Time Banks: Got Time for Lunch?

Last weekend, I was walking around New York’s Lower East Side when I stumbled upon an interesting restaurant. The counter was serving Thai food, but they didn’t take cash – they only took time.

For a home-cooked lunch (with table service), I was told I’d have to pay with a half-hour of my time. This was an alternative economy staged by artists Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle as part of Creative Time’s Living as Form exhibition, part of a larger community movement of time banks going on nationally.

A time bank is not a barter system. Your good (or service) is not directly exchanged for another good or service. There’s a medium of exchange: it’s time, not money.

Some interesting history from their artist statement:

The origins of time-based currency can be traced both to the American anarchist Josiah Warren, who ran the Cincinnati Time Store from 1827 until 1830, and to the British industrialist and philanthropist Robert Owen, who founded the utopian “New Harmony” community. While both systems are based on the principles of mutualism and the labor theory of value, Josiah Warren’s currency was explicitly pegged to time as a measure of specific goods or labor.

The first successful contemporary time bank was started in 1991 by Paul Glover in Ithaca, New York. Following his idea, people began to exchange time, which led to the creation of a time-based currency—the “Ithaca Hours,” which even local businesses began to accept, and which still flourishes. Time banking and service exchange have since developed into a full-fledged movement, usually centered around local communities.

I was intrigued but taken aback as I realized that I value my time a lot. I don’t have a good reason to — I don’t have kids or multiple graduate degrees or a special skill that makes my time particularly valuable. I do however have a lot of hobbies and friends, and I love to sleep 8 hours a day.

But since time was being treated as a currency here, I sat down and figured out a quick personal exchange rate. I took my current salary (since I supposedly would have to work to pay the time back) and divided it to approximate how much one minute of my time is worth in the current market economy, and I compared that against how much I value a home-cooked Thai lunch. I also considered the value I place on participating in a public art project, and whether I could pay the time back doing something I enjoy. This is a really rough approximation, but it helped me think about paying with time more clearly.

I think time banks are a good way to get people thinking about value on a personal level, but, for practicality’s sake, the scale of such a currency can only be small and locally-based. Time is finite, whereas money is not, and we all only have 24 hours a day — so what would we do for the things in our world that cost more than the amount of time we have?

Incidentally, there’s a Justin Timberlake sci-fi movie coming out next week about a world where the currency is time. Maybe we have time banks to thank for that. (Or not.)

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  1. Howard Tayler says:

    Incidentally, there’s a Justin Timberlake sci-fi movie coming out next week about a world where the currency is time. Maybe we have time banks to thank for that. (Or not.)

    It’s more likely that we have Harlan Ellison to thank for the movie. Link

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  2. JJzD says:

    I think you miss out on one of the more important feature of timebanks: Your half an hour as economist/banker/white collar is placed in the order of magnitude of 10(0)’s of dollars. Which makes these services unapproachable for the “normal man”. On the other hand you might have less handycraft skills.

    How these timebanks work is that through a normal money exchange you replace 2 hours of handycraft wth an half an hour banking. But by both putting in 30 minutes, you level the playing field. The handycraft people get access to excellent, abstract skills, you get your painting hanged, and get to meet new people. In the end everybody is better off, than by the “money trail”.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I’m not sure how that makes everyone better off. Surely the highly skilled person is worse off, since he could work 15 minutes at his regular job to earn enough to hire someone to hang picture with cash, whereas now he’d have to work 30 minutes to get that job done.

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  3. Rebekah says:

    So, how much was your lunch?

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  4. Mike B says:

    This is how MMORPG games get past the 80/20 rule making the game uncompetitive for a super majority of their users only there it is called Grinding. The whole point of grinding is that you pay for in game items and experience levels with time, instead of either skill or money. Because in theory everyone has 24 hours in a day, gearing in game success to time levels the playing field between players who may have more inherent skill and/or wealth.

    This is actually the reason that I refuse to play most MMORPGs because it is basically a form of communism.

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    • alex in chicago says:

      That is not how MMORPGs work at all. Usually only the most rote tasks are done through grinding. Tasks at the elite level such as Raiding and High End PVP require elite skills and planning and reward them as such.

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      • Mike B says:

        Any situation where skilled players could crowd out non-skilled players must be tempered by grinding or the non-skilled players will have a very frustrating time of things until they get through the learning curve.

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  5. @erokalypse says:

    I also think that one must consider that not all time is created equal.
    Say you make $52,600 a year, each minute of your year becomes worth 10 cents, However if you would have to miss time that you could be working at your normal job, that time is worth ~$0.42 a minute (assuming a 52 week 40 hour schedule) The author values 8 hours of sleep, I do not value 8 hours any more than 7, so if I have the choice to wake up 30 min earlier every day and save $8-10 that I would spend on lunch, I would be happy to do so.

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  6. KingofthePaupers says:

    Jct: And the Millennium Declaration C6 for a UNILETS interest-free time-based currency to restructure the global financial architecture proposed by John Turmel to the Millennium Assembly in 2000 and passed in Declaration C6 to governments.

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  7. Phil says:

    Does the payment require any work/effort, or just a half-hour of presence? I feel like someone’s time is only valuable (to others) to the extent that it can be used to do something concrete. Unless the person is so attractive/pleasant that just having them around for half an hour is a really useful thing, I guess.
    Does the restaurant require you to do work for them, or for someone else? If so, it just seems like a more direct, but less efficient, version of the regular, money-mediated, economy. I guess it would save some transaction costs: you don’t have to go through the difficulty of actually getting or keeping a job, but then again you have to be able to do something that somebody wants for it to really make sense.

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  8. Megan says:

    I apologize for being so thick. But how do you (or anyone) give a Thai restaurant 30 min of your time? Do you DO something like washing dishes, handing out fliers or sweeping floors? If so you are giving more than time.
    I think in the JT movie, time = your time here on earth. If a delicious Thai meal meant I died 30 min earlier…I would be tempted.

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