Defining Money by Its Functions

Barter and the Double Coincidence of Wants

To understand the usefulness of money, we must consider what the world would be like without money. How would people exchange goods and services? Economies without money typically engage in the barter system. Barter—literally trading one good or service for another—is highly inefficient for trying to coordinate the trades in a modern advanced economy. In an economy without money, an exchange between two people would involve a double coincidence of wants, a situation in which two people each want some good or service that the other person can provide. For example, if an accountant wants a pair of shoes, this accountant must find someone who has a pair of shoes in the correct size and who is willing to exchange the shoes for some hours of accounting services. Such a trade is likely to be difficult to arrange. Think about the complexity of such trades in a modern economy, with its extensive division of labor that involves thousands upon thousands of different jobs and goods.

Another problem with the barter system is that it does not allow us to easily enter into future contracts for purchasing many goods and services. For example, if the goods are perishable it may be difficult to exchange them for other goods in the future. Imagine a farmer wanting to buy a tractor in six months using a fresh crop of strawberries. Additionally, while the barter system might work adequately in small economies, it will keep these economies from growing. The time that individuals would otherwise spend producing goods and services and enjoying leisure time they spend bartering.