventually emerge. Some will be tempted to think they know what that form of money will be. I have no idea what it will be, but I do know most who guess will guess wrong. And that thought leads to my concluding advice.
By all means – prepare. But do your homework. Spend your resources on things you are sure or reasonably sure, you and your group will need. To do less is to waste precious time, money and energy on a “hope”. Hope is not a strategy. Remember, anything you envision trading for after the fact should already be on your ‘A’ list. If the time comes and you find yourself “over prepared” with some items, you may find a way to carefully barter some away for things you do not have. But be extremely careful when doing so.
Your list of necessities will not match mine, your neighbor’s, or some armchair expert’s list. Don’t let that weigh you down with doubt. Learn from others. Listen to their ideas. If invited, and you are so inclined, share your ideas with them. Adopt good ideas from others and discard bad or irrelevant ones. Learning what others are thinking will pay off in ways you would never think of on your own.
Be a positive force!
The Retired Professor
The “Retired Professor” signature is correct. I was a college Professor for many years, teaching Finance, Economics, and Management. During that time I also spent 15 years as a LE firearms instructor. Now happily retired in Utah pursuing several hobbies, including prepping.
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