Pro Bono Barter

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

A character or business, often the protagonist, performs a service or supplies a good of reasonable demand, and expects a reasonable payment in return. In many cultures, particularly those that appear in works of fiction, "payment" means "money."

Unfortunately, not everyone who needs the character's goods or services can pay with money. In many cases, this is due to poverty; although there are other circumstances in which a potential client simply cannot (or will not) use standard currency. In these cases, the client will present a non-monetary gift to the character as a "payment" of sorts.

Sometimes the character does this willingly, as he or she is good-hearted and likes helping out those in need and/or has a familiar connection to the client. Other times, the character does this grudgingly or may attempt to avoid doing this altogether, possibly because of greed, or possibly because he or she is foreseeing his or her own impending poverty from accepting too many gifts instead of money. In still other situations, the character may flat-out refuse the gift and deny the service, or the character may prefer the gift over money, or the character may accept it because the person making the offer is powerful, crazy, and/or potentially dangerous.

This trope can also be Played for Laughs if the client offers the character something ridiculous and/or worthless.

The one thing that distinguishes a Pro Bono Barter from a regular barter is the pro bono; that is, the character accepting a gift instead of money is essentially providing a good or service for free, because he or she lives in a culture where bartering is uncommon or flat-out abnormal. This is often the case even with items of high value, since the character may or may not have the ability (or the heart) to exchange the gift for money.

Compare Work Off the Debt, a much more specific trope in which a character must pay off a food bill by washing dishes or performing some other menial job around a restaurant, and Hospitality for Heroes, where someone noticing the good deed rewards the individual with whatever they can.

Examples of Pro Bono Barter include:



  • In the movie version of Daredevil, Matt Murdock is a defense attorney whose personal morals often lead him to work with the impoverished. Consequently, his clients are sometimes unable to afford his fees and will pay with goods instead. Murdock's partner, Foggy Nelson, complains about receiving fish instead of money from a client during an early scene.
  • This is the initial problem for Ford Fairlane, who constantly receives tacky (albeit valuable) gifts from clients who need his services as a Rock-n-Roll Detective. Rather strange in this instance, as Fairlane's clients are almost all successful rock stars and should have no problem making standard payments.
  • In Doc Hollywood, Michael J. Fox's character gets paid for a bit of doctoring... with a hog. He is seen walking around with it on a rope several times after that.
  • In Inception, Cobb is wanted for a murder he (arguably) didn't commit, so he's on the run and can no longer see his own family. Saito convinces Cobb to do a particular job for him by offering to make the murder charges go away.


  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch accepts vegetables from Mr. Cunningham as payment for legal services.
  • This is standard operating procedure for the witches in Discworld:

"Oh, I don't want payin'" said Granny
"But maybe... if your wife's got any old clothes, p'raps, I'm a size twelve, black for preference, or bakes the odd cake, no plums, they gives me wind, or got a bit of old mead put by, could be, or p'raps you'll be killing a hog about now, best back's my favorite, maybe some ham, a few pig knuckles... anything you can spare really. No obligation."

Live-Action TV

  • On Scrubs, Dr. Kelso talks about how his father was a doctor who would accept a handmade sweater or a bushel of turnips in lieu of payment from poor patients. Then he calls him a jackass.
  • At the beginning of the Firefly episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds," the crew is rewarded for stopping some bandits with trade goods, an apology... and, apparently, a wife for Mal.
  • Justified had a dentist accepting tamales from a Mexican immigrant patient.
  • Nathaniel Fisher Sr. of Six Feet Under was, following his death, discovered by his sons to have accepted marijuana and a private room as payment for his funeral home services.
  • Once on Cake Boss, a client repainted the main work area at the bakery in exchange for one of Buddy's custom cakes.
  • On the Taiwanese television series Down With Love, Yu Ping offers free consulting as to a company as part of a plea bargain to keep her half-father from being sued.
  • Variations of this tend to pop up from time to time on Burn Notice. Michael Weston rarely accepts payment for his services, but has, on occasion, been known to accept gifts. Examples include a car (admittedly useful) and a bag full of cell phones (also useful).
    • One reward came as a particularly pleasant surprise to him: a lifetime supply of yoghourt.

Mythology and Legends

  • Johnny Appleseed was known to receive lodging and clothes as payment for his work, although this legend does come from a time when standard bartering was far more common.

Video Games

  • In The Simpsons Hit & Run, Homer will occasionally call for a car to pick him up with "Will you come and get me? I'll pay you in back rubs!"

Web Original

Web Comics

Western Animation

  • Pops from Regular Show pays everyone in lollipops because he thinks candy is acceptable currency. In one episode this results in the park getting audited.
  • An early episode of Family Guy showed Peter attempting to pay for services with pieces of string.
  • On an episode of The Simpsons, Bart works as a sweeper at a barbershop. His payment turns out to be an envelope of hair clippings. He asks the barber "You're paying me in hair? Are you insane?" The barber just nods and laughs maniacally.
  • On Goof Troop, Pete pays Max and PJ for mowing the paperclips. Max and PJ are not amused.
  • On the Tale Spin episode "The Road To Macademia", Baloo and Louie save the princess of Macademia and expect a big reward for it. All they get is the shipment of nuts they came to pick up in the first place.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender Sokka takes an odd job, and rather than getting paid in coin as he was expecting, he got handed a large, wet, dead fish.

Real Life

  • In cultures where barter is not the norm, payment in non-monetary items is much more likely to occur with professionals working in rural and/or farming areas.
  • Some of the designers/developers on Clients from Hell have been offered payments in unconventional units.