Lorilee Craker might be the most versatile journalist in America.
Fresh off a gig co-authoring the autobiography of Britney Spears’ mother, she’s out with a new book called Money Secrets of the Amish: Finding True Abundance in Simplicity, Sharing, and Saving. Craker spent a year interviewing members of Amish communities and tried to use the wisdom she gleaned to improve her own family’s recession-battered financial life.
The book is a treasure chest of old-school financial wisdom as Craker weaves in information on the Amish approach to life with practical tips on topics like thrift shopping and bulk buying, along with quotes from unexpected sources of financial wisdom, including P.T. Barnum.
I spoke with her last weekend — right after she’d gotten home from a morning of yard sale shopping — and asked her a few questions about the Amish, money, and how the lessons of the self-described “simple folks” have changed her life.
What inspired you to look to the Amish for financial wisdom?
At the end of 2008, there was a report on NPR about how this bank in Lancaster County — Hometown Heritage Bank –had their best year ever in 2008 when all these other banks collapsed. This bank was not only surviving but thriving. Ninety-five percent of their clients are Amish. NPR did a story on why the Amish are thriving in the recession. They’re really flourishing. That kind of sparked the book idea; and then with my background as a Mennonite, even though I grew up very modern, there were still some connections with the Amish, including the language. There were those connections and also I was just floundering with the recession. My work was really drying up. When I heard that the Amish had all these great tips on being thrifty and frugal, but living abundantly at the same time, I thought I would investigate.
Is the Amish approach really something we can learn from, or is it so based on their own insular community that we can’t really hope to duplicate it?
I would say that my goal with writing the book was to make it universal. I was picturing a gay couple in downtown Manhattan. Can they use every single tip in the book? If not, it’s not going in the book. My goal was really that anybody anywhere with electricity or driving a car could make use of these tips. It’s an Amish frame with a modern takeaway; it’s not about moving off the grid. I am so on the grid; it’s a bit crazy how on the grid I am. Implementing these money secrets led to me being a little more content with the simpler things in life.
Are the Amish happier than us fancy folks?
The book really helped me discover that I need to be not in such a mad rush to buy the latest, greatest. I love clothes. I’m a clothes horse. I’m never gonna be wearing an Amish dress. I’m always going to ebb into the latest thing, but you can get the latest thing without selling your soul for it. They are happier than us. They work hard, they eat extremely well, they play hard. They know what they’re doing. When I visit Amish farms and sit at their farmhouse kitchen table, there’s a serenity there and a peace that is just amazing. It brought me back to my grandma’s farm. I have three kids and we’re always racing around. The Amish just hang out; they play Frisbee and Trivial Pursuit. You don’t have to spend money to have fun. That’s something that’s really been soaked into my family over the last year and a half. For instance, we went camping last weekend. And it was freezing. It dropped into the 40s. But we really had a great time. There were no interruptions, no electronics. Everybody was on the same page, staring at the fire, roasting marshmallows. I wouldn’t have known frugality if it whacked me in the kneecap. Now I’m like, “I am not paying that price — no way.” To instill that in my kids is the next step.
What’s the single best practical money saving “tip” you learned from the Amish?
If I had to boil it down one thing, I would say thrift shopping and garage sales. Some people have such an issue with it, like they’re above it or something. What I’m above is retail prices, and it is so much fun. Today, I went to a yard sale at former Congressman Vern Ehlers’ house. He has these beautiful antiques that he’s selling and I’m sure they’re a good price. But I spent $16. I paid $10 for this framed print of the Great Lakes and then I paid $1 each for these various mugs and glassware, George Bush campaign mugs, that kind of thing. I do have some extreme right-wing friends. I got one of them a beer mug that says “The 2002 Washington DC Brewers Legislative Conference.” It says, “44% of the cost of every beer is hidden taxes.” One dollar, but it’s almost priceless just for the fact that it came from a Congressman’s yard sale. The Amish are very thrifty but they really care about quality. They’re not gonna get a box of macaroni and cheese just because it’s cheap. They want quality.
How “sophisticated” are the Amish financially? Or is it really just folksy conservatism that lets them get ahead? Do the Amish have ROTH IRAs and mutual funds?
They really as a rule do not have IRAs and mutual funds. They invest in real estate. Let’s say young Jakey has a little too much time on his hands and money to burn on things his mom and dad are not impressed in. So they’ll go to my friend Banker Bill and say, “Can you help us find a rental property for Jakey to invest in?” Many of these young Amish guys have rental properties and they’re like 20 years old because they’ve been working since they were young. At a certain age the parents say, “How can we help young Jakey build wealth?” So they set him up with buying a rental property, but they don’t buy stocks. It’s real estate and extreme saving and thrift.