In this guest post, Loretta B. describes a unique way to build social capital and to save money.

Two weeks ago my boyfriend and I enjoyed a rare night out on the town. We dressed up in our best clothes, had dinner at a special restaurant, and headed off to the symphony. This was my first time at a symphony, and we had a fantastic time. Our tickets were worth $75 a piece.

Make no mistake, I am very frugal. In fact, I fall into the “make your own laundry detergent” category of frugality. How on earth could $75 tickets fit into such a person’s budget? I do something called time-banking. Some refer to it an alternative currency system, a form of volunteerism, a way to build communities, and an international movement for social change. I think it’s all that and more. I encourage you to watch the introductory video on the national timebank website.

Where did those symphony tickets come from? The symphony is a member of our timebank. Members of the timebank do bulk mailings for the symphony, and the symphony makes tickets available for each performance. The symphony was two hours long. So I spent two time dollars for each ticket. We could have volunteered to be ushers; but the ushers wore uniforms and were not allowed to sit down, a far cry from our romantic date.

What is time-banking?
Time-banking is built around the basic concept of earning and spending hours. Everyone’s skills, whether they are a medical professional or a house painter, are worth one “time dollar” per hour. The hours that you earn are stored in a “timebank” and can then be redeemed for any service of your choice from any member of the timebank. That is the thing that I like the most about time-banking — it is a great equalizer.

My local timebank is called Community Exchange (CE.) I think that is a perfect name, because the people I have met though the timebank have become my friends and neighbors.

How is this different from bartering?
With bartering you need to find two people who each have something that the other wants or needs. You may have to haggle or compromise about the value of your item, or compensate in some way, if the exchange of goods or services is perceived as being unequal. With time-banking, everyone’s skills are equally valuable, and you can make your exchange with anyone you want.

Everyone has a skill — some might surprise you. An elderly shut-in who doesn’t drive can make beautiful wedding cakes. A woman in a wheelchair who needs her house painted used to train police dogs and now provides puppy training. The retired school-teacher who needs her leaves raked has a kiln and is teaching ceramics. A common question when we meet each other is, “What do you do?” “What do you need?” or “What can I do for you?”

I have provided house painting, taught basic computer skills, and helped people job search and post resumes online. It felt great to make such a difference to someone on such a personal level, not an anonymous contribution of money.

I house-sat for a woman who was a certified yoga instructor, and then I spent my first hour — on yoga. I had always wanted to take yoga, but the expense had stopped me. It was a disaster — I promptly fell on my rear! But I had paid with time dollars, so I tried again, and now I love it. Time-banking allows you to do things that you might not normally be able to afford.

Weaving community
There’s a serious side to time-banking, too. The biggest needs are transportation and companionship. That seems so simple — take a bus, join a club! In reality, getting a ride to a medical procedure is more complicated than simply taking a bus, and a daily phone call to check up on the elderly who have no family is extremely important. Time-banking allows the elderly or handicapped to stay in their homes and live independently an average of three years longer than an isolated individual.

There are doctors that participate in our timebank. Other members will provide babysitting in the office lobby while parents are being examined, and these members can in return attend medical workshops and receive certain medical care, (there are some restrictions for legal and liability reasons).

I recently took several months of family leave to take care of my Dad. There were complications. A century ago, family and neighbors would have stepped in and helped. My boyfriend was my emotional rock, but his job was not flexible enough that he was able to help me on a daily basis. So for much of the time I was alone, and I felt like I had no-one to turn to. I found a lovely woman through my local time-bank who does respite care. She came over and stayed with my Dad, allowing me to run necessary errands. And, having gone through this herself, she had lots of useful advice. The hospital’s physical therapist wanted grab bars put in the shower, and a timebank member who provides handyman services installed them for me.

When my Dad died, my yoga teacher from the timebank came and stayed at the house during the funeral. She removed all the medical equipment, restoring the house to normal. Others served food and cleared up at the luncheon after my Dad’s funeral. I cannot tell you the relief I felt having people I could trust take care of that for me, and financially, I would not have been able to afford the luncheon any other way. When people around me complain that they don’t even know their neighbors anymore, I want to tell them — become a good “neighbor” and you will have good “neighbors”!

Time is money
What if going to the symphony isn’t your thing, and what you really want is an Xbox 360? Can you buy one with time dollars? Not in my timebank. But what if you had money in your home repair account to have your house repainted this summer, and instead you spent only time dollars and the cost of paint? Or had your car’s oil changed or your hair cut and paid in time dollars instead of cash? Maybe in an indirect way, you can buy that Xbox with time dollars — with the money you saved!

Read more about time-banking at the official Time Banks web site.

This article is about Odds and Ends, Relationships, Tools