Trades and Barters

By Nina McIntosh
[Heart of Bodywork]

Lately, perhaps because of the slow economy, more people have been asking me to trade or barter for a massage. I don’t know how to turn them down, and then I regret it. For instance, last week I did several exchanges: with a professional photographer in exchange for a photo of my family (which was nice, but not a high priority for me); with another massage therapist, who doesn’t put as much into it as I do; and with a male acquaintance who is supposed to mow my lawn but hasn’t yet. I worked all day and not only didn’t I have any cash to show for it, I also felt like I got the short end of the stick. How do I get out of this mess?

Carol K., Phoenix, Arizona


You’re wise to ask for help. Trades and barters may sound appealing and easy at first, but it can take extra work to make sure the exchange feels balanced. (Trade refers to exchanging your work for similar bodywork or massage. Barter involves exchanging your work for an object or another kind of service.)

For one thing, any time we are giving a massage for something other than our regular fees, we have to be clearer with boundaries and setting limits. After all, money is precise. If you charge $60, your clients don’t write you checks for $59.25. But when you trade or barter, it’s impossible to be precise about what you expect. How do you communicate to the other party exactly how well the lawn has to be mowed or specify how satisfying your colleague’s massage should feel?

Furthermore, when you trade or barter, you’re automatically putting yourself and the other person in dual relationships, wearing two hats. One minute you’re the kindly, non-judgmental massage therapist and the next, you have to evaluate how well they’re holding up their end of the deal.

Here’s an example: it may sound ideal to barter with your landlord for rent. After all, that’s a big chunk of cash you won’t have to come up with. But when he’s the client, you are in a more nurturing, accepting mode. Perhaps he starts telling you all his troubles. How awkward is it then to hold him accountable for failing to fix the roof that’s been leaking?

Furthermore, trading or bartering with a friend makes it a triple relationship based on the massage you give, the in-kind service or object in return, and the friendship. That’s very tricky. Also, if something goes wrong, you may damage or lose the friendship.

As you admitted, you have difficulty saying no. Perhaps setting limits hasn’t been a major problem before; but now that you’re getting more requests for special deals, your basic reluctance to set boundaries is creating havoc in your work life.

This presents a great opportunity to toughen up (in a good way) and learn how to take better care of yourself and your clients. After all, clients feel more secure when they know what our boundaries are.

Making Trades and Barters Easier

I’ll give you some ideas for how to get out of the mess you’re in now, but for the future, my first suggestion is never to agree to trades or barters. That would solve the problem. On the other hand, despite the complications, occasionally such arrangements work out well for both parties. If you decide to do a trade or barter every now and then, here are ways to make it more likely that you’ll have a mutually beneficial exchange.

Spell out the details ahead of time

Being completely clear from the beginning is by far the most important step to take when bartering. You could say to your friend or whoever you’re setting such an arrangement up with, “Sometimes we don’t really know what the other person wants until we get into the details. I’ve found that it works best to be very clear up front about what each of us is expecting.” Once the terms are worked out, the best way to proceed is to put them in writing.

Here are some details you might want to be specific about:

•  If it’s a trade, is it OK for either of you to cancel at the last minute if you get a paying customer?

•  If the other person doesn’t charge the same fee as you, are you trading session for session or value for value? If you charge $80 per session and the chiropractor you’re trading with charges $40 per session, would it feel fairer if you agree to two of his sessions for one of yours?

•  What happens if one of you decides to end the trade before it has equaled out? You’ve agreed to trade three massages for 10 yoga classes. You’ve given three massages and only taken five classes. Now you’ve decided you don’t want the rest of the classes. Does the yoga teacher owe you the difference? If so, must he or she pay you in cash, and how soon?

One of the advantages of wanting to work things out ahead of time is that it gives you a chance to see whether the other person will agree to terms you think are fair. If not, you can say, “Sorry, this doesn’t work for me” and be grateful you didn’t go further.

It’s also a good idea when negotiating a trade to agree to provide only a few sessions. Say that you’ll trade for three sessions, for instance. Then, if you’re not happy with the other person’s work, you can gracefully bow out. If it turns out to be a mutually workable trade, you can negotiate an extension.

Trade or barter for something you want

Don’t accommodate the other person by agreeing to work for something you don’t want or need, like that family portrait, tango lessons, or a painting you will put away in the attic. All or any of those items may be valuable to someone else, but if they’re not valuable to you, don’t make the deal. You can say something like, “That sounds great, but it’s not something I really need right now.” Or just, “That sounds great, but no thanks.”

You can make exceptions for a one-time trade

Sometimes, when we’re fresh out of school or new in town, doing trades can be a way of advertising and building a clientele. You hope that the person will like your work and tell others. For a one-time trade that you’re using to build a practice, you won’t have long-term details to work out and you don’t have to be as careful about the things for which you are trading or bartering.

Only barter for finished objects

One way to make bartering more successful is to know what you’re getting. Don’t barter for a work of art, for instance, that isn’t finished (or even started). You need to see it. What you have in mind for a painting or stained glass window or sculpture may not be what the artist produces. My best barters have been for already completed pieces of artwork. My worst involved something I commissioned that turned out not at all as I expected.

Trade or barter with people who are professionals

People whose professional services or products you are trading or bartering for are more likely than others to be good at what they’re doing. They are also likely to be settled in their fees, hours and so forth, so it’s easier to negotiate with them. Trading with a nonprofessional for a service, such as painting your house or waxing your car, adds complications to an already imprecise transaction.

Limit the number of trades and barters you commit to

Most landlords, mortgage companies, and grocers want hard cash. In order for you to have that cash to pay for your house or food, you’ll need to set a limit on the number of trades and barters you can afford to be involved with at one time.

When The Trade Isn’t Working, Get Out

Here are some suggestions for how to get out of a trade or barter that isn’t working for you. In the case of our questioner, the family portrait she doesn’t really want is a done deal. Lesson learned.

However, in her situation with the colleague whom she thinks isn’t putting much into the reciprocal massage, I’d advise discontinuing the trade. Saying that someone is not trying hard enough is too vague an accusation to substantiate. Moreover, the discussion is not likely to end well. Instead, simply tell the other person that you want to stop trading now. If it’s your turn to give him or her a massage, let the person know this will be your last session as a trade. If it’s the other person’s turn, you can decide whether or not to complete the trade. If you don’t want to, you can say that you’re fine with not having your session—you want to spend time building your practice, you have too many other commitments, and so forth.

In the case of the acquaintance whose barter is to mow the lawn, you can either call and politely inquire when he will be over to do the mowing or wait until he calls for another session and say, “I think it’s your turn, isn’t it? When could I expect you to come by and take care of the lawn?” If he hems and haws around, I’d let it go.

In general, unless someone owes you quite a bit of money (or the equivalent in services), it’s wisest to avoid an aggressive confrontation and simply back out of the trade, even if it has cost you a “free” session or two. Unless you have the agreement in writing, confrontation will probably get you nowhere. There’s no use wasting energy on it or creating bad feelings. Also, in the case of a professional massage trade, you certainly don’t want to massage or be massaged by someone if one or both of you is angry about the arrangement. Bail out, cut your losses, and learn from it.

We’re continually learning what works and what doesn’t in our practice. Staying clear about your needs before trying to meet others’ will wind up being better for both of you. Feeling you don’t know how to say no should be a sign that you need to learn how to take care of yourself. Following the guidelines set forth here should give you a good start.


Nina McIntosh combines more than 20 years of experience as a bodyworker with her previous years as a psychiatric social worker. She is the author of The Educated Heart: Professional Boundaries for Massage Therapists, Bodyworkers, and Movement Teachers (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2005). To learn more about professional boundaries and ethics, visit

 To learn more about illustrator Mari Gayatri Stein, visit