NEW YORK - Lois Dale is a stylish Manhattanite who collects chunky silver jewelry, sees almost all the shows, dines at choice restaurants and hops around to exotic resorts - all without opening her wallet.
"I live my life on barter," says the spunky, 5-foot-3-inch consummate deal-maker, who is part of a growing network of people working and playing in a largely cashless universe.
Dale, 57, runs Barter Advantage, one of hundreds of exchanges around the country that have emerged in recent years that take the age-old concept of barter - neighbors swapping chickens for a hog, for instance - to new, sophisticated, IRS-approved heights.
Instead of simple swapping, the exchanges offer what's called round-robin trading, allowing members to barter their products and services for credits that they can later spend on whatever they want - from travel to office supplies to dental work - as long as it's offered within the network.
"A lot of small businesses have done this over the years with friends and neighbors," says Perry Constantinides, president and CEO of Kensington-based Barter Systems Inc., whose 1,200 members cover the Baltimore-Washington area. "All we did was organize it into a clearinghouse arrangement, and that got them even more excited."
The exchanges, which allow businesses to preserve cash while expanding their client base, typically charge a membership fee and a percentage of each purchase and sale - 6 percent at Barter Advantage.
"I'm a matchmaker at heart," says Dale, who started the company in 1980 and likes to point out that she gave birth to her daughter Jordana, now 16, on barter by arranging for the renovation of her doctor's office in exchange for delivery expenses not covered by insurance. "I took the personal aspect of matchmaking that I did informally and applied the concept to B-to-B [business-to-business]."
"Now," adds Dale, who is divorced, "I'm waiting to barter myself a husband."
The New York-based exchange is made up of about 2,000 small businesses - with access to 90,000 businesses through its membership in an international trade exchange - among them a furrier, a moving company, a company that rents out office space, painters, general contractors, printers, a designer of bridal gowns, 15 dentists and a dental lab.
Carolyn Goodridge, an artist who paints abstract landscapes using pigmented beeswax, sold $16,000 in artwork shortly after she joined the exchange last November, most of it at the network's holiday fair, where members go to shop for gifts. Before she joined the exchange, it typically took her more than a year to sell that much art.
As the single mother of twin teen-age girls, Goodridge, 43, works full time as a human resources manager and doesn't have the money or know-how to market her artwork.
But now that she has thousands of barter credits, she has arranged to meet with a business consultant, a Wharton business school graduate who charges $250 an hour.
"Would I be able to afford that right now? No, but I have the credits," she says. "I went to art school, not business school. I would like to hear from the big boys how it's done."
Also, she says, her daughters' 16th birthday is coming up and they want dinner at a fancy restaurant, a Broadway play and a ride in a limousine - not cheap, but all things that she can get through the barter exchange.
Bartering, once relegated to an underground economy, gained legitimacy with a 1982 Internal Revenue Service ruling that requires exchanges to report the barter income of each member. For tax purposes, barter dollars are treated as cash.
The practice, which got a boost during recent recessions when cash was tight, grew 12 percent in 2001 over the previous year, according to the International Reciprocal Trade Association, an industry trade group in Rochester, N.Y.
A survey by the association suggests that businesses traded $7.87 billion through barter companies in 2001, the latest year for which data are available. The industry counts about 800 barter exchanges worldwide, about 450 of them in the United States.
Bartering among corporations has been a common practice for more than 40 years, typically involving the purchase of a manufacturer's unsold inventory at wholesale prices in exchange for trade credits.
Retail bartering, a more recent phenomenon, has been aided somewhat by the Internet, particularly among younger barterers who are more comfortable than their elders doing business by way of point and click.
The idea so enticed venture capitalists a few years ago that they poured millions into start-up Internet barter exchanges with the idea of launching the barter-equivalent of e-Bay. But the barter market stuck to its local, low-tech roots.
"They accomplished virtually nothing," says Bob Meyer, publisher of Barter News magazine. Meyer is a wealth of information on everything barter, including the fact that piano lessons were traded for 4,000 acres in Southern California in the mid-1800s.
"They assumed they could attract people en masse to the Internet and they'd start trading," Meyer says. "The reality is the bulk of small businesses do business within a 25-mile radius. ... If I have a restaurant in Laguna Beach, Calif., and you're a dentist in Baltimore, how are you going to use it? The Internet was not the panacea for an explosive growth in the use of barter."
Increasingly, barter exchanges are pushing further into the traditionally cash- and credit-dominated marketplace.
Alliance Barter, an exchange in Rochester, N.Y., now offers members the chance to use barter credits to buy equity shares in companies that, in turn, earn barter credits.
"Capital is tight, and we're finding that, in our market area, venture capital was challenging for young, early-stage companies," says John Harbaugh, vice president of corporate finance at Alliance. "We're providing a method of capital growth."
Aside from the exchanges, bartering is proliferating among other types of organizations.
A hospital in Farmington, Maine, accepts barter for hospital bills. At a "time-dollar exchange" in Portland, Maine, members trade an hour of their service - massages, haircuts, child care, home repair, Tarot card readings and so on - for an hour of someone else's time.
A community exchange in Ithaca, N.Y., puts a $10 cash value on an hour of time and prints its own currency, called Ithaca Hours, redeemable at local businesses. (The university town has many unusual members of this system, including a juggler and a clown.)
The public library and the local hospital accept the currency for fees; a credit union accepts them for loan payments and mortgage and bank fees. Recently, the group started issuing interest-free loans to small businesses that agree to accept the currency for a large percentage of each sale.
Bartering isn't for everyone, says Bruce Sklover, a Barter Advantage member who rents out office space. "The people who are not successful get impatient when you don't have exactly what they want when they want it. It's not like running down to the store and picking something up because you need it. It requires patience."
Some barter deals go sour.
In Broward County, Fla., lawyer Jane Letwin has sued a car dealer, a barter company and car leasing company, alleging they swindled at least a dozen barter club members by charging them twice for luxury car leases, once in barter and a second time in cash, both times at inflated costs.
Still, Letwin, a barter club member, swears by the practice, having traded her legal services for furniture, dental work, ceramic tile, carpeting, oriental rugs, vacations, a Yorkie named Pogo and a Maltese named Rags - and even a facelift.
"I get these dogs washed and groomed and all their little nails clipped on barter," she says.
In Maryland, Constantinides - who bartered the medical services for the delivery of all three of his children - has watched the industry take off since he launched his exchange in 1978, when there were only 10 to 15 exchanges in all of North America.
Barter exchanges, he says, create an egalitarian universe where "the auto mechanic is just as important as the dentist."
"Even though the auto mechanic doesn't make as much in real terms as a dentist, on the barter exchange he's every bit as important because people want to get their car fixed," he says. "Everybody has to be civil to each other.
"As a result, we have a very wide socioeconomic and ethnic grouping; we've got everybody here. But everyone wants not to pay money if they can help it."