While planning their November 2008 wedding in Los Angeles, Leen Lim and Win Dong were eager to save money. As painters who have day jobs in creative fields (she's a graphic designer and he's in the custom framing business) they knew they could use their talents to make sure the wedding was affordable and lived up to their aesthetic standards. But while Leen was able to sew the tablecloths and design the invitations, there were some services beyond her capabilities. So they decided to leverage their skills by bartering. They traded frames from Win's company for wedding photography, which worked out nicely for both parties. And the DJ, chosen for his preference for jazz and old standards, agreed to spin discs in exchange for business postcards designed by Leen. All told, she estimates they saved 30 percent of their total costs through these trades.Bartering, the exchange of goods and services instead of cash, has been around since one caveman needed something another caveman had. While it has always been a steady, if relatively unknown, part of United States commerce, the troubled economy has thrust it into the spotlight. The National Association of Trade Exchanges (NATE), based in Mentor, OH, estimates that trade activity in barter businesses has grown more than 15 percent since 2006.
, a free online barter exchange service, reports that unique page views jumped from 385,931 in July 2007 to 512,285 one year later.
Although no figures exist specifically regarding wedding bartering, a look through Craigslist and
confirms that a significant number of engaged couples are interested in bartering for anything from invitations to engagement rings to honeymoons. Bartering for a wedding was once considered déclassé, but wedding experts say that there's no longer much of a stigma associated with it. At a time when many budgets run $30,000 or more, "Couples are trying to get creative with how they finance their weddings," says Samantha Goldberg, a planner based in Chester, NJ. "We told anyone who asked that we bartered with our vendors," adds Leen. "Everyone said it was a smart thing to do."
When Newburyport, MA, wedding photographer Tara Gurry noticed that many of her colleagues were complaining that their businesses were slowing down, she created a Web site where engaged couples and vendors can exchange services and items. Bigdaybarter.com launched last February. Gurry believes couples will find that bartering often feels more satisfying than simply writing a check, especially if your budget is getting between you and your dream wedding. "People might not have the money to spend, but they often have skills to offer," she says. "That adds value and worth. If you can exchange talents, it's a positive feeling."
That's what Tom and Nichole Nynas discovered when they bartered Tom's graphic design skills in exchange for photographs by well-known wedding photographer Liz Banfield for their 2000 wedding in Duluth, MN. Way ahead of the trend, they knew they couldn't afford Banfield's prices and were delighted when she agreed to a trade. For her part, Banfield was early into her photography career and not only had time in her schedule but also happened to need some high-quality graphic design help. They drew up a contract in which Tom agreed to create a new logo and design for her business cards and stationery, and Banfield agreed to shoot their wedding.
Today, both Tom and the photographer go out of their way to praise each other. What made the barter work so well? Banfield says it was important to her that the trade felt like a fair exchange and that she was getting something of equal value. She also thinks the fact that the logo was finished before the wedding was key. "It made me want to give the wedding the extra effort that he gave me," she says. In fact, Banfield was so motivated to live up to her end of the trade that she created a custom photo album for the couple, which she estimates was worth $800, and gave it to them for free.
Banfield still uses her logo today. But Tom insists that he and Nichole got the better end of the deal. "The photographs were above anything we could have hoped for," he says. "Once the wedding is done, all you have left are your memories and your photographs."
Brooklyn-based interior designer Vané Broussard had a similarly positive experience when she was planning her April 2008 wedding. She bartered her services with a professional makeup artist and also bartered for one free hour of the videographer's services, rehearsal dinner invitations and flowers in exchange for mentions on Brooklyn Bride (
), her popular wedding blog. Her vendors told her they were delighted by the referrals they got when she wrote about them. And Vané loved how her barters turned out, too. "I chose vendors I wanted to work with and who have good reputations," she says. "Other people offered to trade, but if it wasn't my style, I said no."
Unfortunately, the arrangement can sour quickly if the trade feels lopsided. When Banfield bartered with a bride for help with her Web site, she was sorely disappointed. "I shot her wedding for a super deal," she remembers. "But she didn't start working on the Web site until after the wedding." The relationship grew strained when the bride took much longer than Banfield expected to finish the project and was defensive about feedback. "I realized that I wouldn't have used her if I had been paying cash for her work," she says. "To make a trade work, you need to trade with someone you'd hire, instead of just finding a way to get a service you need." Banfield eventually paid a different designer to revamp her site. "Unfortunately, when you do something for free, sometimes you get what you pay for.:
Many couples are wary of bartering for an event as important as a wedding, which means that vendors can have trouble finding takers. Rebecca Eby is a wedding photographer in Gays Mills, WI, who is interested in bartering with engaged couples, but her posts on both Craigslist and
have yielded only two potential customers. California flower broker Amber Rapozzo posted on
and was surprised by how hard it was to find a good barter partner. "There was very little response, and what the other brides had to offer was not very exciting," she says. "I could have saved them up to 90 percent on florals, and they wanted to trade me leftover paper goods and miniature bells from a discount store."
Because bartering isn't a cash sale, vendors can sometimes be less motivated to get all the details right. When the father of one of wedding planner Goldberg's clients bartered to paint a florist's shop in exchange for flowers for the wedding and reception, the bride was disappointed with the color of the hydrangeas and didn't feel that the centerpieces were full enough. "She was fine in the end," says Goldberg of the bride. "But she did bring it to my attention and said if she had paid for the flowers, she may have had a better selection."
While most people think of bartering as the kind of informal, one-on-one trades that are facilitated by Web sites such as
, experts say that couples with small businesses who are trying to finance the bulk of their wedding expenses through barter are better off with one of the roughly 400 "barter exchange" offices across the country, which barter on a larger scale. Made up of mostly small businesses, these networks (including
) provide opportunities to trade excess inventory as well as services.
Unlike direct bartering, barter companies charge a 10 to 15 percent commission of the fair market value of the trades. But when you place your goods or services into the network, you earn credits that allow you to choose from a range of services. "To do it one-on-one, you have to go on an extensive hunt to find the right match, and then you have to find a barter that is of equal value," says NATE executive director Tom McDowell. With barter exchanges, if you have something worth a large amount (anything from landscaping mulch to dental services to a boat), you can redeem your credits with a variety of businesses (including bakers, florists and even honeymoon resorts) that are also in the barter network.
That's what Amy Sardone Jones and John Jones did for their wedding last summer in Corinth, TX. When they bumped up against budget constraints, Amy's mother, Debbie Sardone, sprang into action. A professional business coach and the owner of a maid service company, Sardone bartered business consulting and cleaning service through ITEX, a national barter association, for the limousine, tuxedos, flowers and the cake. She also privately bartered maid service gift certificates for the photographer and a photo booth. All told, they exchanged more than $5,000 worth of services. And the event was a huge success. "The wedding was fabulous," says Amy. "We didn't want to go into any debt, so bartering allowed us to get extras we couldn't have afforded."
Ready to barter? Read this first.
1. Make sure your trade feels fair. Put a dollar amount on the item or service you are bartering, and then agree to trades of equal value. Check out the vendor's work beforehand to confirm that you like what they have to offer.
2. Get referrals. As with any wedding vendor, make sure you are bartering with someone who is professional and reliable. If you have a nagging feeling that this person or company is not for you, listen to your gut and don't do business with them. You should also thoroughly vet any barter company you are considering, by checking with your state's attorney general or the Better Business Bureau. To get a list of barter companies across the nation, check out the Web site of the National Association of Trade Exchange, at
3. Meet in person. A successful barter is built on trust, which can be hard to develop through e-mail. Keep in regular contact throughout the process.
4. Sign a contract. A handshake will not guarantee that you will be compensated should your bartered flowers not arrive on time. Make sure both parties have a signed contract outlining in detail what's being exchanged. You should also include a timeline for when the services will be delivered.
5. Pay your taxes. Bartering is a perfectly legal way to do business if you report the fair market value of your trade on your taxes. If you are a yoga instructor, for instance, and barter classes for the justice of the peace's fee, you need to report the "income" you received and pay the taxes on that income. The benefit to you: You still end up getting a substantial discount and connect with someone who could become a regular client. If you trade an actual item—such as a refrigerator or a bike—in exchange for the justice of the peace's fee, it's treated like a cash exchange, and you owe no taxes. For more information about the legalities of bartering, see the Internal Revenue Service guidelines at
6. Avoid peak wedding periods. Vendors are more likely to barter if they know they won't make a cash sale on that day. Choosing to get married on a Saturday in June will give you less leverage than a Friday in March.