Get bartering with Thistles
The cashless economy is not all hippie talk — the concept is a hit across Scotland, writes Lucy Sweet
‘I make aromatherapy products like soaps and moisturisers, rent out the spare room, lend camping equipment and sewing machines, do childcare if necessary . . .” Elspeth Barker is listing the goods and services she offers in exchange for Thistles, a form of currency only recognised by a small group of people in North Fife.
For Barker, an academic with a part-time consultancy job, money is, literally, no object. She is part of the Local Exchange Trading Scheme, or Lets, an informal economy that replaces hard cash with a bartering system based on the shared skills and resources of the local community.
The idea might seem like a theoretically good but ultimately flawed 1960s hippie scam, but an increasing number of professionals are latching onto these schemes, which have been running successfully across the UK for years.
Barker is just one of many people who are finding out that a bit of give and take can go a very long way. In fact, she has just returned from a holiday in a cottage in Sardinia — which didn’t cost her a penny in cash.
“I have children, so Lets is a good way to pay for things I wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford,” says Barker. “My holiday has just cost me 200 Thistles which I can now pay back over time. It doesn’t matter if I go into debt — I can build my credit up again in a few months.”
Lets currency, which in Scotland can be called a Thistle, a Scotia or simply a Let, varies from place to place and works as a form of IOU. It can be exchanged for anything from car maintenance to a manicure. Each member has an account, which allows them to accumulate Lets which they can then spend within the community.
The exchange rate varies — gardening costs roughly six Lets an hour but, as the scheme is based on trust, prices are negotiable and certain jobs and services can be paid half in real money and half in favours.
The scheme has been around in various forms since 1989, and there are 26 networks currently operating in Scotland, from Inverness to Glasgow and Edinburgh. This more sophisticated equivalent of Bob A Job hardly seems like the sort of thing doctors and lawyers would join, but they are exactly the type of people who are turning to the scheme to solve the problems of life in the 21st century. The fact that many of us are living miles away from our families (free babysitting, gardening and DIY), and that we are too time-poor to waste an hour or two trying to find a decent plumber has led to a swelling of the ranks of Lets members in recent years.
“If you’ve got a good network of people and a good lifestyle and you’re satisfied, then you wouldn’t need the scheme,” says Barker. “But there are a lot of people who aren’t in that position today. Childcare has always been a problem for me and if you don’t have family and friends to help out, it’s difficult. Lets is also a social thing, and for a lot of people that’s even more important than the trading.”
“It comes down to what you need,” says Stewart Noble, a former estate agent, who became a Lets convert after the recession hit in the late 1980s. Noble now helps run the largest Lets in the country, which involves 400 families in his hometown of Forres, near Elgin. “Practical people often need professional people to help with computers or paperwork, and professional people need practical people to fix the taps. It’s like a swap club.”
Noble is keen to point out the civic benefits of Lets. Elderly people with mobility problems no longer have to pay the council to send someone out to change a lightbulb. Lets currency “percolates” throughout the community and, because there is little point in stashing your IOUs under the mattress, the currency stays within the group.
“You can’t hoard it,” says Noble. “And you can’t buy drugs or whisky with it either.” Noble, who was in charge of the scheme in Forres for seven years and continues to provide support, talks about Lets with almost evangelical zeal, emphasising the importance of local skills and traditions. “I don’t want my money used on sending people to Mars,” he says.
All this community caring might be a nice idea, but isn’t it a bit backward? What about the frivolous things in life — the clothes, missions to Mars and strawberry frappuccinos you can put on your credit card and forget about? Do all prospective Lets members have to swap the transient joys of capitalism for bags of potatoes and charity shop jumpers?
“There are people who choose to live on nuts and berries, but we don’t have to,” laughs Noble. “I’m certainly not anti-capitalist. I just don’t want to be a slave to debt. I live on 60% money and 40% Lets. I just don’t need money for local things any more because my house, children, entertainment, haircuts, massages and vegetables are taken care of.”
Similarly, Barker says she didn’t take up Lets in a battle against the evils of capitalism. “I came at it in a more intellectual way,” she says. “I studied Lets as part of my PhD and got interested in the concept through that. Once I got really into it, I could see how much it could offer to people.”
Lets schemes usually begin organically, involving small groups of like-minded people, and grow through word of mouth. The north Fife scheme that Barker is involved in began 11 years ago and includes 50-75 active members.
Individual groups have their own systems and currencies, and all members and their skills, from drawing cartoons to fixing fridges, are listed in the Lets directory, which Noble describes as “a more helpful version of the Yellow Pages.”
As Lets are not a recognised form of currency, members don’t have to pay tax on their informal earnings, and the scheme is open to all. The Forres project has careworkers, musicians and Swedish essential oil merchants among its ranks. Barker is often too busy to do her Lets duties, and members of the group don’t always have to be active participants.
It would be easy but misguided to dismiss Lets participants as worthy do-gooders and tree-huggers. This alternative form of money has advantages that appear genuinely to provide a degree of financial liberation. In the Lets scheme, there is no such thing as bad debt. Barker says if she allows her account to slide into the red, she is gently encouraged by a member to make up her credits, rather than hounded by loan company heavies. For Noble, too, the scheme helps claw back some financial independence, as well as being a way to get acquainted with the neighbours.
“When I was working in property, I was on the road constantly,” says Noble. “I didn’t even know who my neighbours were. I decided it was an unhealthy way to live.” In contrast to the majority, who feel a sense of dread every time a credit card bill arrives, Noble says he no longer has any fears concerning money. Slipping in to evangelical mode again, he enthuses: “Lets is my life raft. I know that I can open the directory and get anything I need without having to have money. It’s simple and it is fantastic.”
For more information, visit www.gmlets.u-net.com
Source: Sunday Times, www.timesonline.co.uk