As working life puts ever more pressure on employees, many people are finding ways to escape to alternative life styles. The Helsinki newspaper Kansan Uutiset (4 March 2001) uses an ex-foreign office expert, economist and diplomat's wife as an example of possibilities which are available for persons who have become fed up with their old life.
Pirkko Grünbaum left her job, her husband and Paris high society to sew clothes, redecorate houses, paint walls and organise parties. But she doesn't get paid in ordinary money. She is a member of what is internationally known as Local Exchange Trading System or LETS. The money her LETS network uses is called merkkari.
Grünbaum wanted only to do things in life which she enjoys. She lives in a Helsinki suburb, does not own a car and lives frugally on her savings and utilises services from other members of her LETS group. She says that she has found her kind of people in this circle.
"Just the sort of people whom I have long felt are like me. They aren't too self-important and well-organised but a little bit bohemian and not pedantic. I was fed up with being very meticulous and perfect. Now I don't have to be like that."
Grünbaum says that the best thing in her new life is that she doesn't have to socialise with uninteresting people. She spends much time in her little garden, planting flowers, digging earth and growing apple trees. Life is modest and close to nature. She is occasionally assisted by a LETS member gardener who charges a certain amount of merkkaris for the work.
Initially she found it difficult to see what services she could offer for the circle. Then she realised that even such an everyday skill like knowing which mushrooms are edible was beyond many people. Grünbaum listed this as one service she is offering. Mostly, however, she has been asked to sew and make clothes. She pointed to the dress makers' patterns on her table. She was currently making a dress for a grandchild. The amount of merkkaris she charges vary according to the difficulty of the job.
According to Kansan Uutiset, LETS started in Canada in 1982 when the west coast states suffered severe econmomic depression which threw thousands of people out of their jobs. While being out of waged work, they still wanted to do something and realised that they could do work for each other and use local money as payment. Jobs could be almost anything from child minding and sewing to watering plants and plumbing.
The first LETS group was established in Helsinki in 1995. As mentioned above, the group's money is called merkkari. In Vaasa the money is called wasa, in Kyrönmaa kyrö and in Tampere huki. There are over ten LETS circles in Finland now. One is being set up in Turku.
Local currency cannot be taken outside the system because it only exists in the circle's book keeping. Anyone can join and anyone can leave the group whenever they want as long as the resigning member balances his or her account before leaving.
Kansan Uutiset says that local currency can help in economic distress. Every second month a list of offered services is updated which is posted to members. One can thus have all sorts of services without paying real money. These include car and bicycle repair, a hair cut or mending jeans. Payment is made with a cheque which is credited to the account of the service provider and debited from the recipient's account. One can owe services to the system without incurring interest. The assumption is that members will eventually offer services even if they initially might only be getting services.
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