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MONEY SECRETS OF THE AMISH
Finding True Abundance in Simplicity, Sharing, and Saving
By LORILEE CRAKER
Copyright © 2011 Lorilee Craker
All right reserved.
1. Upside Down....................1
2. UWMW: Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make Do, or Do Without....................9
3. Don't Eat the Marshmallow: Learning Delayed Gratification....................31
4. Pay on Time....................47
5. Rethinking Gifts....................55
7. Operation De-spoil the Kids....................91
8. Repurpose, Recycle, and Reuse....................105
9. Dead Horses Smell Bad, but Debt Smells Even Worse....................121
10. Shopping Secondhand....................133
11. To Bulk or Not to Bulk?....................159
12. Amish Foodies or Frugal Feinschmeckers....................175
13. Bartering: I'll Trade You This Cow for a Bunch of Rugs....................195
14. The Best Things in Life Are Free....................211
About the Author....................224
Chapter One UPSIDE DOWN
Bishop Eli King is a formidable character.
Renowned in Lancaster County as one of the most conservative, by-the-book bishops in the area, Bishop Eli gives off the air of someone who rules a small dictatorship, and not just sixty or so families in his two districts.
For one, he looks just like Abraham Lincoln with his canny-looking, deep-set eyes, prominent chin, and antique beard and clothes. Abe Lincoln with a bowl cut, that is. Rumor has it that Eli will put the Bann (excommunication) on you for putting one toe over the Ordnung, the written and unwritten rules of the Amish.
I'm a little scared of him already, and we've only just begun our chat. It doesn't help that I'm perched delicately on the rim of a bathtub, in the middle of a construction site where Eli works.
The only way he would agree to meet with me is if I questioned him during his lunch hour, as he didn't want to take time away from his employer. Coated with carpentry dust, munching an egg salad sandwich, he accepted my thanks for making time during his lunch break. "Being taught to love work makes all the difference," he said, taking another bite. "There's not much spare time when the budget is tight."
The truth is, the budget has been tight for Eli and his People. Even though overall the Amish have hunkered down and weathered the economic hailstorm of the past couple of years much better than the rest of us, they haven't been completely insulated.
According to Amish expert Erik Wesner, author of Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive, the People have felt the decreased demand that comes in a downturn. "A decline in business can trickle down through the community and even affect those businesses that are strictly 'Amish-oriented,'" he said. "So for example, instead of buying a new buggy for your soon-to-be-sixteen-year-old son for a few thousand dollars from the local Amish carriage shop, you might be more inclined to pick one up at the auction for half that."
Adapting to shaky financial times is something the Amish do extremely well. Instead of buying new buggies, they'll buy used. Jake the Builder will remodel old homes instead of constructing new ones. One Plain housewife I spoke to said that when times are tight, she'll substitute maple syrup (tapped from her own trees, of course) for sugar in her baking and cooking. Wesner tells of a sawmill owner who switched to vegetable oil—acquired free as a throwaway product from local restaurants—to substitute for diesel, amounting to a thousand-dollar monthly savings.
The Amish are resourceful, to be sure, but there's much more to their money success than that.
Why have they managed to do so well, even in the midst of the recession? Eli offered some insights:
"We scrape the bottom of the barrel more than most," Bishop Eli told me, with an Amishman's gift for understatement, and a rather un-Amish, zealous grin.
"When I grew up," he continued, "my parents didn't have more than the necessities. We were taught that when we go away from the plate, it is empty. Today, there is so much wasted food.
"Waste not, want not," he concluded, polishing off the last morsel of his sandwich.
On debt, he had this to say: "Ya gotta make up what you don't have; don't borrow it."
On eating out: "We frown upon eating at restaurants." (Many Amish eat out occasionally, but apparently not under Eli's oversight.)
On the Amish work ethic: "We work with our hands so we can help the poor; the Bible says to."
Eli expressed concern about the immoderate spending habits now creeping into Plain life and community. "Money is our biggest danger," he said, stabbing a finger in the air. "Too much leads to foolish spending, fancy foods."
By the time we were ready to wrap up our chat, I felt that Eli had warmed up to me, and I to him. Sure, he's kind of extreme, but I feel that he's a nice man, despite his severe pronouncements.
"I see you're wearing buttons there, Eli," I teased. "I thought buttons were verboten."
He grinned—a wide and blazing grin—and yanked open the top part of his shirt. I nearly fell into the bathtub.
The underside of his shirt revealed Velcro inserts. "I fooled ya, didn't I?"
The Amish, I was to learn, are full of surprises.
Four Hundred Thousand Dollars!
Amos certainly surprised me. The forty-five-year-old farmer had saved four hundred thousand dollars over the course of twenty years, while renting a farm and raising fourteen children. When I visited Amos and his wife, Fern, and their beautiful family, I looked for signs of stinginess, of a wife and children suffering somehow under the regime of a tight-fisted, straw-hatted Scrooge.
No one seems deprived; in fact, just the opposite. Amos and Fern's adorable children have a calmness and peace that I find striking and appealing. The Millers are a happy, thriving family, and Amos is a kind, loving father, who smiled fondly at his little ones as they climbed on and off his lap during our interviews. Fern told me that she's been checking out the fliers, looking for a sale on trampolines; this summer the little Millers are going to be bouncing and flipping to their hearts' content.
I tried every journalistic trick in the book to get Amos to impart pearls of wisdom, but it finally came down to this: "As far as our 'money secrets,' these are values handed down for generations—we can't take credit," he said.
And he's partly right. Thrift, common sense, wise money management, delayed gratification, etc., are taught from the time wee Moses and Mary are knee-high to a grasshopper. Amos can't boast about being thrifty any more than a child born into an Amish home could brag about knowing how to speak Pennsylvania Dutch. Money lessons are learned from the start of life.
Though he won't accept credit, Amos is definitely doing something right, and has been doing it—with Fern's help—for the last two decades.
Basically, Amos doesn't really know what he's done that's so remarkable. (The Plain humility is one more way the Amish are radically countercultural.)
"I've been around them a long time," said Banker Bill, "and the main thing that sets them apart, money-wise, is their values. They are upside down."
Kind of like the topsy-turvy English translation of some Dietsch sentences, like: "Jakie, throw Grampop down the stairs his hat." Or, "Ida, outten the light and make the door shut." And one more: "Buzzy, did you come over the hill down?"
It makes you wonder, just as we get the visual of poor Grampop lying on his head at the bottom of the stairs, just which culture has things wrong side up?
When compared to our Englisher money bungles, the Amish way of wealth is a whole inverted lifestyle of thrift, self-control, carefulness, sharing, and community. It's a curious prosperity—a rootedness, simplicity, and a step back to "quaint" money values—that goes way beyond debt-free living.
My peek at the Amish and their upside-down ways convinced me: they turn us Fancy folk on our excessive, over-leveraged heads.
So how do we get turned right side up again?
The Amish can't teach us one golden piece of money wisdom that will help us live happy, contented lives while slowly but surely amassing gobs of cash like Amos did. On the contrary, there are about a dozen financial habits—money secrets—that we can pick up from folks like Amos (and Bishop Eli, Ephraim, Sadie, Naomi, et al.), spokes in a wheel that has been turning smoothly for centuries.
Hanging out with Amish folk such as Amos, I finally learned to pay attention to their habits and practices more than their words.
There was the old shovel, perfectly usable, with a piece of steel welded onto the handle, lying in the front flower bed ("You and I would have bought a new shovel a long time ago," Banker Bill pointed out). "We try and repair what we can," Amos said with a shrug.
Fern buys flour and sugar and other staples in fifty-pound bags from the Amish bulk food store, eliminating the middleman and saving scads over the years.
And as cherished as Lizzie, Eli, Katie, Sadie, and the rest are to their parents, Amos and Fern do not spoil them with a lot of extras. "We don't buy them whatever they want," Amos said.
When the work is done and the cows are milked, the Millers have fun together, playing badminton and making soft pretzels and homemade ice cream. The gentle tempo of their simple lifestyle seemed like soothing music to me.
Amos, you may not be willing to give yourself a pat on the back, but I give you all the credit in the world. Now all we have to do is figure out how to apply your tips (or "non-tips," as it were) to our own lives, and we'll be on our way to standing financially upright once again.
Chapter Two UWMW: USE IT UP, WEAR IT OUT, MAKE DO, OR DO WITHOUT
It took creativity, duct tape, and some stuffing of shame, but our bashed-in, totaled minivan looks pretty good.
It's my best example of "making do," one of the Amish community's most fantastic ways of saving money.
"Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without," said Andy, the Amish boat cover maker, with a big smile. He's not the first guy to spout that maxim, but the Plain folk really take it to heart, and so they save big.
The Amish are keen menders, going to great lengths to fix what is broken, patch what is torn, and repair what is repairable.
I like the dictionary definition of mend: "to restore something to satisfactory condition," or "to improve something or make it more acceptable." But that's not the American way.
We ladies and gentlemen of the World often think nothing of chucking our less-than-fabulous cars/clothes/ furniture/you name it and replacing them with new cars/ clothes/furniture at the first sign of wear and tear. We like our things to be new and shiny, because most people are essentially like birds. (Yes, birds, flapping our wings excitedly whenever we spy something glossy and gleaming.) And after watching the Amish, and seeing their patched pants, darned socks, refurbished equipment, and even mended fences, I realized I was being a bit of a birdbrain myself by not "making do" much more often.
I can't sew on a button (though I learned to thread a needle in Pioneer Girls years ago), and I'm about as handy as the cast of The Real Housewives of New York City. But I did find out that I was pretty darn dexterous with a roll of tape.
Besides, making do is more of a mental exercise anyway. Can I emotionally deal with a wood-paneled microwave, a camera that's been dropped one too many times, or the world's ugliest tray tables? That was the real question.
So I took stock, listing things in my home that had more "wear" left in them, and committed to making them last. But it wasn't long before my main revamp project became abundantly clear. One morning, on my way to the bank, I was rear-ended by a genius in a conversion van, yapping away on his cell phone. Well, he rear-ended a guy in an SUV—with tow hooks poking out the front—and that guy rear-ended me.
Boom! Crunch! Ugh.
Other than a little whiplash and a seriously shaken psyche (I have a little PTSD from previous, serious car accidents), I was okay. But the van, a 2000 Oldsmobile Silhouette, was definitely on the bubble. It was never going to win a beauty contest anyway, but now the vehicle was uglier than sin, pockmarked with two twin holes in the back bumper, where the SUV driver's tow hooks had punctured them.
Surprisingly, it was still drivable, and I drove off to the banker anyway.
Soon we learned that our trusty white van was totaled. I immediately thought this meant that we were going to have to take out a loan for a "new" used van, since our savings were scraping, as Bishop Eli said, the bottom of the barrel because we were moving. Truth be told, I was tempted to get another van, even if it meant a car loan we couldn't afford. Though I had never been "car proud," as they say (once I had to be told what "detailing" was because I had no idea), it's one thing to drive an older-model car with tinges of rust, and another to drive the Unsightlymobile.
And if I can be very shallow for a moment here, it didn't help matters that our son plays hockey in the city's wealthiest area (not because we live there, but because it's close-ish and has a great hockey program). It was hard for me not to feel self-conscious about driving into that parking lot six times a week and parking that dreadful-looking, aged, smashed-in clunker beside thirty-five-thousand- dollar SUVs.
This is where I needed to just suck it up and try to rise above it.
The Amish, with their upside-down values, would probably look at my van and think highly of me, although this was small comfort to me when I parked by a friend's sparkling new Volvo. "We admire someone with a new car or a new house," said Banker Bill. "But the Amish look at this completely differently. They look favorably on someone who is not living ostentatiously, but is instead living a modest and simple life. If someone is living high off the hog, the Amish would look at him and think he was abandoning their faith."
Unsightly though it may be, we drove that car another seven months before we finally figured out a cheap way to give it a little makeover. Doyle, my husband, helped a friend of ours—a body-shop guy—replace the crumpled van door with a new door. The brilliant "Grandpa George" also artfully covered the four-inch holes with white duct tape to match the van. Our cost? For parts, $120, a whopping savings of $3,880, as we would have spent around $4,000 on a comparable used van. Oh, the tape is visible to the naked eye, but just barely. I love it!
Like I said, that was the major "make do" project in our lives, but there were definitely more where that came from.
Andy's business making and repairing boat covers and reupholstering boat seats turned out to be one of those enterprises that prospers during a national money pinch. "You can't sell a boat for its value these days," he said. "People are hanging on to their boats because they can't sell them. Instead, they are fixing their boats up, repairing their canvases and having the seats reupholstered."
In short, people are making do with their old boats, so Andy's business dovetails perfectly with his Amish ideals.
In a recession, though, even us Fancy folk are finding ways to "make it work," as Project Runway's fashion design mentor, Tim Gunn, likes to tell his designer contestants.
Excerpted from MONEY SECRETS OF THE AMISH by LORILEE CRAKER Copyright © 2011 by Lorilee Craker. Excerpted by permission.
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