Trading goods and services without the use of money is called bartering. Early civilizations relied on this kind of exchange. Even cultures in modern society rely on it. Think of people in prison who commonly trade cigarettes for protection or extra food. For the most part, they don't have cash. So, like people in pre-currency economies, they work with what they have.
Bartering is the trading of one product or service for another. Usually there is no exchange of cash. Barter may take place on an informal one-on-one basis between individuals and businesses, or it can take place on a third party basis through a barter exchange company. A barter exchange is any person or organization with members or clients that contract with each other (or with the barter exchange) to jointly trade or barter property or services. The term does not include arrangements that provide solely for the informal exchange of similar services on a noncommercial basis.
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Bartering does have its limitations. Many bigger (i.e., chain) businesses will not entertain the idea and even smaller organizations may limit the amount of goods or services for which they will barter (i.e., they may not agree to a 100% barter arrangement and instead require that you make at least partial payment). But in an economic crunch, bartering can be a great way to get the goods and services you need without having to pull money out of your pocket.
As Orlove noted, barter may occur in commercial economies, usually during periods of monetary crisis. During such a crisis, currency may be in short supply, or highly devalued through hyperinflation. In such cases, money ceases to be the universal medium of exchange or standard of value. Money may be in such short supply that it becomes an item of barter itself rather than the means of exchange. Barter may also occur when people cannot afford to keep money (as when hyperinflation quickly devalues it).
Unlike one-on-one bartering, members of exchanges are not obligated to barter or purchase directly from a seller. Instead, when a barter exchange member sells a product or a service to another member, their barter account is credited for the fair market value of the sale. When a barter exchange member buys, the account is debited for the fair market value of the purchase.
But, since the advent of money-based systems, bartering is an option that most of us dismiss as soon as we get that first paycheck or allowance. Not so for a guy named Kyle MacDonald. He drew a media frenzy when, in a matter of one year and 14 trades, he bartered his way from a paper clip to a house [source: NPR]. Although he had a lot of help from his local government and some people in show business, his story offers dramatic evidence of today's existing market for bartering. MacDonald is one of many people who have taken advantage of the growing phenomenon of bartering over the Internet. This ancient practice is also alive and well in services that facilitate bartering and companies that swap favors.
Another advantage of bartering is that you do not have to part with material items. Instead, you can offer a service in exchange for an item. For instance, if your friend has a skateboard that you want and their bicycle needs work, if you are good at fixing things, you can offer to fix their bike in exchange for the skateboard. With bartering two parties can get something they want or need from each other without having to spend any money.