ALLENTOWN - No money? No problem! Pay with time, instead.
That's what Maria Villacreses did when the economy put a hitch in her wedding plans: She used "time dollars" on a wedding-day makeover, an elaborate seven-layer cake, and other expenses.
In a modern twist on the ancient practice of barter, people such as Villacreses are joining time banks to help them get the things they need or want without having to spend cash.
In a time bank, members get credit for services they provide to other members, from cooking to housekeeping to car rides to home repair. For each hour of work, one time dollar is deposited in a member's account for services offered by other members.
Scores of time banks are being started in hard-hit communities around the nation - and thousands of devotees are helping one another survive tough financial times.
"Even though we were planning to do something small and simple [for the wedding], it takes a lot of money, time and effort. Through time banking, I got a lot of help," said Villacreses, who belongs to Community Exchange, a 10-year-old Allentown time bank in which 500 members offer everything from electrical work to tai chi.
As unemployment remains stubbornly high, newer banks with names like Back On Track have joined Community Exchange in offering an alternative to cash. Time Banks USA, an advocacy group in Washington, says interest in time banking has surged: About 115 operate nationwide, with 100 more in early stages of development. Membership fluctuates but is believed to total more than 15,000.
"People see time banking as a way to deal with the economic pressures they are feeling," especially in places hit hardest by the recession, said Jen Moore, membership and outreach coordinator for Time Banks USA.
In Maine, where paper mills and shoe manufacturers have closed, time dollars buy everything from guitar lessons to yard work. In California, they buy haircuts, tax help and aromatherapy. In Michigan, one can buy child care, plumbing, and yoga.
In South Carolina, Back on Track Charleston was launched recently to help down-on-their-luck residents. It's already got 80 members.
Winborne Evans relies on Back on Track for babysitting while she picks up extra shifts as a waitress. She's also using time dollars, which she earns by sitting for other members' children, to help get her fledgling beekeeping business off the ground.
"Becoming a single mom recently . . . I truly can't imagine where I would be without it, mostly because I can't afford a babysitter, and I can't afford to pay people to help me with my bees," said Evans, 29.
Unlike bartering, transactions in time banking are not usually reciprocal. Instead, Jane babysits for John, John fixes Mary's leaky faucet, Mary drives Tom to the doctor's office, and so on, all of them earning and spending time dollars. Their labor is valued equally: One hour is always worth one time dollar, which are not taxable, according to Time Banks USA.
"Part of it is very practical," said Judith Lasker, a professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem. "There's another part of it that's very ideological. People believe the best way to survive in this crazy, unpredictable world is to . . . support local people in a variety of ways."