A Different Way to Think About Money

Two years ago my friend Pauline wrote an article for us on how to flip stuff like a pro. It was a fascinating read (and tips) on how her boyfriend buys/sells/trades stuff for profit, and it was pretty crazy how far he went with it.

But there was one line in it that I’ve never forgotten:

“Cash is scarce. If I want to sell you something, I just need to find what you want to get rid of, and swap it with you.”

In other words, take the cash part out of the equation and figure out how to give you something you really want in exchange for something you don’t, but that’s more valuable. The “Trade Up” game, in a sense, where both parties get what they want out of the transaction and part ways happy.

But what I love the most about this is that it works in the opposite direction too. If there’s something you really want to BUY but don’t have the money (or don’t want to spend your money on) can you figure out a different way to get it?

And the answer is, yes. You can! All depending on how adventurous/patient/badly you want it ;)

How you achieve this is by figuring out what the other person actually wants since it’s usually not just “to have money.” In other words, what will they be DOING with this $$$ in exchange for the item you desire?

500 dollar bill

Let’s take a cool old bill for sale, for example. J. Money, always on the hunt for awesome new coins and currency to add to his collection – sees an ad for a $500 bill and deeply wants to own it. But knowing that it would be silly of him to drop $1,000 on the spot for something that literally says it’s only worth $500 (hah!), he gets creative and asks you what you plan on doing with this $1,000?

Now if you’re a BudgetsAreSexy reader, you tell me “to help max out my IRA” and then I’m $hit out of luck ;) But if you’re a normal consumer, you say “a new laptop” and I now know what you’re REALLY looking for. Yes getting the cash would be easier, but you’re only going to turn around and use it for a laptop anyways, so you’d probably be happy if I could trade you for one as well.

Now *how* you go about finding that laptop is a whole other story (maybe you have an extra one laying around, or have a killer hook up at Best Buy, or need to make a separate trade to get one?), but the point is that person is really after a laptop and not the $$$ itself. And depending on how good you are at bartering/scheming, chances are you can find a good one without having to pony up a grand.

Remember – money is only a *tool* to get us what we really want in life. It seems like we only use it for bills or to eat, pay off debt, etc, but we also use it for freedom and dreams and safety, and especially for “stuff.”

sunset plane

Let me give you another example – this time a real experience I had :)

14 years ago when I graduated college I moved to New York City to pursue “the dream.” Which was basically to party all the time and have an incredibly kick-ass job as an Art Director. Only, I wasn’t nearly as talented as everyone else IN THE WORLD trying to do the same thing (I couldn’t even get an internship! That paid $0.00!) so I had to shift focus.

I still wanted to live there and have fun w/ my 5 roommates (how else do you afford to live there?), but I needed a new career. And preferably one I could get more passionate about.

So one day I literally wrote down a list of all the stuff I enjoy, and then whittled it down to my top 3 to see what jobs might pop out. This was literally what the list looked like (*lowers head in shame*).

  1. Girls
  2. Beer
  3. Travel

And when I listed possible jobs next to them…

  1. Porn, PIMP
  2. Bartender, brewer
  3. Travel agent, airlines

Now for obvious reasons I skipped over #1 ;), and while #2 sounded plausible, I didn’t think I had it in me to again compete with such fierce competition, especially since I liked the idea of slinging drinks more so than the job itself. And even better, drinking them.

So that left me with travel.

I looked around for gigs in the paper (that’s how long ago this was!) and stumbled across a reasonably priced course on becoming a travel agent. So I took it, graduated, and got a job as an official agent that lasted all of about 2.3 weeks.

As it turns out, it’s a) no fun at all booking OTHER peoples’ vacations, and b) there’s actually not as many travel perks in it as you’d guess. Sure you get discounts and the occasional freebie, but it def. wasn’t “travel the world on a dime” type stuff. Before I could give up hope, though, my boss overheard my desire to fly around and recommended I apply to the airlines instead.

So I did! And with her help, became one of the first employees hired at Continental Airlines right after 9/11. And boy did I take advantage of those almost-free tickets. I flew to London for the weekend, California to hang with friends, The Mall of America just for lunch and shopping (!!), and numerous other trips to places like Cancun, Miami, and the incredibly beautiful Puerto Rico. My family loved me for it too :)

Now, they paid like crap and I was constantly broke 24/7, but the point is – I traded my time/skills in return for something I desperately wanted: Travel.

You can also do the same thing for other goals and bills too:

gigs for goalsIt’s all the same as “getting a job for money,” only a different way of thinking about it. And believe me, “traveling the world” is a lot sexier than “$8.75/hr.” Not to mention motivating!

So think about that any time you’re stuck trying to get from A to B without any cash in your pockets. Are there other routes you can take to accomplish the same results? What is the other person REALLY wanting to do with the $$$ they’re asking for? Can you take on a better aligned/extra job?

Having money’s nice, but it’s only because you equate it to something it buys :) Your world opens much wider when you realize there are other ways to achieve these things with a little creativity.

PS: The reason I was able to move to NYC and pursue my dream in the first place? I got a job working at Old Navy in my hometown, and then got them to transfer me so I wouldn’t be showing up without an income stream. I traded a boring location for a much more thrilling one! (And avoided 6 rounds of interviews in the process – no joke)

PPS: You can find a list of all 35+ jobs I’ve had in my lifetime here: J’s work history

(Visited 19 times, 1 visits today)

Get blog posts automatically emailed to you!


  1. Chris @ Flipping a Dollar August 31, 2015 at 5:25 AM

    Never knew you worked for an airline! That’s great that you got some of that travel bug out early. Traveling with kids is suh a PITA!

    We do this for our home repairs. We want them now but don’t want to impact our savings rate and retirement. Instead we re-sell on eBay to create another income stream. Who knows, maybe blogging will do that too although right now it’s still just barely paying for web hosting!

    1. J. Money August 31, 2015 at 9:40 AM

      Extra income streams def. opens up the opportunities :)

  2. Clarisse @ Make Money Your Way August 31, 2015 at 5:25 AM

    Thanks for this one J! Since Christmas season is just around the corner, I’m thinking to find extra work for the weekend.

  3. Ramona August 31, 2015 at 7:10 AM

    And I said my husband had many jobs :D

    Loved the article and I’m currently checking Pauline’s article as well. And yeah, Clarisse is right, Christmas is ’round the corner and my little daughter will probably want some presents. Time to get creative.

  4. Des @ Half Banked August 31, 2015 at 7:48 AM

    This is one of those things that’s easy to “kind of know” but this was such a needed wake up call! It aligns perfectly to why I freelance (topping up savings for my dog, aka my freeloader roommate) and is a really great reminder that alternate arrangements can work just as well as cash. I’m going to apply this to a few different areas, and first up: checking with my beloved, independent hairdresser as to why she doesn’t have a website and asking if she wants help setting one up in exchange for a few haircuts!

    1. J. Money August 31, 2015 at 9:42 AM

      BOOM! I bet she’ll love you for that too :)

  5. Elise@ Simply Scaled Down August 31, 2015 at 7:50 AM

    Such an awesome reminder! I used to own a wedding photography company and photo booth company. I traded wedding day services for landscaping, dog sitting, even a new lawn mower! It was worth it to me because I never booked peak season so I was never missing out on a cash opportunity (after all…cash Is king!), but I did get some awesome stuff out of the deal that normally wasn’t in the budget.

    1. J. Money August 31, 2015 at 9:56 AM

      Perfect example!

  6. Dan Zehner August 31, 2015 at 8:00 AM

    Not to get too nerdy here, but this concept sounds like something from Star Trek! The Ferengi race has a concept of the “material continuum.” You just have to find a chain of people who want what they don’t have, and ride the wave of trades and bartering to get what you want!

    1. J. Money August 31, 2015 at 9:58 AM

      Haha…. I’ll take your word for it ;)

  7. Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies August 31, 2015 at 8:07 AM

    In a lot of ways, this is making sure that our to-do list aligns with our goals. And that’s the same with money. Having money for money’s sake isn’t really the point, is it? The Old Navy transfer story shows real creativity and ingenuity. Awesome!

  8. Ali @ Anything You Want August 31, 2015 at 8:14 AM

    This post makes me think of the guy who traded one red paper clip for a house – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_red_paperclip

    He knew exactly what each person he was working with wanted, and was able to bring value to them through items that were of less value to others. I think the same thing goes for money – as you said, it is only as valuable as the things (or feelings or whatever) that it buys you. You have to understand your “currency” (what you value) for any of these things to have meaning.

    1. J. Money August 31, 2015 at 10:00 AM

      Helluva great story. I remember reading the first half of this book on that paperclip too until I accidentally packed it up in a move and never saw it again – d’oh.

  9. Michael August 31, 2015 at 8:21 AM

    Great advice on using skills, trade, or bartering to acquire the goods or services that we want in life. Sometimes it is easier to do a trade than convince someone to hire you to ‘fix their plumbing for $50/hour’ by trading the skill or something they have that you need. People put less value on an item many times than on cash itself which we as a society need to use to our advantage.

    Always remember, one persons trash is another persons treasure so always try to trade or sell items before throwing them out.

  10. John C @ Action Economics August 31, 2015 at 8:34 AM

    There was a show on TV for a while about this, I think it only lasted one season though. Each episode these two guys would each start with something worth around $100 and make 5 or 6 trades through craigslist to something worth like $10K. Sometimes they would make minor repairs to things or clean them up before moving up the trade ladder. I’m sure this would be a fun way to make money for someone who loves negotiation.

    1. J. Money August 31, 2015 at 10:02 AM

      Oh yeah! Great concept for a show… Easy to do if you start at yard sales too and then work your way up :)

  11. Thias @It Pays Dividends August 31, 2015 at 8:49 AM

    I don’t understand why you threw out group #1 in the jobs scenarios so quickly ;)

    As you stated more eloquently than I could, cash is never the only consideration. That is why my wife decided to work in a school rather than private practice as a speech therapist because she loves having her summers off, especially now that we have a daughter, and the fact that she gets to work exclusively with kids. Sure, she could get paid better outside of a school district, but it is the other, non-cash benefits that sway the decision.

  12. Free to Pursue August 31, 2015 at 8:56 AM

    Resourceful as always J$. I’m starting to think more along these lines myself, mostly when it comes to work experience or new experiences.

    Want to brush up on public speaking? Don’t pay for a course…speak publicly about something you already know well and that people want to hear about (doing that one in October :).

    Want to get more people to know about your professional skills (other than stuffy & impersonal “networking”) or want experience in a new area? Volunteer at a not-for-profit. They want your time and don’t consider you a “bother”.

    Want “new” clothes/accessories/shoes? Arrange a swap meet with friends.

    Want to travel for free? House (and/or pet) sit (get paid and stay somewhere for free). This latest one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. People who value stuff are really worried about having it stolen or damaged and are willing to pay someone to “stuff sit” to make sure it doesn’t happen. :)

    1. Will August 31, 2015 at 9:06 AM

      House sitting would be AWESOME if you could point us in the right direction. I’ve searched it out a few times but can’t find any real inroads…

  13. Nick August 31, 2015 at 9:05 AM

    A little less ambitious than trading time for travel. I managed to trade some serious hours for half price Mickey D’s while working through school. Not exactly high flying, but hey who doesn’t like half price Big Macs! Great post J!

  14. DP @ Someday Extraordinary August 31, 2015 at 9:22 AM

    The other way to look at this is, “What do you do when you aren’t earning money?” Typically, the answer is “spending it.” I find that the more I have on my plate, the less I spend. It is very often one or the other. Even if you claim you’re sitting around watching TV and not spending a dime, you are likely spending more than you initially think. Cable cost? What are you eating while sitting there? Plus, the opportunity cost of doing nothing.

    I just wrote a post about brewing your own beer vs. buying it. I didn’t run the numbers before I typed it up and was surprised by the outcome. However, the 4 hours you spend brewing can be looked at as a positive or a negative. You’re not spending money and you’re doing something you enjoy, but at the same time, you’re not trading your time for something more productive.

    I like your concept of trading time/skills for something you want (travel). It’s all about what you value and money is just a means to an end. I think most of us in the financial independence community would agree that it’s not about the money, but about the freedom it can provide. Ironic how we are all trading our time and skills for money now, which in turn will buy us free time in the future. It definitely is a “trade up” mindset, which the typical American Consumer doesn’t seem to possess. As you allude to, the astute consumer can exploit this inconsistency and come out on top.


    1. J. Money August 31, 2015 at 10:10 AM

      YES! The busier you are the less time to spend $$$ for sure. I’ve probably gone shopping less in the past 7 years since starting this blog than the one year before it. On the other hand my social life needs improving, but at least my wallet is happier! :)

  15. Mrs. Crackin' the Whip August 31, 2015 at 9:23 AM

    This is a really interesting perspective. I have never considered, “what is the person’s goal for this money?” I have always been in the “give me the money” camp because I am absolutely certain I can stretch the cash farther or find a better deal than a trade.

    This totally explains though some of the Craigslist ads I’ve seen where they have x for sale but will consider trades of items 1, 2, or 3. Now I see!

  16. Joe @balleronabudget.org August 31, 2015 at 10:07 AM

    When I was 18 I spent $1000 dollars on a set of turntables, a mixer, and two crates of records because I wanted to learn how to be a DJ. I found out pretty quickly that I was no good at spinning records, so the turntables basically became a showpiece and occasional record player. A year later I really wanted to backpack in South America, but had no money whatsoever. I found a round way ticket to Santiago, Chile for $900 dollars, and a buddy trying to become a DJ willing to pay $950 for all my equipment. He even let me keep my 5 favorite records. I spent a month backpacking accross Chile and Argentina, and in less than a year he was doing a semi-national tour as the stage DJ for a local hip hop artist.
    I’d say we both won on that deal!
    Great article J. Money!!!

    1. J. Money August 31, 2015 at 2:30 PM

      Yeah y’all did – love that!

  17. Mr. Utopia @ Personal Finance Utopia August 31, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    Taking the cash out of the equation is definitely a paradigm shift in thinking. It’s tough for me since that is how I have been conditioned to think for so long, but it sure seems like an advantageous way to think (even if you don’t literally take the cash out of the equation).

  18. Maggie @ Northern Expenditure August 31, 2015 at 12:00 PM

    My uncle was an art trader and he always said that everything he owned was for sale. He would talk about how his values for things would change. When he had his bills paid, he enjoyed the stuff he had. But when it came time to pay for a trip or insurance, he would figure out which things he didn’t value as much as the upcoming trip or the insurance payment. He also said he loved his job because he could enjoy the benefits of owning something wonderful and trade to something else wonderful after awhile. He changed my outlook on value and ownership.

  19. Justin @ Root of Good August 31, 2015 at 1:09 PM

    Ha ha, awesome. I always love hearing about people’s first few hustles in life.

    As for asking what the counterparty to a deal actually wants, that is a great idea. Sometimes it’s not what they are actually asking for. Remembering this helps immensely with family, friends and coworkers too when they ask for something. Once you find out why they want something, you can help them or give them something that costs less to you and helps them out even more.

  20. Joe August 31, 2015 at 1:21 PM

    Great story! That sounds like a great way to travel when your’e single. Mrs. RB40 just came back from interviewing with the foreign service. It would be great fun to live in other countries for a while and get paid for it. It’s too bad she didn’t get the position…

    1. J. Money August 31, 2015 at 2:38 PM

      Yeah it would!! Sorry she didn’t get :(

  21. Tonya@Budget and the Beach August 31, 2015 at 2:20 PM

    I didn’t know about all that! Fun to get to know you just a little bit better. I do this all the time, particularly if there is a side hustle which I’m not really excited about doing. I say, “ok if I do it I can get this ____, which I really need/want.” I also do bartering too, like I wanted to take yoga for awhile but sure as hell did not want to pay yoga prices, so I found a way to do a work exchange for free classes. This way I got to see that yup, I still hate yoga. :) No harm, no foul.

    1. J. Money August 31, 2015 at 2:38 PM


  22. Kalie August 31, 2015 at 3:06 PM

    Great story, and what a useful exercise for evaluating how to get what you want. We are pretty much decided on foregoing preschool for our son this year, since he gets a lot of structured, social activity in other places (library, church, $2 exercise class I take). I think I’d willingly pay for preschool if we didn’t have such good free and inexpensive alternatives.

  23. Tawcan August 31, 2015 at 3:31 PM

    Very interesting perspective, cool that you got to travel for very cheap. A great way to travel that’s for sure.

  24. Debtman August 31, 2015 at 9:09 PM

    From churning jobs to churning credit cards; that’s my path!

    Great idea with the airlines job! I don’t think I could be a travel agent. I would want to travel too often, but I guess most would!

    1. J. Money September 2, 2015 at 11:36 AM

      I’ll leave you to those cards – that hurts my head too much, haha…

  25. Danell August 31, 2015 at 10:01 PM

    Interesting to think about this. I’m usually all about getting the cash, myself, as I’m not too interested in acquiring stuff these days. However, I did do this in a different way earlier this year.
    I had an old shed that was an eyesore to me for years. After looking into the costs of getting a dumpster, paying someone to tear it down or borrowing a truck, tearing it down and hauling it to the dump myself, well, it sat a few more years. Then one day I got the bright idea to post it on Craigslist as free lumber and salvage roof trusses,etc. You wouldn’t believe all the calls I got from people wanting to come tear down my shed for me! A guy that wanted to build a shed came and had it torn down and hauled off in one morning. He even cleaned up the mess. He saved money by trading labor and I saved myself time and money. It was great.

    1. J. Money September 2, 2015 at 11:38 AM

      YES! Perfect win! I don’t even need any lumber myself and that excites me to use it for projects! Haha… People are hustlers out there.

  26. Steve Miller September 1, 2015 at 8:35 AM

    Trading time for money. Craigslist, eBay and other things like this can help you with bartering too. I like your quote:

    “traveling the world” is a lot sexier than “$8.75/hr.”

  27. Kayla @ The Jenny Pincher September 1, 2015 at 11:13 AM

    Remember – money is only a *tool* to get us what we really want in life.–THIS! Great points in this article J$. I love the perspective!

  28. Sandy September 1, 2015 at 5:38 PM

    Before I retired 2 years ago, I was a doctor. I had a patient that had scheduled an appointment and was coming for a doctor’s visit from a small town close by that I guess doesn’t have too many doctors practicing there. Once I was done seeing her, she had told the staff can she pay in 3 payments for the visit over the next 3 months. The office staff didn’t know how to respond and one of them came to me. Then I hear her from outside of my office saying, “and I have a box of fresh organic corn from my farm in the back of my car, you can have that too.” I guess she was saying I can take the corn as down payment. :) I liked her so much that I just took the box of corn and told her the office visit was now paid for in full. She was over the moon. So was I.

    1. J. Money September 2, 2015 at 11:39 AM

      WOAhhhhhhhh! haha… that is so cool! I bet that corn tasted good as hell too?

      1. Sandy September 2, 2015 at 4:11 PM

        It sure did taste good. First of all it was fresh corn from her farm and nothing is like fresh picked food. Second, it was the first time I was trading medical services for food and the experience itself was very much fun. Even the thought of it still makes me giggle. She thought I made her day by taking corn as payment, and to this day I think she made my day by offering me corn instead of payment. I don’t remember payment methods of any other patients except than her for the 13 years I practiced and had an office. She sure made an impression.

        1. J. Money September 7, 2015 at 12:41 PM

          Haha… smart of the both of you to be open enough to try it too!

  29. Jordan September 2, 2015 at 12:53 PM

    Very interesting points here. I think this is a great way to think about life in general, actually. Sometimes it isn’t about just the paycheck, it’s about the benefits you get from that job.

  30. Christina Garofalo September 3, 2015 at 3:24 PM

    This is a great post! Your list cracked me up.

    1. J. Money September 7, 2015 at 12:41 PM

      Thanks Christina :)

  31. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank September 5, 2015 at 8:48 PM

    When I got married and had kids, that’s the moment I changed how I think about money. I got more serious and frugal. It has been my practice to think twice whenever I buy, which I did not normally do when I was single.

  32. Tre September 6, 2015 at 6:32 PM

    I worked for an airline too when I was younger. The pay sucked, but it was worth it for the free tickets :-)

    1. J. Money September 7, 2015 at 12:43 PM

      Fun! I didn’t know that about you :) We could have crossed paths in the air – who knows!

  33. Kurt September 8, 2015 at 11:50 AM

    I can’t believe you’ve had 35 jobs! And remember them all! :)

    1. J. Money September 9, 2015 at 2:11 PM

      well, I only remembered like 30 of them when I first published the post, and then over time I recalled others (and started new gigs as well!) and continued to update the post.

      But yeah – it looks like I’m averaging a little over 1 job per year of my life :) I’m now at 40 jobs total, boy…

  34. NDQ September 13, 2015 at 12:43 PM

    Great post!