In the event of a social collapse, it will become everyone for themselves. Those who have prepared for that moment may feel like they are sitting pretty, but that does not mean their initial preparations will be sufficient forever. All it takes is one unaccountable factor to throw your plans down the drain.
In this instance, you may not struggle to survive–depending on your knowledge of survival–but you will still be doing without. Moreover, the natural progression of time will ultimately cause your stores of rarer items to diminish as well. As such, you will want to be able to acquire various goods and items no matter the quality of your preparations. But once society collapses, so too does the economy–or does it.
Without a government to ensure the value of a currency, people will naturally return to a barter system. Of course, disaster will place certain goods and services above all others, but that is where a bit of thought and further preparation can lead to security and even profit.
It is a fairly well-known fact that valuable metals have a tendency to maintain their value even through the harshest of conditions. Even thousands of years ago who many people were still struggling to scrabble out a consistent means of living, the luster of gold still pulled strongly at the desires of people.
As such, when disaster strikes and the current paper fiat money is considered worthless except as kindling and toilet paper, it will be a good idea to have some non-functional item that can still be reliably bartered with value. If you have been prepping for any length of time, then you have likely already stumbled across numerous people and posts suggesting that you purchase gold.
This is a great investment in a survival economy as gold will retain a fairly high value while remaining durable and resistant to the elements. Just make sure that the gold is stored safely away in a secure location, preferably one that is not in or next to your bug out location.
Because of its durability, gold can be burrowed away pretty much anywhere and suffer little to no damage beyond some minor tarnishing that can be easily cleaned. Also, do not get bullion. It may be “efficient,” but people will not often be able to trade with it at value, and bullion can be difficult lugging around.
Alcohol has existed since the Stone Age, and there is no reason to suggest that demand for the intoxicating elixir would do anything but rise should society and the economy collapse. It has been well-documented even in relatively modern times that when the world struggles or seems to be going mad, people often retire to the comforts of drunkenness to ease their worries.
Of course, alcohol can come in handy for other reasons as well. Isopropyl alcohol, or rubbing alcohol, will only last for so long. After that, people will have to once again return to ethanol alcohol to disinfect open wounds to prevent infection and tissue corruption. In this instance, alcohol will be able to provide value even to people who do not want to drink it.
One thing to keep in mind is that you will want to stockpile hard liquor over wine or beers. For beer the reasons are manifold in that once the beer can no longer be kept refrigerated, it will quickly sour. However, for both wine and beer, the relatively low alcohol content of both will decrease their overall trade value.
As such, any alcohol you stockpile for trading purposes should be at least 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume. For one, weaker alcohols will not work effectively as a disinfectant, but it also comes down to economics. Stronger alcohol will be worth more and can even be traded in smaller amounts.
Much like alcohol, tobacco is another item that is generally seen as a vice which can maintain a high degree of value once the economy collapses. Moreover, cigarettes have the additional advantage of creating a physiological addiction in smokers, making them far more likely to engage in barter or trade for them–potentially to your advantage.
Beyond serving as a simple product of vice, tobacco can also be used for a number of genuine survival applications as well–something we cover in my extended bug out guide. This makes cigarettes similar to alcohol in regards to providing value and appeal to non-smokers as well–though you may need to explain this to them.
One issue that tobacco presents that alcohol does not is a limited shelf life. In fact, compared to alcohol, cigarettes are downright fragile, though they will last for up to five years if properly stored. Beyond that, the tobacco will begin to break down, though, by that point, smokers will likely still be willing to trade just to take what they can get.
When selecting cigarettes for stockpiling purposes, do not get menthol varieties. For one, not everyone who smokes prefers menthols, but all smokers will smoke non-menthol cigarettes. Also, menthol cigarettes get their minty quality not from mentholated eucalyptus or some other plant but from fiberglass. This can reduce its survival effectiveness in other areas.
As noted previously, one should not underestimate the value of strong social skills when disaster strikes. Aside from the fact that it will aid your own party in communicating, your interactions with other people will carry with them a much heavier weight than they do today. As such, ensuring that those interactions occur as much in your favor as possible is a vital resource.
For one, you may very well need to explain to people why your trade goods are worth the value you assign them. For alcohol, many people are likely to know that it can serve as a disinfectant. However, the therapeutic effects of tobacco may not be nearly as well represented. Being able to effectively and convincingly explain this and other qualities can go a long way in not only ensuring you receive a fair value for your goods but in brokering a deal in the first place.
One thing to keep in mind, you will not want to present yourself as the holder of the goods you are trading. This simply makes you a target for other people who might use the prospect of trading to find people to loot. Instead, position yourself as the “middle man” of your own goods. That way, even if the potential traders would otherwise intend to steal the goods, they may think twice before burning such a resourceful “contact.”
Following the principle of using social skills to explain the value of items to those who may not be as well versed in survival preparation, survival skills, in general, can be equally as valuable as a trade when it comes to a post-collapse economy. Remember, chances are the overwhelming majority of the population will not possess these skills.
Instead, people will simply revert to a scavenger system for as long as supplies last. Once those supplies are gone through, then people will be desperate. Being able to trade with survival skills can actually work to your benefit in two ways. First, you are able to provide a service that costs you little more than time and elbow grease. Second, you may help ensure that a scavenger does not feel the need to become a looter making you and your party safer.
Another great benefit of survival skills in a barter system is that you do not necessarily need to teach your trading partners the skill. Instead, you can simply perform the skill while retaining the knowledge. This will ensure a steady demand for your services and make you indispensable as a resource not to be abused. Conversely, you can teach some skills, like fire making, which will be necessary more when you are not present than when you are, at a higher trade value.
Rounding out our list of tradable services for a barter economy, performance skills can be deceptively valuable. Keep in mind, you will definitely only be able to play this kind of trade if you are above average in the performative skill, but if you are, it can serve as a lucrative service which will similarly be in short supply.
Keep in mind, when society collapses, people will likely be far too focused on survival to worry much about entertainment. However, this does not mean that their need for entertainment and a break from the struggles of survival will simply fade away. In this regard, performative skills can serve similarly to alcohol except their supply never exhausts.
Granted, you are unlikely to command a significant value for performance skills–even at a master level–in a disaster scenario, but being able to acquire some rare food or another type of supply for five to ten minutes of light labor is no small task. Of course, identifying the performative skill will be the trick.
Music is an excellent option here. If you know how to play an instrument that can easily be carried, make it a point to practice and maintain or improve your skills. Storytellers can also ply their trade, though this one will be a bit more difficult to barter with. Regardless, performances of any sort at a high enough skill level can serve well for low-value trade that costs you little to nothing.
Following the performance skill premise, people will still want to be entertained even when you are not nearby–which will likely be most of the time. In this instance, they are liable to turn to items that can be easily carried and still provide an extended and enduring form of entertainment. Chances are, you have already prepped for such a need.
In this regard, entertainment items can provide a high value, especially if they are kept in good condition. Arguably the most easily tradable entertainment item will be a deck of cards. With hundreds of possible games all easily held in a compact and light form, cards can provide limitless entertainment and be easily carried for trading purposes. Remember, most people are liable to ignore this need at first, and by the time they get around to it, playing cards may be in short supply.
Another decent, though by no means as efficient, entertainment item is a book. Because they have a lengthy investment, they can serve adequately for this purpose. However, books have a fairly low repeat value–depending on the genre. Moreover, books are also much bulkier and heavier than playing cards. As such, this potential trading item is more suited for barter once you have already settled into your bug out shelter than when you are still bugging out.
This is another category that is liable to get lost in the shuffle by unprepared people–in the beginning at least. With the constant need for food, water, shelter, and clothing, hygiene is liable to fall precipitously down the list of priorities. For as much of a priority as it is in modern, civilized life, hygiene takes a back seat in a survival scenario.
That being said, even those struggling to survive will welcome the opportunity to wash the grime of the world off of their bodies. Even more, the ability to maintain your hygiene can also improve your survival chances, something most preppers already know. As such, hygiene items can be billed as both a vanity and necessity item. Just remind your potential trade partners of the various issues poor hygiene can present, and they will likely beg to trade with you. After all, no one wants to die because they did not have soap to wash up after removing a splinter.
In this instance, bars of soap, tubes of toothpaste, and toothbrushes are liable to be your most valuable hygiene items. Bars of soap are long-lasting and compact, making them great for travel. Toothpaste and toothbrushes may have a shorter shelf life–the former at least–but a reminder of how poor oral health can quickly lay them low should be all it takes to broker an exchange.
This is where things can get a bit tricky. If you have already made all of the necessary preparations, food should not be much of an issue. Your stockpiles should be able to handle months to years worth of feeding your party. Moreover, you should likely have started some form of homesteading ahead of time and even some potential husbandry.
As such, this resource falls under the assumption that your own food needs are more than met with abundance. If this is the case, then food will likely be one of the highest value items that you can trade. Of course, as such a high-value item, food will also be coveted and one of the more likely to draw the attention of looters pretending to trade.
Regardless, it is important to balance your own needs with the potential value different foodstuffs offer. For instance, canned and other preserved food will fetch the highest value after a few months once all the stores have been scavenged. Of course, this holds true for you as well, so make sure you have a steady supply of fresh food while still ensuring you keep plenty of preserved food just in case.
Still, meat will easily be the most valuable food you can trade since most people will have difficulty obtaining it. Fishing, hunting, and traps can all serve as a reliable source of meat. If your bug out location has chickens or other egg-laying fowl, this too can fetch a high value for those who cannot otherwise get their hands on protein.
Similarly to food, water is another resource that is extremely valuable. In fact, water will arguably be the most valuable resource in the event of societal collapse. That said, your ability to procure clean, fresh water for you and your party first becomes even more of a priority when considering water as a bartering tool.
If you do not have a source of clean, fresh water nearby, this may not be a viable option. Of course, once you settle into your bug out shelter, you can set up water farms. Solar stills, beach wells, and transpiration bags may help you survive in moderation, but if you can set up twenty or more, you can likely collect more water than you need to drink.
If your bug out shelter and location is large enough, you may be able to set up dozens of these water collectors. Depending on the size of your party and the necessary tasks for maintaining your shelter, this can actually become a bit of a cash crop–especially if you are located in an arid region.
That said, this is another situation where simply trading the resource can be risky. However as food may be valuable to a hungry person, water is far more valuable to someone who is dehydrated. As such, be careful when trading water, and definitely, make sure to present yourself as a middleman in this situation.
Some people might suggest that you should use ammunition as a bartering tool if society collapses. This is a trap. Ammunition will become one of the most important items after a collapse, and even if you have a large stockpile, it is not worth it. In fact, you should be the one trading for ammunition, even if you have crates of ammo.
Still, many of the items on our list are either extra, effort, or in excess should you properly prepare ahead of time. As such, all of the entries on our list are excellent bartering tools and should place you in a prime position to master the emergent economy after SHTF.