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The virtual swap meet

If you have a video-game habit, a baby on the way or a house that needs painting, the free online marketplace might be for you.

By Donna_Freedman Jul 12, 2012 12:27PM
Image: Handshake (© Corbis)Have something you don't need, and want something you don't have? Online barter might be the answer.

Sites like, U-Exchange, Swap Mamas and BookMooch help  you exchange your goods or services for somebody else's.

A quick look around the virtual swap meet turned up everything from child care to live ammunition (but not from the same person). I saw offers for comic books, furniture, plows, Barbies, carpentry, web design, strollers, tax prep, cameras and chiropractic.

Swapping is both frugal and eco-friendly: Needs get met without a big outlay of cash, and items that might otherwise have been junked get new homes. (Post continues below video.)
Some sites are generalist, others specialized -- and some are a mixture. For example, Swap Mamas focuses heavily on children's clothing, toys and gear but one recent trade was iPod speakers and a fan in exchange for maternity clothing.

Is this taxable?

Start with a search for "online swap sites." You'll notice that some places allow you to post what you have and what you want in trade, which makes things pretty simple. Some people, however, just post what they have and indicate "make an offer."

Think you don't have anything to offer? Think again. What about the skis your kid outgrew, the extra garden produce, the potential firewood from the tree that came down in a recent storm? Or maybe you can offer services: steam-cleaning a carpet, raking leaves, plowing driveways.

The only limit is your imagination, so don’t sell yourself short. Don't let yourself be taken advantage of, either. That Carhartt jacket is worth more than a bathrobe, and an hour's worth of tax prep is not the same as an hour's worth of leaf-raking.
While we're on the subject: Bartering is potentially taxable. While it's doubtful the Internal Revenue Service cares if bibliophiles trade books, it's still good to learn what U.S. tax law says about swaps. (See "Barter exchanges" on the IRS website.)

Fraud protection

"Swaplifting" is uncommon, but it's always a possibility. Sites generally use a transaction rating system, a la eBay, to guard against fraudulent deals.

Overall, this works pretty well but, as the site notes, "any large, worldwide marketplace is (going) to attract some bad seeds and predatory scammers trying to exploit the community for their own benefit."

The rules of engagement vary from site to site. One tactic is to have the person with a less-established site profile and rating be the first to mail.

In-person deals are easier because the exchange is simultaneous. However, you are meeting with a total stranger or inviting him to your home. It's possible that you might be cased for future burglaries or robbed or assaulted on the spot.

Swap sites suggest making trades in public places or bringing the item out-of-doors when the trader arrives. If you have any friends or relatives in law enforcement, why not extend a supper invitation?

Other swap tips:
  • Start a separate email address.
  • Explain exactly what you're offering, e.g., "I will provide 10 one-hour riding lessons." If the swap goes through, put the agreement in writing.
  • Photos don't tell the whole story, so describe any flaws in your item.
  • Media mail and flat-rate boxes are your friends. So are delivery confirmation and insurance.
  • Swap sites might be one route toward an affordable Christmas.
Incidentally, barter probably isn't the answer if your goal is to de-clutter. You'll just be exchanging your excess goods for someone else's. If less stuff is your goal, stick with The Freecycle Network or donate your items to charity.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.