An hour is an hour is an hour: Time-based trade network creates cash-free economy

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PORTLAND — Charlene Roberts Erlebach’s eyes brightened when she recalled her wedding day.

“The flower girl baskets were just beautiful, with little ribbons and rosettes, they were so pretty,” the Brunswick bride gushed. “We actually did pictures twice, once on the actual wedding day and then a week later, Josh and I got all dressed up in our wedding clothes and went down to Cape Elizabeth with a different photographer. It was really fun, we got to go down to the beach and run around in the sand, my dress was already dirty so I didn’t care.”

Anyone who has hired a wedding photographer knows that they are not inexpensive. But because the Erlebachs were members of Hour Exchange Portland, they didn’t pay a dime to have their pictures taken. And it wasn’t just the photography that didn’t cost them any cash.

The DJ, the wedding coordinator, the chair rentals, even the hall where the wedding took place was paid for with “time dollars.”.

“I think all together the wedding probably cost us around 30 hours,” said Roberts Erlebach. “When we were planning the wedding, I knew I wanted to use time dollar members as much as I could because combined, Josh and I have six kids so we were on a pretty limited budget.”

In these precarious economic times many people are finding it difficult to come up with the cash to pay for the things they want and need, much less the mortgage. However, just because the economy is in a bit of a slump does not mean you have to be.

By utilizing time-based trade networks like Hour Exchange Portland, people are trading everything from Japanese language lessons to Portland Stage Company tickets, easily, legally and with no money involved. And they are getting to know their neighbors while they’re at it.

Hour Exchange Portland is a service exchange based on “time dollars.” It is a non-profit organization ran by a small group of dedicated people. “Equality” is one of the core values at the Hour Exchange – whether it is an hour of web design or an hour of snow shoveling, an hour is an hour. As soon a member of the Hour Exchange provides one hour of whatever service they provide, that member then has an hour that he or she can buy from a pool of more than 600 other members.

“My father once told me, you can always make more money but you can never make more time,” said Lesley Jones, creative director at Hour Exchange Portland.

A recent exchange went something like this:

The Community Television Network (a member) owns gallery space on Congress Street. During a First Friday art walk they allowed a local artist (who is also a member) to display artwork for four hours. CTN then used the four hours they earned for four hours of cleaning services. The cleaner then used her four hours earned on four hours of energy healing classes. The teacher of those classes then used the four hours he earned to get help remodeling his bathroom.

“We are kind of like a huge spider web,” Jones said. “If someone over there has something that someone over here needs, we make that connection.”

This means of exchange is becoming very popular; last year more than 20,000 hours were exchanged. Services from auto repair and cello lessons to house cleaning and acupuncture, were exchanged tax free and money free. (There are no taxes because the government views time exchange as a “friendly favor.” There is no cash or legal contract involved; only time, and time cannot be taxed.)

It took Roberts Erlebach and her husband Josh about six months to save up enough hours to pay for their wedding. She did everything from burning compact discs to house painting to earn hours, while her husband did mostly handyman work.

“I went with him one time when he was fixing an elderly lady’s steps and I just sat and talked with her the whole time, it was like she was so lonely and just really needed some companionship at the same time,” Roberts Erlebach said. “Another nice thing about the Hour Exchange is that it makes it easier for people to ask for help, because you’re actually paying for that help with the time dollars you have earned.”

Ed Collom, associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern Maine, has researched complementary currencies and time banks like the Hour Exchange. Collom’s desk is surrounded by books and stacks of papers. There is a Rage Against the Machine poster tacked on the wall behind him.

“A lot of the informal support networking of communities that was around for a long time is really disintegrating, there is less trust, and fewer people actually know their neighbors,” Collom said. “In flexible global capitalism, people are much more likely to move in search of work than in the past, so they are just less rooted in their communities.”

According to the surveys that Collom has done with Hour Exchange members, people join for all sorts of reasons. Some join out of a need to get services that they cannot afford, others have political motivations, but the majority of people join because they just want to meet people in their community and build what Collom calls “social capital.”

“It takes economic transactions and makes them more personable, instead of walking into a nameless, faceless store and throwing some money down on the counter and walking out, you are actually interacting with a person, so it is more meaningful,” he said.

Monique Bidwell is a cook by day and the lead singer for local funk/soul group Murray’s Rule by night. She is also a nine-year member of the Hour Exchange and proud mother of Eleanor, the first “time-dollar baby.”

“In 2003 my daughter was born and when I had her my midwives were accepting time dollars, so Eleanor has the distinction of being the first time-dollar baby,” Bidwell said, sitting outside the North Star Cafe on Munjoy Hill, where she had played a gig the night before. “Right now we’re brainstorming things she can be doing to earn time dollars. She is a great little artist and storyteller. I think the day that the first time-dollar baby earns a time dollar is going to be really exciting, perfect-circle type of thing.”

Bidwell also paid for many of the services at her wedding with time dollars, including the DJ, bartender and even the notary. And when the Bidwell family bought a house last year, they had an energy audit and weatherization done through the hour exchange.

“That would have cost us like $300 anywhere else and we got it for two time dollars,” she said.

Bidwell earns her time dollars primarily by playing gigs at events and cooking for people. But she has done everything from child care to laying floor tiles.

“For a lot of people I think the reason they join is actually to use the skills that they have that they are not using to make money,” she said. “It’s a way for people to use their different talents and to be a appreciated for them.”

Charlene Roberts Erlebach of Brunswick and her flower girl, Meaghan Erlebach, in a wedding photo by David Merritt. Erlebach paid Merritt with “time dollars” earned through Hour Exchange Portland.

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Monique Bidwell, right, is a cook by day and a singer by night. She is also a nine-year member of the Hour Exchange and proud mother of Eleanor, left, who Bidwell calls the first “time-dollar baby.”