Will Clean for Food! Are You Ready for Time Banking?

Swap your skills for a service you need. There will be an app for that.

After falling into the habit of spending many consecutive hours in my kitchen on Sundays, cooking one large meal, creating a different soup each week, and prepping for at least two more meals for the upcoming week, I realized how happy I was to spend time in my kitchen. I’ve always known how much I’d rather cook than clean, and I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: I would try to find someone who would clean my house if I cooked for them. I had all the details worked, how many meals I’d make and have in foil containers for freezing, how I would cater to the person’s food preferences.

I figured there would be bartering sites for this, and lo, there is. But when I visited them, they made me feel very, very dirty. They all seemed like they were thinly veiled sexual hook-up sites, and bizarrely, so many dentists were offering free check-ups and cleanings, I just kept getting images of the sadist from Little Shop of Horrors.

So, I tried Facebook. I posted food-porn pics of the meals I made my own family, and (I hoped) seductively described dishes. People were “liking” my posts, but no one took me up on the cooking-for-cleaning exchange, and I let the idea fall away.

But now, my charming town of Collingswood may come to the rescue: Time banking is coming to town.

Time banking, essentially bartering your skills in exchange for services you need, has been around since at least the mid-1990s, it seems like this is an idea whose time has come. The economy may be partially to blame, but the recent growth to 60 official time banks serving 11,000 people can be attributed to our specialized society as well. We might as well do what we’re good at, whether it’s building Ikea furniture or math tutoring.

For Collingswood, a place with small-town values and big-city diversity, the idea of interconnectedness among its residents is very much in keeping with how people here see themselves and, maybe more importantly, how Collingswood residents want to see themselves.

Kim Fusco is a Collingswood resident trying to get the exchange started. She lived in Spain for several years, and while there, she saw an interdependency she believes Collingswood has too. Kim sees Collingswood residents as already having an “organic acceptance of depending upon one another.” The idea of building a Time Bank in a community seems much more possible since trust is easily built when someone you know already knows the someone you might allow inside your home.

Like Kim, for me the idea of a level playing field is what makes this all so compelling: The lawyer and the accountant and the roofer and the cook and the gardener and the housecleaner are equalized. Our time is equally valuable. She sees many pockets of interest in like-minded people, and says that of the 15 people who came to the first meeting, which she did little to promote, many were representing entire groups of residents who are interested, like mothers’ groups, and Proud Neighbors. Just as she hoped, the people who came to the initial info session were made up of various ages, ethnicities and walks of life.

Though time banking isn’t the same as volunteerism, one woman already expressed worries about groups with specific needs, like the elderly in the Collingswood Arms who might need someone to run errands for them. But the elderly themselves might have forgotten or neglected skills to barter. Though the time-bank system is also not about self-promotion, incidents like a plumber banking his first two hours of services but then getting referrals for other, larger jobs are not uncommon.

To me, this whole concept would work like a family unit organically does: One person is good at directions, one person is a great gift wrapper. But this system is better. You’re only going to do the tasks you sign up to do, and then be able to take a pass on a task you’d rather avoid. See? No resentment!

Of course, there’s an app (being developed) for that, a Penn State professor, Jack Carroll, received $997,553 from the NSF to make it happen. The app would make administration even easier and allow real-time requests for things like getting a ride home when your car breaks down, or moving an unexpected yard sale sofa purchase. With smartphones, we already know where everybody is almost all the time. We might as well see if anyone needs us to pick up diapers (or batteries, or milk, or topsoil) while we’re there.