Tradesies anyone?: How to get services you need without spending a cent

This is my life right now:

I’m trying to update my 1970s condo with a more contemporary look. It’s mostly a DIY project, and this is where it’s at now:

It’s going well, but I was at a standstill last week. I don’t know what to do for flooring and window coverings. My partner suggested I ask my friend, who is an interior designer and decorator, for help. “No,” I said. “Absolutely not.”

Why not?

I don’t work for free, so I don’t expect anyone else to work for free. Yes, we are friends. But she makes a living off her skills, and I don’t expect her to give them away.

However, I soon realized I would need help to continue. No denying it. The decisions were just too big to make on my own, so I asked her if I could hire her.

“I was actually hoping we could trade,” she said. “I need some writing and editing for my website, and I could use your help.”

I was hoping she’d say that. I’ve traded services before, and it’s a great way to save money. Not time, of course. But you get something in return for everything you give, and it feels good to participate in an exchange that requires no money (or taxes) to change hands. It also fosters a sense of community, and it makes you feel eight years old (remember those lunchtime snack negotiations).

However, there are a few potential pitfalls. Here are my three cardinal rules for tradesies:

1) Your Stars Must Align: I needed interior design expertise right away, just as my friend needed writing/editing skills immediately. Our projects are co-current. No one will owe the other in the future, and we’re paying each other back and forth throughout a week. It feels even, and fair. A tradeback is not something you want to go looking for in the distant future. You never know how someone’s life could change; you (or they) might not be able to “pay up” when it comes time to collect.

2) Equal Skill for Equal Work: While we discussed the potential for a trade, my friend told me about someone else who wanted to trade “dinner” for her design services. I rolled my eyes. Unless you are a Red Seal chef and you are offering to cater an important event for someone as a trade, this is not an option. Your skill levels have to be on par. My friend is a professional designer; I am a professional writer and editor. Hobbyists can trade skills with hobbyists. But you can’t trade up.

3) Hammer Out the Details: My friend and I hashed out our arrangement in a cheap clothing store while her sister tried on dresses, and my daughter played with the nail polish samples. Not exactly formal. But I know her, and I know her values. She knows me, and she know my values. I’m not the least bit concerned about either one of us trying to screw the other over. If you don’t know the person you’re trading with (or you know them quite well and have reason to be cautious), you may want to draw up a semi-formal contract. I have no idea what the legal ramifications are for such a thing, but it will give both of you a clear understanding of what’s expected. It could also save you an unexpected bill (or the loss of a friend) at the end.

One final word of caution: if you’re concerned, seek legal advice. And if you’re really concerned, I’d say don’t do it. I’ve only ever traded services with people I’d trust with, say, taking care of my daughter. That’s a high standard, but I haven’t been let down yet.


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