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Paper clip to TV in just 4 moves

By IVAN PENN, The Consumer's Edge
Published December 1, 2007


What is a paper clip really worth?

The answer depends, of course, on who you ask.

I decided to see what I could get in exchange for an ordinary paper clip -- an idea pioneered by the barter king, Kyle MacDonald, who from July 2005 to July 2006 made 14 trades, beginning with one red paper clip and finishing with a house in the town of Kipling, Saskatchewan, Canada.

So far, I'm up to a 20-inch color TV. Remote control included. I'll let you know how far I get from here.

With the economy tanking, credit tight and holiday budgets taut, Lord knows consumers could use some ideas apart from traditional shopping to save some bucks.

Bartering is big business. On, where MacDonald has become a bit of a folk hero, consumers haggle with and for just about anything - accounting services for video games; house cleaning for dental work; vacation housing for electronics or services.

To follow in MacDonald's footsteps, I started with a paper clip, a traditional silver paper clip, given to me by my colleague Sydney Freedberg. OK, so I really started with nothing.

Initially, I questioned: Who would trade anything with me for a paper clip?

But as I began trading, I realized the biggest hurdle was my own fear. I needed to understand the paper clip had value to someone. I also realized there are things of general value which some people no longer need. Those items become potential sources for bartering.

I made my trades without revealing my intent or goal.

"Do you have a pen?" I asked. "... I'll trade you this paper clip for that pen."

At that moment, I was offered a brand new pen just like the one I was seeking - for free. But no, I wanted to trade for the uni-ball VISION fine point pen (blue ink) in the person's hand. That one seemed special to me.


"I can always use a paper clip," I was told.

The pen got me a squeaky rubber duck. (Let's face it, there's a soft spot in us all for squeaky rubber ducks).

I traded the rubber duck for a decades-old, plastic Donald Duck with moveable limbs.

Some thought it was a lateral trade and even questioned what I thought I could get for the pint-sized Disney character.

But another colleague had an extra TV and wanted to get rid of it.

My offer: Donald for the TV.


My trades made the now 28-year-old MacDonald chuckle. I reached him on his cell phone.

He's traveling the globe, promoting his recently published book, One Red Paper Clip.

Like me, MacDonald saw trading as a social experiment.

"I just wanted to see what would happen," MacDonald said. "I never had a dream house in mind. The house was pretty cool, I guess. It was more fun having parties along the way."

So what are the plans for the house?

"Maybe trade it," he said.

But don't go willy-nilly making trades, though. Here's the edge:

- Beware of scam artists. MacDonald says he looked at the character of the people he was trading with even more than the items they were offering.

"I wanted to trade with people I trusted," he said. "I didn't want to trade with horrible people ... You can (learn) a lot about people's character from what they want to do" with your item.

- Never underestimate how interested someone might be in your trade. Something small and of little value to you might be gold to someone else. MacDonald says: "Start small. Think big. And have fun."

So, want to trade?

Ivan Penn can be reached at or (727) 892-2332.

[Last modified December 1, 2007, 01:02:04]

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