If you’re in a creative field, chances are pretty good that you’ve traded your services at some point in your career.

As a hairstylist, I began trading for goods and services while I was still in school for my license- in many ways, it’s an empowering way to ‘pay’ for services you want and need when cash flow is tight.
In my adult life, I’ve traded for oil changes, alcohol, skydiving, clothing, friendship, photography, business advice, Muay Thai lessons, bamboo sheets, self-defense training, tires for my car, Facebook Ads explanation (still trying to figure it out), energy work, body waxing, a tattoo, social media audits, meditation classes, and probably a bunch of other things. Some I needed, many I didn’t.

I quickly realized, however, that although I always went into trade agreements willingly, very rarely did I feel like the exchange was actually mutually beneficial.

Sometimes I’d worry that the receiver of my services would change her mind and decide the experience actually wasn’t worth the trade (awkward!).

And many other times, even though I thought I was entering into a valuable exchange, at the end of the day, it didn’t really feel good. And why is that?

Here’s what I’ve deduced:

The value I place on my services is rarely met with an ‘equal’ trade for one simple reason. LACK OF CLARITY. Rarely am I clear about what I want specifically in exchange, and even more rarely do I communicate CLEARLY the terms of my trade.

Many people completely disregard dollar value in the process of trade- reducing it to mere energy exchange. Which can be okay- as long as you’re comfortable with that. I’ve found, I need to measure my trades in three specific ways:

• Time Spent
• Dollar Value
• Energy Output

Problems occur when the energy exchange doesn’t feel equal on both sides, which is bound to happen for many reasons:

Emotional Value and Dollar Dollar Bills

Trading a service or a product isn’t just time- there’s an emotional value, and output that needs to be met with an equal exchange. Plop yourself in these shoes for an illustration: You’re 21, and your equally young friend asks you to cut her hair in exchange for alcohol. While this may sound agreeable at first (time with a friend, free wine…), the reduction of the service- the reduction of your art, your livelihood, your JOB- to a $12 bottle of wine, which you maybe consumed half of, can begin to feel weary if repeated.

Even at the earliest stage, my hair services cost more than that bottle of wine- and as my career progressed, so did my skill level, and my emotional output. It would make sense that the trade amount would increase- but if that isn’t communicated, the (most likely) well-meaning friend will continue to assume that the trade is ‘good’ for both of you. This gets tricky.

Trade has to make sense on every level, emotionally, financially, and spiritually. If you feel like you’re selling a part of yourself in exchange for something you don’t actually need, just because someone else asked you to trade, it’s probably a bad idea to proceed.

Lack of Clarity

The ambiguity of trade deepens when each side tries to negotiate their worth. Since trade often happens between acquaintances and friends, this conversation gets blurry- at least where I come from. Maybe this is because I live in the midwest, and directness is pretty foreign here. In general, we’re all so concerned about everyone else’s feelings, which leads us to completely or partially ignore our own.

The complexity deepens further when you consider the involvement level of a service.

When I trade coaching services for business photography, for example, do we simply trade for hours worked? Does the photographer tack on the hours she spends editing and uploading? Do I factor in the time it took me to drive to the meeting, and the creation of a game plan for my friend afterwards- her prescribed ‘homework’- the part I work into the cost for my clients? Is it a dollar-for-dollar trade? Just because we’re friends, am I obligated to trade at a discounted rate?

These are all personal decisions- and while my general advice is to follow what feels right, the other side of your trade needs to do that too. A written agreement is always my preference- for the following reason:

Improper Communication

My most VAGUE and money-lost on trade was with my (former) accountant. I wanted some advice for my new small business and my tax return filed for me, and in return I would come to his house and do his haircut and color service. And sometimes his wife’s haircut and color too.

And… while I absolutely enjoy their company, when I calculated my year’s worth of ‘trade dollars’ (I’d traded for my tax return and a little spreadsheet tutorial), I’d over-traded by over $1,500. Calculating it by hours spent was actually more embarrassing: I’d spent about 30 hours on my end, and he put in about 3 maybe 4.

I don’t blame my accountant- to be fair, I did zero research to find out what filing a small business tax return actually entailed, and I did not do a good job of clearly asking for what I wanted out of that situation. Hindsight gave me a blinding account of my missteps.

When the terms and possibilities aren’t considered ahead of time, it makes situations like this one hard to handle, especially when dealing with a friend. I suppose I could say, ‘I need my next 3 years of taxes done PLEASE, but it wasn’t part of the initial agreement. It’s important to think through exactly what you’re trading ahead of time and clearly communicate that information to your fellow trader.

Deciding ahead of time what you ACTUALLY want out of a trade, and exactly what you’re willing to trade for it, makes your trade situation crystal clear, and protects everyone involved.

Trade is so opportunistic. In many ways, the chance to trade instead of exchanging dollars gives an opportunity to experience something you wouldn’t have otherwise. In my experience, however, I’ve often found myself trading for things I don’t really need, or wouldn’t necessarily pay money for.

Trades are SUPER beneficial when your exchange gives you something you actually NEED- something you’d otherwise pay for, or something that directly moves you closer to your values and goals. Otherwise, trades become excess energy expended to receive a good or service you don’t really care about- and that kind of fluff is just the type of clutter I’d prefer to avoid.

Whether you’re someone who decides to trade services or goods regularly, or you’re simply thinking about giving it a whirl, it’s SO VERY important to make clear agreements. This protects your friendships, your business relationships, and your relationship with yourself.

This is why I’ve created a simple trade document with editable fields for creatives. This keeps trade agreements clear, concise, and updated, with space for recording dates, time commitments, dollars in trade, and specificity of service. It doesn’t take care of all the problems, but it’s a great starting place for bridging clarity between parties.

You can find the Trade Contract For Creatives here, and use code EMBEAU for 10% off ;).