Barter System vs. Currency System: Definition and How They Work

Barter System vs. Currency System: An Overview

The primary difference between barter and currency systems is that a currency system uses an agreed-upon form of paper or coin money as an exchange system rather than directly trading goods and services through bartering. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages, although currency systems are more widely used in modern economies.

Key Takeaways

  • Bartering systems were used within the local community, but advances in technology and transportation make it possible for modern society to barter on a global level.
  • Bartering has its limitations, which led to the creation of currency systems.
  • Currency serves as a medium of exchange, resolving mismatched demands associated with the barter system.
  • In early civilizations, common agreed-upon goods, such as animal skins or salt, served as a currency that individuals could exchange for goods and services.
  • Most nations use fiat currency in a monetary currency system.

Barter System

Since the beginning of known history, humans have directly exchanged goods and services with one another in a trading system called bartering. The history of bartering dates back to 6000 BC. Introduced by Mesopotamia tribes, bartering was adopted by the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians bartered goods to those located in various other cities across oceans.

Traditionally, bartering systems were used within the local community. For example, a farmer with eggs and milk can trade them to the local baker for a birthday cake and a loaf of bread. The baker then uses the milk and eggs to bake more bread, which she gives to the appliance repairman as payment for repairing her oven.

Today, advances in technology and transportation make it possible for modern society to barter on a global level.

Bartering makes it easier to negotiate but lacks the flexibility of a currency system. Many small businesses accept non-monetary payments for their services, and the IRS treats these bartered transactions the same as currency transactions for tax-reporting purposes.


How Bartering Works

Currency System

Bartering has limitations. Consider a local blacksmith who needs two loaves of bread and a baker who needs plumbing services. Neither has what the other needs, and as a result, no trade occurs. Currency systems were developed to eliminate this hassle.

In early civilizations, common agreed-upon goods, such as animal skins or salt, served as a currency that individuals could exchange for goods and services.

Pound currency, the currency of the United Kingdom (UK), is the world's oldest active currency.

As currency systems progressed over time, coins and paper notes evolved to support their economies and to encourage trade within the region. Coinage usually had several tiers of coins of different values, made of copper, silver, and gold. Gold coins were the most valuable and were used for large purchases, payment of the military, and backing of state activities.

Units of account were often defined as the value of a particular type of gold coin. Silver coins were used for intermediate-sized transactions, and sometimes also defined a unit of account, while coins of copper or silver, or some mixture of them, might be used for everyday transactions. 

Most countries now use a monetary currency system, but individuals can still barter or adopt another agreed-upon currency system. These alternatives may be used in addition to or as a replacement for the national monetary system in place.

Special Considerations

With the evolution of digital currencies, traditional paper and coin currency systems may soon face the same fate as the barter system. Fiat currencies, backed by the issuing government, are subject to theft and devaluation from inflation, whereas digital currencies are secure through encryption and are a hedge against inflation.

Digital currencies are decentralized and have considerably lower fees for international transfers. They are also readily accessible, expediting payments and transfers. As more retailers and businesses accept digital currencies, their popularity increases, and the likelihood that they will eventually displace fiat currencies is inevitable.

Barter vs Currency FAQs 

How Did the Invention of Money Affect the Barter System?

Money became a medium of exchange for goods and services, displacing the barter system. Under the barter system, the transacting parties must have a demand for the goods or services each offers to facilitate the transaction. If needs are mismatched, no exchange takes place, leaving parties unfulfilled.

What Are the Disadvantages of the Barter System?

The barter system often creates an unbalanced system of trade, where parties are unable to find others willing to trade. The barter system also lacks a common unit of measurement for goods and services. Since most goods depreciate with time, they become less attractive for trade and storing value.

What Are the Disadvantages of the Fiat Currency System?

There is no universal currency. Therefore, to purchase goods and services in a different country, one must convert their currency to that of the other nation, and most governments impose exchange rates for these conversions.

Also, inflation increases the prices for goods and services within an economy and, subsequently, erodes a currency's purchasing power.

Does Anyone Still Use the Barter System?

The Internet has revived the barter system, allowing participants to trade goods and services. In some countries, like Thailand and Iran, bartering has proven beneficial.  Thailand is the world's largest exporter of rice, and Iran has an abundance of oil. Both nations need what the other has in abundance, and therefore, have agreed to trade these goods under the barter system.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Love Money. "29 surprising facts about the world's money."

  2. NPR. "Countries Resort To Bartering."

Open a New Bank Account
The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Investopedia receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where listings appear. Investopedia does not include all offers available in the marketplace.