For many of my neighbors and friends, as well as myself, the “economic downturn” has crunched budgets that were tight to begin with. There are empty storefronts. Lots of people are unemployed or under-employed. Many people have more time on their hands than they have money. Taxes and fuel prices are rising, while wages stagnate. It's hard for many families to make ends meet. It's not just my community; it's happening all over the U.S. and in other areas of the world.
With the long-term value of the dollar uncertain and many people’s incomes shrinking relative to the cost of goods and services, alternative currency systems are being proposed in some areas. Some are even currently viable in certain communities. In Brattleboro, Vermont, where I live, there is still no alternative currency in use, although I am aware that certain community members have met over the years to see about getting one going.
Instead, just two years ago, the Time Trade (also known as “time banking”) came to our town, and although it is not a currency per se, it has been very successful in enabling people get for “free” what they would previously have paid for in cash. It has also fostered community among members, many of whom share concerns about the general health of our community and the erosion of social connection in recent years.
The basic premise of time banking, put forth by Edgar Cahn over twenty years ago, is simple: One hour of one person’s time is worth one hour of any other person’s time. Period. No matter what we do with that time, an hour is an hour.
Time banking is a pattern of reciprocal service exchange that uses units of time as currency. It is an example of an alternative monetary system…Time banking is primarily used to provide incentives and rewards for work such as mentoring children, caring for the elderly, being neighborly... which a pure market system devalues. Essentially, the "time" one spends providing these types of community services earns "time" that one can spend to receive services. As well as gaining credits, participating individuals, particularly those more used to being recipients in other parts of their lives, can potentially gain confidence, social contact and skills through giving to others. Communities therefore use time banking as a tool to forge stronger intra-community connections, a process known as "building social capital." Time banking had its intellectual genesis in the U.S. in the early 1980s. …Today, 26 countries have active Time Banks.
I got involved in Time Trade a few years ago when a few friends joined and offered some friendly pressure because they knew I needed help. I was living in and preparing to sell a house that was falling apart at the seams. I needed a lot of work done that I could not afford to pay for in the conventional way. My friends had used Time Trade with great results, and they were excited to help grow the pool of members as well as to see me get the support I needed.
I discovered Time Trade to be very easy to use. Each group has a website where members can post “requests” and “offers.” Each member has a page with their contact information, and it’s possible to be contacted through the system to keep personal information private. It’s as simple as posting what you need or can give, and checking the listings to see if there is anyone you can help or benefit from.
I was relieved to find that it’s okay to run a deficit in the Time Trade. Although this would be less advisable in a fiat money system, in a time banking system, it’s actually quite common for people to have a surplus of time credits. That makes sense – it’s often easier to help someone out than it is to ask for and accept help yourself. So it’s perfectly fine by time banking standards to receive help from other members, even if you haven’t earned any time credits yet. Most members do not carry a deficit for long and often repay more hours than they spent. And for those who have earned more credits than they could possibly use, our Time Trade has a bank where hours can be donated to members unable to work enough to balance what they’ve used.
Thanks to the Time Trade, I was able to get help from a number of other Time Trade members, who did such things as:
- chainsawing downed trees and saplings
- hauling stuff to the dump
- installing a new well-pressure tank
- helping with tall ladder work
- delivering clean fill for a depression in the yard
- tuning up and fixing all of our bicycles
- patching and sanding various holes in drywall
Here in my new house, I have had help:
- removing debris from under my porch and hauling it away
- getting miscellaneous things fixed and/or affixed to walls
- updating electrical outlets in my cellar
- repairing a light fixture
- mending a wool afghan
- identifying all of the perennials in my garden
- getting permaculture recommendations for the yard
- fixing bathroom plumbing
- hanging curtains
- building shelving
My preteen daughter gets weekly instrumental music lessons through the Time Trade, and my teenage son has had sporadic juggling lessons. Many people get acupuncture or massage through the Time Trade, or arrange for help with their pets or livestock when they are away, or have someone come do their spring cleaning for them, or provide a meal for someone who needs one. I have a friend who had help building and roofing a cabin on her property and was able to “pay” for the work in Time Trade hours. Some members provide rides to others, either within town or at a distance (to/from the airport, for example). If materials or fuel are involved, the cost can be negotiated separately.
As for my family’s part, we have earned hours by doing yard work for people, stacking wood, helping prepare garden beds, babysitting, doing computer database work, baking goodies for Time Trade events, fixing a neighbor’s toilet, washing a friend’s windows, mowing someone’s lawn, and providing entertainment for an event. My kids have been able to help earn credit, and when I tell them how much we are not paying for a lesson or some work on our house due to their efforts, they are in awe that their time could be worth that much. This has allowed them to directly contribute to the family economy. Their work is valued, and their place in the community is valued. People call me to ask if my kids can help them with childcare or yard work.
Even more than just helping people get things done, Time Trade has tremendous community-building potential. It provides a framework for people to be able to ask for and offer help to others without feeling that they are imposing or that they are owed anything for the exchange. Some people are able to naturally and easily share with their neighbors and friends in this way, but many more are uncomfortable stating their needs or putting forth an offer. The Time Trade takes away those potential social barriers and builds connections between people who may not otherwise have crossed paths. Since moving to town, I’ve made new friends and developed helping relationships with neighbors whom I otherwise might not have easily connected.
But what about people who have years and years of expensive training toward what they do vs. people who are just making it up as they go along? Would it be fair to trade that work 1:1? This question often comes up. And it’s true that someone who is highly trained or regarded in their field is going to charge more dollars for their professional work than someone who is not. But when that work is offered through the Time Trade, an hour still equals an hour. Some members choose to offer their professional services on a limited basis through the Time Trade, and others keep work and Time Trade separate. It’s up to each member how they will handle it.
One of the great benefits to a time banking system, in contrast to a physical alternative currency, is that it can’t be taxed. The U.S. government taxes barter, but it cannot tax the exchange of time as long as neither party places a monetary value on it. Time Trade rules allow for credit to be exchanged for tangible items as long as both parties agree on the exchange and no monetary value is indicated. In this way, I’ve received and re-homed several items of value, including a brand-new front door, two dressers, a mattress pad, 60 concrete paving blocks, a clock, and surplus roofing materials.
Our local Time Trade was initially started started in 2009 as a pilot program by some graduate students at Antioch New England. They helped to recruit a VISTA volunteer for a broader "launch" in 2010, and after her volunteer service term ran out, the community rallied to come up with ways for the Time Trade to be self-sustaining from within. Every time banking group is self-governed and has its own way of doing things. Ours requires a once-yearly dues payment (with a sliding scale of $10-$100 and the option of exchanging two hours of work instead of cash). Yearly membership payments fund Internet/phone costs, annual dues to TimeBanks USA (including use the Community Weaver software system), a business fee to the town of Brattleboro, and some local advertising costs. There is also a minimally paid part-time office-coordinator position supported by a rotating roster of office volunteers who receive credit for their shifts. The office space is donated. Our group also hosts monthly potlucks and puts out an e-mail newsletter highlighting recent offers and requests. Board meetings are open to all, and committee participation is encouraged.
Is there a time banking group in your area? This website has an interactive list/map where you can check. There are hundreds of time banks in the U.S. alone, and hundreds more in other countries. If your area does not have a time banking group, consider starting one.
For more information on starting or running a time banking group, the Time Banks website is a good place to start.
For an example of how one local Time Trade group works, see the Brattleboro Time Trade website.
And here are more informative videos and links about time banking:
- Brattleboro Time Trade in Action
- Edgar Cahn explains time banking
- Good Morning America: time banks pay it forward
- Meg Mott on time trading and values
- NPR interview: Why time banking?
- Time banking is changing lives
Do you have first-hand experience with time banking in your area? We’d love to hear from you. Please post in the comments below and tell us about it!