It's About Time

Time banks bring barter into the 21st century

| March/April 2001

What’s popular in the United States and Japan but only just catching on in the United Kingdom? Forget baseball: The answer is time banks, an innovative barter system that allows participants to trade skills and services with others in their communities.

First developed in the United States more than a decade ago by Edgar Cahn, a former John F. Kennedy speechwriter and current law professor, time banks work on the premise that people in need of one sort of skill or service will trade time (in the form of a skill they possess or a service they can perform) with another person who offers the skill they desire. For example, a person who knows how to prepare taxes might offer an hour’s worth of tax preparation in exchange for an hour’s worth of housecleaning. The time bank manages transactions among a group of people. The idea is simple but, in our mechanized world, revolutionary: Time is money.

Not long after the first American time banks were up and running, the idea caught on in Japan. There are now some 1,000 time banks established worldwide, the majority of them in Asia and North America.

Across the ocean in Britain, time bank fever is raging. According to David Boyle writing in Green Futures (Sept./Oct. 2000), there are now 14 time banks in the United Kingdom, with many more in development. Seven British time banks—all linked by computer—are operated by the Gloucestershire-based organization Fair Shares. People interested in depositing into—or withdrawing from—a Fair Shares time bank need only log onto the organization’s network. The computer then coordinates the exchanges.

'Looking for big statistics to show that it’s working is hard at the moment, but you can see that the quality of individual lives is quite astounding,' says Sue Friston, Fair Shares administrator. 'It’s also cross-generational, which means we now almost have surrogate grandparents. There are such amazing people out there, and this gives you a chance to meet them.'