The hidden economy of childhood bartering


November 8, 2020

Some of our earliest lessons about economics happen in the schoolyard. We asked our readers to share their best childhood bartering victories.
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The hidden economy of schoolyard trades

Some of our earliest lessons about economics happen in the schoolyard. We asked our readers to share their best childhood bartering victories.

BY Zachary Crockett

In ‘90s-era schoolyards, there was a hidden economy at play.

Before we had the hard cash to buy our own stuff, most of us acquired our wants and needs through bartering.

Kids traded Charizards for Blastoises, swapped gel pens for cool stickers, and negotiated high-stakes deals for pogs. At lunch, Dunkaroos, Gushers, and Lunchables were a form of pre-pubescent currency.

We recently asked readers of The Hustle to share their most successful childhood trades.

But before we get into the stories, let’s take a quick look at the numbers behind them.

The majority of our respondents (n=175) did most of their bartering in elementary school, between the ages of 5 and 10.

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

They reported trading all kinds of things — marbles, Pokémon cards, drawings, baseball hats, rocks  — but the most common bartering ground was the lunch court.

Some ⅔ of respondents said they engaged in food and beverage trades.

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

The majority of the trades in our survey responses were some form of bartering — a system of exchange where no legal tender changes hands.

Bartering relies on something called the coincidence of wants. In simple terms, this means that each kid must possess an item (or service) that the other kid desires.

As we age and start making money, item-for-item trades like this become less common.

But when we’re young, most of us didn’t think about the objective, monetary value of the items we were trading. We base our exchanges on subjective value, or what the items are worth to us.

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

This value system isn’t as conducive to bad dealmaking as one would think: 58% of respondents reported that most of the trades they made as tykes were mutually beneficial.

This is fairly consistent with the little research that has been done on schoolyard trades.

In a 2019 working paper, researchers tracked the exchanges of 117 children between the ages of 5 and 8 and found that 47% of them were efficient, suggesting that youngsters have an “intrinsic aptitude to organize market exchanges.”

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

To be sure, plenty of people recalled highway robbery on the playground:

  • “I was swindled out of a box of 6 brand-new Uni-Ball pens for a pack of watermelon Sour Patch Kids. It was a weak moment for me and I let my hunger get the best of me.” — Alan; Shrewsbury, MA
  • “I traded a Dark Side of the Moon LP for a Mars bar.” — Mark; London, UK
  • “Gave up a 1969 Topps Mickey Mantle baseball card (perfect condition) for 2 pink Spaulding handballs. Lost both balls within an hour playing stickball on the street.” — Jamie; New York, NY
  • “I once swapped a sandwich for a ‘magic seed,’ which turned out to just be an acorn.” — Jim, New York City, NY

Here are some of the more memorable ones, edited lightly for brevity.

Food

“I had just come to the US from Peru. My mom packed my lunch and the concept of a school cafeteria was so foreign to me. In my broken English, using mostly hand signs, I traded my can of pringles for cafeteria pizza. I felt Americanized.” — Bonie; Naples, FL

“My leftover fried chicken for a chocolate-covered Twinkies.” — Elizabeth; Cairo, Egypt

“I traded homemade burritos for Lunchables. I wanted the Lunchables because I couldn’t afford them growing up. The other kids wanted my burritos because they had no flavor in their lives.” — Grantis; Santa Cruz, CA

Toys

“I traded a dead car battery for two tennis balls. I loved to throw balls against the stoop and pretend that I was playing outfield for the Yankees.” — S. Jones; everywhere (military brat)

“In the early ‘80s, I convinced someone to trade their Star Wars tin lunchbox for a couple of worthless Hot Wheels cars. A few decades later, I sold that lunchbox on eBay for $350.” — Kris; Nashville, TN

Stationery

“From 3rd to 8th grade, I would go with my grandmother to Costco and procure a substantial supply of Ticonderoga #2 pencils and Uni-Ball ballpoint pens — the comparative Netflix and Amazon shares of a mid-’90s elementary school kid…

Where the arbitrage existed was in the unit cost when purchasing these supplies in bulk, indexed against the hot commodity items like Trapper Keepers, Gushers fruit snacks, Lisa Frank sticker rolls, and Pogs. My best trade was a set of 3 pencils for a new Yomega Saber-Wing Brain Yo-Yo. I felt like Michael Douglas in Wall Street.” — Alan; Shrewsbury, MA

Clothes + accessories

“My brother’s bike for a really cool denim jacket.” — Tammy; Baytown, TX

“In 4th grade, I traded a Babysitter’s Club book for a friendship bracelet. I took it apart to see how it was made and started a friendship bracelet company at school. I made $500 by selling bracelets before competition appeared and the teachers shut it down.” — Krisleigh; Dallas, TX

Cards + games

“In 1992, when I was in 4th grade, I traded a partially-eaten container Mexican candy for a brass pog slammer. I cherished that slammer and always kept it at the top of my transparent blue pog carrying tube.” — Ian; Houston, TX

“I traded a McDonald’s mini handheld video game device for a Gameboy color with 4 game cartridges.” — Samuell; Quebec, Canada

“I was a Pokémon card shark. I never showed my whole hand and I’d artificially inflate demand for common cards. Looking back I ripped people off left and right. What a time to be alive.” — Brian; Cincinnati, OH

“As an immigrant who grew up very poor, my parents could never afford to buy me Pokémon cards. I begged classmates for a few duplicates they didn’t want. I built those unwanted cards into a collection of around 60-80 cards that could rival most of my friends. I finally felt like I belonged, all without spending a cent.” — Sand; Ontario, Canada

Other

“When I was in 6th grade, I traded a Nintendo 64 game to a kid for his illegal switchblade knife. I then traded the knife to another kid for 4 Sublime CDs. Sublime became my favorite band for the next decade.” — Andrew; Cairo, Egypt

“I once traded a chocolate bar for a raffle ticket at school. The raffle ticket won me 60 seconds in a big plastic box with cash floating around. Anything I could grab and shove through a slot, I’d keep. I made out with ~$80.” — Rob; Zionsville, IN

“Kids would give me gum. I would chew and enjoy it. And after all the flavor was gone, I would make them a little figurine fashioned out of the gum. They were a big hit and I git a lot of referrals.  Kept me stocked with gum. Weird right?” — Darron; Northampton, MA

“I traded 1 of the 2 pizzas included in my Lunchables for a week of servitude from my best friend. He had to save my seat at lunch, throw out my trash, and do anything else I didn’t feel like doing.” — Sasa; Philadelphia, PA

“I once traded 2 pieces of my mom’s chicken for a kid’s brand new watch. I work in sales now, so I’m not sure how much to attribute this story to my innate sales ability or my mom’s incredible fried chicken. The answer is probably both.” — Mac; Seattle, WA

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