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A Circle of Trust

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Michael woloschinow
Michael Woloschinow
I’ve always hated the idea that the only ways to protect against emergencies are to build up a big pot of money or to deal with faceless insurance companies that don’t really care about individuals and the challenges they face. So 15 years ago, I launched a mutual security fund experiment with about a dozen friends. We dubbed the fund FIN, for Friend in Need. Fin is an old slang expression for a five dollar bill.

FIN ran successfully for about eight years. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had with money between friends. To start the fund we pooled $6,000, and then each household paid in $5 per month per person, including kids. All of us had modest incomes, so pooling our money made it possible to deal with emergencies we might not otherwise have been able to handle. FIN members could request money from the fund for any need they considered to be an emergency—what a difference from an insurance policy! If a member needed more than $50, we would either call a special meeting or we would discuss it at our next monthly gathering, depending on the urgency of the situation. At these monthly meetings we made decisions by consensus. We also enjoyed food, discussion, and singing together. If someone needed less than $50, they could simply withdraw it from the account and report it at the next meeting.

It was not always smooth sailing. At first, the more prosperous members were concerned they might be carrying us poorer folks. We spent a weekend retreat discussing this issue and decided that the high-income households were just as prone to emergencies as the low-income households. We had a fair level of trust at the beginning because we had known each other for five years or so. Also, a condition of membership required us to be open about our financial assets, liabilities, and risks. When we opened up to each other, our trust level rose considerably. Ironically, when the highest income person was laid off, he ended up drawing more from the fund than anyone because his monthly bills were higher.

Over the years, our humble little FIN paid for a child’s broken arm, for unexpected moving expenses, for emergency room visits and for replacing my stolen bike (my only vehicle). Despite a withdrawal every two or three months, the fund balance generally stayed between $5,000 and $8,000.

The monthly meetings took time, but they brought us a greater sense of security, not just from having the money available, but from the development of a caring community among us. We didn’t just throw money at problems. We often helped each other think of creative solutions. For example, we’d pitch in with child care when a member had to travel to a funeral. When my bike was stolen, members contributed spare parts they had and a member experienced in bicycle assembly scheduled a workshop and taught us how to put a bike together. As a consequence, we got to know each other in a new way, produced a bicycle and spent very little of the fund’s money.

We closed up the fund after eight years when many of the members moved to other places. The money in the fund was divided equally among the households. If we had stayed in the same locality, we had hopes of starting other circles and perhaps federating them so as to handle larger emergencies. Alas, our lives took different directions and these visions were not realized. Nonetheless, we did break down barriers in talking about our personal finances and became very supportive of each other. I believe such community-building mutual aid can be helpful any time but expecially in hard times, when many people feel their lives are filled with risk.

Charles Gray is a former sociologist, long-time peace and economic justice activist, and a simple liver. He is the author of Toward a Nonviolent Economics. For more information on how to start a FIN program in your area, Gray invites readers to contact him at Gray resides in Eugene, Oregon, with his wife, Sylvia Hart.. .

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