What Joining a Time Bank Has Taught Me About Money

Jackie Lam — Intentional Living

“Oooh, I love tofu,” said a man with a long, gray beard as he poked a fork into the chilled tofu dish I brought. I smiled, taking a seat at a picnic table among fragrant tomatoes and potted seedlings at the Venice Learning Garden in Venice, California, where fellow newbies and I convened for an orientation potluck at Our Time Bank in West L.A.

Time banks are based on a simple system of exchange: in lieu of buying things with money, goods and services are exchanged for—you guessed it—time. Part of the Transition Movement, which seeks to divest society from oil dependency and foster self-reliant local communities, the beauty of time banking is everyone’s contributions are on a level playing field. For instance, the two hours you spent fixing someone’s bike are of equal value to a lawyer offering legal counsel.

While the requirements for each time bank—there are about 200 in over 30 countries—vary, the one in West L.A. imposes few: You need to be a resident of the neighborhood, and at the time of writing, there’s an annual fee of $25.

To earn hours, time bank members list what services and goods they’ll provide to other members. Then, they can respond to requests posted on the member website, or be contacted directly by a member with a specific request.

Often, the time you earn is the time it takes to provide a service. If it takes an hour to drive someone to the airport, you’ll earn an hour in your time bank. With goods, it’s up to the member offering the good to set a “price.” Someone might ask for two hours in exchange for a loaf of their home-baked bread. The hours you earned can then be used to seek services and borrow or receive goods from other members.

The goods and services available are as varied as the members themselves. At orientation, I met a woman who works for a company that connects prison labor with manufacturing companies. There was also a former legal assistant in between jobs. And there was Ro, a 70-something who has volunteered to teach Tai Chi basics. We come from different walks of life, but we all share a common interest in strengthening our community by engaging in a meaningful exchange of services, goods, and skills.

As someone who is frugal and yearns to cultivate community, I was naturally intrigued by the concept. In the nearly five years I’ve been a time bank member, some of the people I met at the potluck remained one-time encounters, while friendships have blossomed with others. I often head over to Ro’s condo for Tai Chi lessons in her pool, and listen to her stories about growing up in rural China. I’ve swapped time earned for everything from fresh loaves of bread to an interview on how to raise organic chickens for a story to a creative coaching session. I’ve taken part in “repair cafes,” where people get their electronics repaired and clothes mended for free, and joined fresh produce exchanges.

Beyond the relationships cultivated and money saved, being a time bank member has taught me a lot about how I value my money, myself, and my time.

An inconvenient truth

In our age of convenience, if we want something we can buy it with one click. Pay a rush fee for expedited shipping and you can get it even more quickly. Conversely, I could save the money and borrow something through the time bank, but I’d have to get through a series of correspondence, make arrangements to pick up the item, and then return it.

Borrowing saves money, but I end up paying with hours earned through the time bank and employing patience to work out the exchange. Deciding if an item or service is truly worth my time and effort takes careful gauging. I have to consider whether I really need something, or just want to buy it due to hype or impulse.

Less money…more problems?

There have been a handful of times when I wasn’t satisfied with an exchange—a haircut gone wrong or a piece of sloppily assembled furniture.

If I’d paid for something, I would have felt justified in returning it, or complaining about unsatisfactory service. But with money removed from the equation, these transactions get a lot more personal, making it harder to stand up for yourself when you don’t receive what you thought you would. At the same time, it can make you more forgiving: when someone donates some of their time to enhance your life, you may not be so hung up on the outcome.

Letting go of money won’t fix your relationship to it

Being part of a time bank and meeting like-minded people has helped me question my own relationship with money, but changing that mindset is tough.

While my ideal self wants to work less and live simply so I can have more free time for people and passion projects, my current self is consumed by fear. Raised by a single mom who worked two jobs, I knew I had to be self-sufficient. Nobody would be taking care of my bills. And it’s deeply ingrained in me that when I’m not making money, I feel useless.

While time banking has given me opportunities to save money and demonstrate my worth in non-financial terms, it hasn’t helped me shift much in the way of working less. The workhorse in me just won’t die. Time banking has forced me to consider how I spend my time, though, giving me insights into how I can better align my drive to make money with my real values.

Living intentionally is a process—and one I’m still working on.