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Timebanks - The Currency of Community

Updated on March 4, 2016

Service is a two way street

Some people automatically jump up as soon as someone even hints that they could use some help. I'm not one of them.

Some people seem to think that other people are there to cater to their every whim. I'm not one of them, either.

I think people should treat each other as equals. I'm in distress when I have to ask someone to do something for me and they refuse to be paid for it. When that happens, I owe a favor. Not returning the favor feels like exploitation, taking advantage of them. It is much harder to owe a favor than it is to owe a sum of money. In the absence of money, the relationship changes from a business relationship to a friend relationship. Business relationships are disposable. Friend relationships are not. They are work, hard work. It is precisely for that reason friends are more valuable than business partners.

We discovered that many church members are like me. They are reluctant to ask for help when they are in need. At the same time, there are people eager and willing to lend a hand.

I am not one of them. I don't offer to take somebody shopping or cut their lawn. My contribution is more indirect. It helps everybody, the community, rather than the individual. At least that's the way I like to think of it.

I decided to try to figure out how we could connect givers and takers in our community in such a way that nobody had to feel they would owe anybody anything and so that nobody had to feel they were taken advantage of. The solution turned out to be a timebank.

What is a Timebank

A Definition

A timebank is an organized way for people to help each other without anybody feeling that they owe anybody anything or have been taken advantage of.

It is an alternative monetary system where the currency is time, sometimes called Timedollar, service credit or some other name. My personal favorite is Care Shares.

Members deposit an hour of their time into the timebank when they provide a service for another member. Members can make a withdrawal when another member provides a service for them.

The Book about Timebanks

There isn't much literature about timebanks, but one book stands out. It is written by Edgar Cahn. He is generally considered the initiator of the concept in the US.

The book contains numerous examples of functioning timebanks. There's also a section about starting one including suggested handouts and forms for record keeping.

Time as Currency

Everybody has exactly the same amount of time. It cannot be hoarded or stolen. Time cannot be separated from the person. Its value can not be eroded by inflation. Time is a renewable resource. It never runs out.

When the economy is based on time, many more can participate in it. Everyone has something to contribute. Even disabled people can make phone calls to see if their neighbors are all right. Unemployed are only out of work as far as work defined by money is concerned. Time spent hanging out at the corner store or in front of the video console could be used in other ways. I'm sure there is plenty of other so-called useless time that could become a blessing for someone else. Because we have become used to the idea that only skills that can be turned into money have value, sometimes it takes a little coaching to make use of that time.

Motive to Give

It is easy to think that people are motivated by greed. In a society where everything is measured in money that may be at least somewhat true. We're constantly worried that we're not getting our fair share or we could have gotten a better deal at another store.

With that in mind, you would think that the biggest timebank problem would be finding people who would give their time without a guarantee that a favor of equal value would be returned. No, it turns out that quite often a few timebank members accumulate huge credit balances and never ask anyone to do anything for them. Many never record their credits or they donate their credits to someone else. They just do the work and never ask for anything in return. Occasionally, someone will say they hope someone will step up when the time comes that they need help themselves. Still a far cry from the instant gratification and value driven motivation money fosters.

Freed from the tyranny of money, most people are motivated by a desire to give, to be needed, to feel useful. It also allows takers to receive without the feeling of being in anyone's debt.

How it is Different from Barter

Barter involves two things:

  1. A contract

    A barter exchange involves an agreement to exchange something for something else. Although it may be implicit in many small transactions, it really is a legally binding contract.

    The exchange of services in a timebank does not create a contractual obligation, merely an intention to reciprocate.

  2. A value is assigned

    In a barter transaction, a value is assigned to the service or commodity being traded. When the parties consider the value to be equal, they will make the exchange.

    No value is assigned to a timebank member's time. If anything, everybody's time is worth exactly the same whether you're a lawyer, doctor, cook or maintenance worker.

How it is Different from Volunteering

Volunteering implies a measure of altruism, a willingness to improve the life of another at the cost of one's own. There is no expectation of reward.

Washington talk about volunteering often comes across as a way to getting around the limitation of money, to get something for nothing, make people work for free. Sometimes, it takes the form of shaming people into thinking that they are second class citizens when they don't "volunteer." Occasionally, volunteering even becomes mandatory, e.g. a condition for high school graduation in some districts. How is that volunteering? People volunteer because they want to, not because they have to.

Volunteers are often regarded as extra or disposable. They're free so they don't really matter much.

A timebank allows you to volunteer for free if that's what you want or receive a reward if that's what motivates you.

How it is Different from Charity

Charity implies inequality. It carries the idea that because someone is in need of assistance, the person is somehow inferior. Some are givers, some are takers. Some are haves, others are have-nots. Charity separates people in us vs. them.. Timebanks unite people in communities

When everyone's time has exactly the same value, inequality becomes obsolete. When everyone is a giver then it becomes OK to be a taker. The value of service credits may be largely symbolic, but clearly provides dignity for both.

Timebank Workers are Different from Staff and Volunteers

For the "client," the person who needs help, a timebank worker is more like a friend than a paid employee. Friends help friends. Employees get a paycheck.

Because timebank workers are "paid," they are no longer extra or expendable. They matter. They make a real difference.

Do You Have to Make a Huge Time Commitment?

No, you can participate as much or as little as you want.

You can search through the timebank's listing of needed services to find something you would be comfortable doing for someone else. Or you could find a service offered by someone else that would enhance your own life in some way.

What Kind of Services Can Be Exchanged?

It is actually easier to say what can not be exchanged. At least I can't come up with any at this point.

Here are some examples:




Social activities

Child care

Legal assistance

Language lessons

Home repair

Relief for caregivers

Account management


Odd jobs

Office/business support


Driving instruction


among many other things

Some people have even figured out that products can also be exchanged. They just calculate how long it took to make it. That becomes its "value."

Guestbook Comments

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    • TransplantedSoul profile image


      6 years ago

      It does feel great to give back to the community. Sometimes we are all about trying to get what we can for ourselves, without realizing that by us working as a community we actually get more in the long run.


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