How to Print Your Own Money, Build Community & Not Get Arrested by the Feds


photo: Jason Houston/Berkshares

I want anyone who's got a joke on the tip of their tongue about 'monopoly money' to put it out of their mind. Printing your own local community currency is a perfectly legitimate thing to do—you can't make your own local coins but bills are legal, at least in the US—and can be a great way to encourage shopping at local businesses. It doesn't replace federal printed currency, but augments it by getting people to make the practical and symbolic gesture of supporting local businesses before national chains.

Think it's tough to get started, to convince businesses to accept the currency and for people to attach value to it, you may be right. But here are a few examples of places which have taken their local monetary system into their own hands:Ithaca Hours: Ithaca, New York Region
Around since 1991, Ithaca Hours has been called the "original" hour-based scrip. When founded the average hourly wage in the region was $10, so that was decided to be the baseline to establish the currency. The idea in choosing 'hours' as the name for the currency is to remind people that money is "in addition to being a medium of exchange for commodities, [it] represents someone's labor, the time taken to provide a skill or perform a service. Your time is worth something to someone else".

Currently Ithaca Hours has about 600 members, and has to date put about US$100,000 worth of Ithaca Hours into circulation.

More: Ithaca Hours

image: Toronto Dollar
Toronto Dollars: Toronto, Canada
Dating back to 1998, the Toronto Dollar is valued on par with the Canadian Dollar. Accepted at over 150 businesses the idea behind them is similar to all local currencies: "Strengthening the local economy and supporting new businesses; keeping your money working and circulating locally; bringing decisions-making back to community."

Toronto Dollars are available in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 dollars, and contain similar security features to prevent counterfeiting as any nationally circulating currency. Interestingly, Toronto Dollars are printed by the same company which prints Canadian federal currency.

Toronto Dollars also have a charitable component: 10% of Canadian Dollars exhanged for Toronto Dollars is put aside into a Community Fund which then gives out grants to community partners.

More: Toronto Dollar

image: Lawrence.com
REAL Dollars: Lawrence, Kansas
Begun in 2000, REAL dollars (which stands for Realizing Economic Alternatives in Lawrence) were issued in denominations of 1, 3, and 10 dollars with pictures of local Lawrence celebrities on them (William S. Burroughs, Langston Hughes to name two). Now no longer regularly circulating, the REAL dollar of Lawrence, Kansas shows some of the problems with establishing a local currency.

In an interview with Lawrence.com, REAL dollar creator Boog Highberger pointed out two practical obstacles all such currency have to face: 1) Modern businesses don't have as much use for cash as they once did—how many places don't accept credit or debit cards? Not many; and 2) Modern businesses rarely go to local suppliers anymore.

As Highberger said at the time, "If we revitalize [REAL dollars] what we need to do is institute some kind of banking system (that would allow users to debit or credit their accounts)."

Which is just what BerkShares is planning on doing...


BerkShares: Western Massachusetts
Launched in the fall of 2006, BerkShares circulate in the Berkshire region of Western Massachusetts. By some estimates BerkShares is largest circulating local currency in the world, with two million Berkshares issued to date. Bills are issued in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50. Currently some 350 businesses accept the currency and 5 different banks offer exchange services at 12 locations. BerkShare checking accounts, ATMs and loans are planned.

According to their website, here's how using BerkShares benefits the local economy:

Everyone benefits from using BerkShares. Consumers benefit from receiving a 10% discount on purchases. Businesses benefit from increased patronage. Local non-profit organizations can also benefit by purchasing BerkShares at the 10% discount rate and selling them at full face value to their supporters.

It will take citizens working in their own communities, region by region, to create the kind of systemic change that will lead to sustainable economic practices—practices that foster ecologically responsible production of goods and a more equitable distribution of wealth.  Local currencies are a tool to bring about such change.  BerkShares are about building community while building the local economy.

More on BerkShares: Local Currency for the Berkshire Region


Though these are just four examples of different ways to local currency programs can operate, the EF Schumacher Society has a listing of local currency programs throughout the world, both currently operating, planned and defunct. There are programs throughout the US, in Canada, Mexico, the UK, and Europe (including one that operates in Switzerland which trades against both the Swiss Franc and the Euro).

They also have plenty of resources for communities wanting to start printing their own money, as well as essays and book excerpts on the philosophy behind doing so and the legal principles involved.


image: Lawrence.comLangston Hughes graces the 10 REAL Dollars note
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Tags: Canada | Communities | Economics | Kansas | Massachusetts | Toronto | United States

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