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The Best Last-Minute Gift: Your Time

Timebanking, created in the 1970s, may be an idea whose time has finally come.


At a time when Americans in particular are questioning what has gone wrong in our society, what has happened to our communities, where our humanity has gone, the notion of timebanking feels comforting and old-timey. It has taken many forms since its inception more than 25 years ago, but the gist of it is this: You deposit a certain number of hours doing whatever it is you can offer to do (childcare, design, home repairs, gardening, tutoring, you name it), and in exchange you get to benefit from hours of someone else's time.

Granted, in our grandparents' day, these sorts of exchanges may not have needed a bank. When my grandma left meals out on her front steps for hobos during the Depression she wasn't expecting them to pay her back by doing chores, nor was there a third-party broker negotiating pies for lawn mowing. Nonetheless, it feels like a tentative step away from some of the uglier trappings of modernity and toward using modern innovation to create a more traditional community.


In a recent article about whether timebanking is an idea whose time has finally come, Edgar Cahn, father of the time bank movement and founder of TimeBanks USA, wrote, "Long before the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Time Bank movement represented a determination to take a stand for a more equitable, inclusive economic order. We wanted to demonstrate that a different kind of money could exist alongside the dollar, generating a different set of exchange transactions."

Cahn goes on to list countless examples of how timebanking has been used to improve communities throughout the country, from helping prisoners re-enter society to helping the elderly keep on top of household chores. In Washington, DC, teenagers have been earning time credits for the past decade by serving as jurors in the Time Dollar Youth Court, which hears the cases of peers accused of nonviolent crimes. Offenders may be sentenced to community service, life skills classes, an apology, writing an essay, or duty on the jury. Recidivism rates are less than 10 percent; the Urban Institute estimates that the District saves $9,000 for every offender who goes to Youth Court instead of the traditional system.

Getting into time banking doesn't have to be anything so official, though. Last month, at the Etsy pop-up store in Manhattan, socially responsible design agency Imperative hosted a holiday-themed time bank that enabled shoppers to give friends and family the gift of time--a massage in some cases, dinner or rides for grandma in others. The average amount of time gifted was more than 5 hours.

"At one point we had to put up a sign that said 'Free,' because people were confused at first," says Imperative founding partner Kyla Fullenwider. "But then they realized, 'Oh, I have this whole other thing I can give. People don’t think about their own value or capacity to give."

The experiment worked so well that Imperative has turned their Etsy screen printed time gift certificates into an ongoing online tool. Stuck for a last-minute gift? Go here to give the gift of time. And if you think your community could use a time bank, Time Banks USA has everything you need to get started. Welcome to the future past.

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