Time as money 

Missoula's new barter community spins an old commodity

Over the past five years, Missoula weaver Bonnie Tarses had always meant to compile an Excel spreadsheet of past clients. She felt the people who had purchased weaving kits from her or attended her regional workshops would be the ideal recipients for a monthly newsletter—something she hoped could take the place of her blog. But time passed and she simply never got around to it.

Tarses recently found herself with some extra time on her hands, though not in the traditional sense. She'd joined the new Missoula Time Bank, an online bartering community launched early last month, and had accrued several hours of credit by offering one-hour weaving lessons. So she asked a fellow Time Bank member to help her with the spreadsheet, and the task was done in less than a day.

"It's really very new," Tarses says of the Missoula Time Bank. "But what I know for sure is that something I've been procrastinating on for five years got done in an hour and a half by my putting it out on the Time Bank ... I put it out there, and right away somebody popped up, came over, picked up the hard copies and finished it."

Missoula is one of the latest additions to a list of more than 300 communities worldwide hosting active time banks. The concept originated about two decades ago with Washington, D.C., law professor Edgar Cahn, who felt the wealth of communities could just as easily be measured in time as in dollars. Time banks work on a simple notion: You donate an hour of your time providing a service or manufacturing a product for someone and register that hour with a time bank. You can then "cash in" that hour with any other member of the time bank. A computer specialist, for example, could spend an hour fixing someone's computer, then use that hour to get a massage.

Evelyn Widhalm heard about the time bank phenomenon last summer from an interview National Public Radio aired with Cahn. Widham brought up the idea for a Missoula Time Bank during a reading group with Transition Town Missoula, the local chapter of an international sustainability initiative, and asked if anyone else would be interested in helping. In a matter of weeks, she says, she and four others were gathering several times a month to make the Missoula Time Bank a reality.

"Missoula's a progressive, liberal city," Widhalm says. "It's one of the reasons I moved here. And it's very community oriented. It just seemed like a concept that would go in Missoula."

click to enlarge Bonnie Tarses teaches a weaving lesson in Arlee in 2012—one of the very services she’s now offering through Missoula’s newly established Time Bank. - BONNIE TARSES
  • Bonnie Tarses
  • Bonnie Tarses teaches a weaving lesson in Arlee in 2012—one of the very services she’s now offering through Missoula’s newly established Time Bank.

It wasn't an easy process. As Susie Clarion, one of Widhalm's fellow Time Bank founders, says, "we had to stretch ourselves." No one in the group knew quite how to secure the necessary software to start such a project, and other time banks they turned to for advice warned them that they'd eventually need a paid coordinator to keep the bank operational. They forged ahead regardless, teaming with the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center to spread the word and collect the recommended $25 donation from each Time Bank member. The Missoula Time Bank went live in early July (missoulatimebank.org), and now has roughly 50 members offering a range of services from dog walking to audio/video work to elder care. As of July 25, 153 hours had been exchanged.

"The community part of it, I think that was the most attractive part," Widhalm says. "It brings people together in a community of helping each other as neighbors. I went to Susie [Clarion] for an acupuncture treatment, and afterwards it was like, 'Oh, I don't have to pay.' It was the weirdest feeling."

"And I don't have to charge," Clarion adds, "which feels really good, because there are a lot of things we have to offer that aren't valued by the monetary system."

Clarion and Widhalm add that the Time Bank isn't a strict hour-for-hour exchange system. Members can accrue up to 25 hours without spending, or spend up to 25 hours without building any credit. The software works largely on an honor system, though Widhalm feels confident that abuse won't be a serious problem.

Clarion acknowledges that the Missoula Time Bank can only go so far in covering the needs of the community. While the intent is to take a step away from the established economy, "it also works parallel," she says. Some people may not normally be able to afford the kinds of goods and services offered by Time Bank members, but can now offer time in lieu of money. Widhalm believes the Time Bank could be particularly advantageous to unemployed or under-employed individuals in Missoula.

"You can maybe get somebody to help you write a resume, or somebody to help you get the skills to apply for a job," Widhalm says.

The Missoula Time Bank has a long way to go before it catches up with established time banks like that in Portland, Maine (1,042 members) or Dane County, Wisc. (2,153 members). But as Tarses discovered, time is a valuable commodity. She says she's always been keen on the traditional barter system. She jokes that she "wove" her divorce back in the 1970s, weaving a piece for the attorney who represented her. Those exchanges, in her worldview, aren't always direct either.

"I've always believed that if you give me something, I may not give something back directly to you, but I will give something back to somebody else," she says. "It's a bigger circle."

Tarses plans to continue building and spending credit with the Missoula Time Bank. She's already negotiating for several jars of jam from another member. Two others might help her organize a yard sale.

"It makes it easier for people to do favors they might normally do anyway," Tarses says.

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