Time banks: What if we trade time rather than money?

A time bank works a bit like a sharing service within a community. When you want to work, you earn time credits which can then be spent on other’s people’s time. So say you work for one hour as a gardener, you earn one time credit, which can be ‘spent’ on another person’s services, like cutting your hair for an hour. So instead of cash, everyone earns and spends time!

Time banks build up social communities or what economists like to call social capital.¹ They connect groups of people together within a network, often in a local area. This provides a way for people to work and share skills outside of the monetary economy, including those who might be currently marginalised by the market. Time banks help to tackle the unequal distribution of money, by removing it entirely and facilitating exchange through time instead.

However, time banks remain fairly niche, and it doesn’t look like they are going to overtake the market economy any time soon.  One big limitation of time banks is the fact they only focus on services, such as haircutting, legal services, care work, and home repair, rather than on goods, such as food, houses, clothes etc. There are attempts to start to include goods into the time bank model, by measuring how much time it takes to make something², but this quickly becomes quite complicated and ignores all the other costs of making things, such as materials and inputs.

Time banks are growing and remain an interesting alternative to the market. They question our initial assumptions that the economy has to be controlled by money, and opens up the possibility for work, consumption and trade to be conducted outside of the market economy. However, due to their limitations, it might take quite a bit of time before they become mainstream.