Local exchange trading systems are also known as Lets for short. Another sort of trading system you'll come across are time banks (as is my local trading system). Both are schemes that allow people to trade services for some sort of credit rather than money. Barter instead of cash, sort of.
These systems are ideal for those short on cash, and for frugal families but they also form a great structure for community support. You do need to make sure that you've got the time to spare though. And keep in mind that they're not about getting something for free.
Lets and time banks are a new way of doing what people used to always do in the past - essentially it is neighbours helping neighbours. As such, many of these systems are also a great way of getting to know people and participating in the local community. Especially useful if you have moved to a new city or area.
Your inner trader
This is how it works. You do something, anything that you're good at for another member. It might be setting up a web page, walking a dog, DIY or baking a cake. In exchange you'll get credits that you can then spend on the services or goods offered by other members in the scheme.
Sounds like a great idea in theory, but does it work in practice? PlayPennies mum of one Rachel works part time, three days a week. "I joined our local time bank because it sounded like a great idea. Every penny counts at the moment. I'm sad to say though that so far I haven't had the time to do anything. I haven't even read the directory. My husband has pitched in with a couple of things though - he's a lawyer and a keen gardener. We've donated a little bit of legal advice, and tomato plants! In return we got our fireplace fitted, which actually cost us a few more credits than we had. My husband is tied up in a big project now, so I have to find something on there I can do to make it up. For me that's the main downside as I've not got a lot of spare time, if any to be honest."
Under many systems users can start by requesting services rather than performing them. However, the used credits do have to be paid back. And it is the scheme that is owed the credits, never the person providing the service.
Lets vs time bank
According to the Times newspaper the main difference between Lets and time banks is their 'currency' system. "Lets tend to operate in more affluent areas than time banks. The 300 or so British examples are run by members and exist as friendship networks as much as alternative economies. Each uses a named notional currency - “readies” in Reading, for instance, and “concrete cows” (CCs) in Milton Keynes - equivalent to the pound for tax purposes."
So with Lets, services are given a value. You'll be charged more credits for carpentry than you would for ironing, for example. Time banks, on the other hand deal exclusively in time. "An hour of work, whatever it is, costs and earns one tax-free time credit." Possibly for this reason you tend to find time banks in more impoverished areas. The Rushey Green Time Bank in Lewisham, south east London, has found that the "most common exchanges are in DIY, garden work, cooking and dog-walking".
Local community, global phenomenon
There are hundreds of Lets around the UK, with the system available in countries around the world including Australia, New Zealand, France and the US where it all started. Time banks were the brainchild of former US civil rights lawyer Edgar Cahn. They now exist internationally as well, and are an increasing presence in the UK.
Cahn had a desire to establish an economic return to community values. Time banks are designed to achieve this. As he explained to the Guardian while visiting the UK "Every capacity that has enabled our species to survive, such as caring for each other, relying on each other, has become excluded from our economic system. I realised that there was no way to build communities we wanted to live in if we didn't completely reassess our value system and start rewarding human as well as financial contributions."
One downside of Lets and time banks is that there is no guarantee. If a scheme folds then it ceases to exist. You will lose any credits or time credits held in the scheme. For this reason, members of Lets and time banks are advised to never take on jobs that they are not willing, and able, to do free of charge.
How to find a Lets or time bank? Using the internet of course! For a directory of Lets in the country, and to learn more about the schemes, visit Letslink UK. The website for Time Banking UK is well worth spending some time on. It includes a number of videos showing time banks in action and various time bank events.
Have you got a barter scheme in your area? Maybe it is something you started yourself. Many canny parents have clubbed together, for example, to provide babysitting services. Share your experiences here and tell us what you think!