A currency is just a type of money that is accepted in a certain area. What we use day to day is never just ‘money’—it’s always in a currency of some kind. Usually, countries create currencies, but there are a growing number of examples of currencies not issued by national governments.
Regional currencies, also called currency unions, are one example. Instead of each country having their own currency, in a currency union a group of countries agree to share a common currency. The euro is the biggest example, but there are others, like the CFA franc in Africa and the East Caribbean dollar.
Sometimes currencies are used not at a national or a regional level, but by a single city, or even neighborhood. Community currencies are created when people in a local community will choose to swap units of a national currency for a local one. Because the local currency is only accepted in locally-owned and locally-sourcing businesses, this helps encourage local spending. Community currencies are usually traded one-for-one with national currencies, so they can be thought of as complementary currencies. The BNote in Baltimore and the Brixton Pound in London are examples of successful community currencies.¹²
Time banks are an example of an alternative currency that operates in completely different units from normal money. Instead of exchanging money, people deposit hours needed and hours available, and one hour of anyone’s time is exchangeable for an hour of anyone else’s. By treating all working time equally, time banks challenge the way certain kinds of work—especially caring work—are traditionally valued.
A final type of alternative money are cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies are entirely online currencies that can be used to buy and sell things both online, and increasingly in person. Users of cryptocurrencies like them because they are not controlled centrally—meaning no one can unexpectedly ‘print’ more. Governments and economists don’t quite know yet what to do with digital currencies; should we treat them like other currencies or as some kind of financial asset?³