The economy had collapsed. Mira Luna became ill with Lyme disease, lost her job, and then gotten buried under a mountain of medical bills. She went into bankruptcy. But it wasn't more money she longed for — it was community.
That's how Luna got into the time business.
She's co-founder of Bay Area Community Exchange (BACE, www.sfbace.org), which offers a time bank, which uses work-hours as currency. Members offer goods and services, and other users "buy" them. For each hour I spend, say, teaching you French, you transfer one of your hours to me. Then I have hours with which to buy things from others.
Founded in 2009, the time bank has grown steadily, and now has 1400 members across the Bay Area.
"I had always wanted to start an alternative currency," Luna told us, "but people weren't too interested until the economy collapsed."
When Luna helped start the BACE project, it was a meeting of different groups working on alternative currencies in the Bay Area.
"Some of them have spun off, like Bernal Bucks," Luna said. Bernal Bucks is another successful alternative currency program, in which residents of Bernal Heights can get a debit card through a local bank and receive rewards when they spend money at local businesses.
Luna was interested in taking the concept one step further and she liked the egalitarian nature of the time unit. But she says most people who use the time bank haven't replaced US currency with time—they just used both.
Initially, she thought the time unit just "seemed like the easiest currency to get started." But she and other co-founders, including Ricardo Simon, have become intrigued by different dimensions and possibilities of this alternative to alternative currency.
"Not all currencies are alike. Many of them are tied to the dollar, where ours isn't at all. Ours isn't really a currency actually. Everyone's hours have the same value," Simon said.
"Everybody's hour is equal on the timebank," explained Luna. "It's worth the same whether you've gone to college for seven years or you haven't gone to college, whether you've done a lot of manual labor or not...This is a system for people who are undervalued in that traditional marketplace."
Someone living paycheck to paycheck, then, can use the timebank to get an hour-long massage.
As the timebank's website says, "Timebanks also help enrich our lives with things we may not normally be able to afford, like language lessons or massage. Spending time dollars instead of cash can help you save money for expenses like rent, medicine, and food."
But what if that massage sucks? Or, when you meet the person who offered it to you, you decide you don't want them touching you after all?
"I haven't gotten that kind of complaint," Luna said. "I think because it's not just about the service, it's about the relationship."
Users can read notes on the people they are accepting services from before they make their decision. Luna says trust mechanisms like user profiles with comments from other members and tallies of how many transactions a person has done work well for the timebank—as they have been working well for websites like Yelp, Wikipedia, and Kiva.
Speaking at last weekend's Creative Currency conference, Katherine Woo, vice president of product at Kiva, said the company was mocked when it first started. Critics said that micro-loan recipients would never pay back their lenders—now, the company sees a 98 percent payback rate.
"If you build the right trust mechanisms into the system, people believe," Woo said.