Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review - Money Secrets of the Amish

A while ago I bought Money Secrets of the Amish, hoping that the author would have some fantastic insights about Amish life, come to a new appreciation of Plain living, and would explain how they started doing a lot of things to pare down their excess and start working with their hands more.


The author lives somewhere along 283 in Lancaster County - I could tell, because I used to live along that corridor too, and I recognized the thrift stores she mentioned hitting during her "Amish shopping experiment".

Apparently she's rather well-to-do, upper middle class. She shops new (though sometimes at outlets), and mentions Talbots and Ann Taylor Loft as favorite shops for birthday splurges. Her kids play hockey (not a cheap activity), though she mentions her car is the shabbiest looking one in the parking lot. And she was confused about how the Amish manage to pay cash for nearly everything.

Anyone who knows about the Amish will tell you a few basic principles about how they manage to afford their lifestyle and pay cash for most things, and she does hit on these here. One, they follow the dictum "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without". There's a certain amount of self-denial of desires involved in Amish living! Two, the social pressures and expectations are different for Plain people - there's a Keeping DOWN with the Stolzfuses rather than a Keeping UP with the Joneses mentality. Three, they value hard work and honor it as a virtue.

But there's something that the author didn't understand when she interviewed an Amish farmer who had just succeeded in buying a farm in Lancaster County (acreage is getting very expensive there). She cooed "So, I heard you were able to buy your own farm!" and he humbly replied "Ja, we were lucky enough to do that.". She then went off about how it seemed like a strange Amish trait to downplay all the hard work and discipline that went into saving for the farm, and called it luck instead.

It's not that they're downplaying the hard work and discipline - those are baseline traits for a good Amish person, after all - but that they're acknowledging that a run of bad luck could have set them back decades. A farmer understands that better than anybody - you can plant, cultivate, and water for months, all to have your whole crop ruined by a freak storm or infestation. A good crop is not guaranteed.

Likewise, a bad run of luck can wipe out years of hard work and savings for the "English" (non-Amish), but it usually has less to do with crops and storms, and more with layoffs, medical problems, an unexpected pregnancy, and other things beyond our control. Like when Jake was without work or income for 9 straight months - thank goodness we had savings in place, but we were down to our last $600 when he finally found work. And due to one thing and another, we still haven't rebuilt our savings to their previous level. Now, we should be completely out of debt (again) by the end of the year, but our cash reserves won't be back up for a long time. We're hoping to sell our house and move to a better school district next year, but that's going to take a huge amount of finishing old household projects before we can list.

Ideally, we would be able to get everything finished in a few months of weekend work... but sometimes things happen. Like Cathy being hospitalized again, like she was for 18 days in May, in a hospital an hour away from home. Like Jake getting a mammoth migraine the one day that he would be able to block out the time for woodworking. Like the little kids getting a stomach bug, new teeth, head lice, or anything that would cause me to lose a solid two or three days in sheer management efforts and sleep loss.

She also assumed that the Amish would make things rather than buy them, simply because homemade is better. Not always! She mentioned marshmallows as something that an Amish housewife might make up from sugar and gelatin, and moaned about her own failed homemade marshmallow experiments. Do you know what Amish women do when they want marshmallows? They pay 89 cents a bag for store bought. They save their efforts on homemade things for the stuff that makes sense - shoo-fly pie is cheap to make, expensive to buy. Marshmallows are cheap to buy, expensive and difficult to make. Save the energy for the hard stuff.

She didn't seem like she learned all that much in that regard - she did find out that it's easier to make many pies at once than one at a time. Which makes sense - make one mess to clean up, get out all the supplies once, get a rhythm going. She took herself on a thrift store expedition instead of her usual Talbots/Ann Taylor $100 birthday spree, and was delighted to find that you can get lovely, useable clothes for grownups at thrift stores.

All in all, it seemed like a book for those who are fairly well-off and who see the Amish as "quaint". Not too much in the way of heavy insight, it's more of a beginner's personal finance book. Then again, I wrote "Hard Core Poor"!

Monday, June 19, 2017


Yes! We got this beauty from Alicia Every in Seattle, who got it from someone who got it from someone who used to live in Japan, and brought it back with them. God bless her, she shipped it all the way to Harrisburg because I wanted it so much (and I paid her, so...).

As a cargo biker who has only ever ridden a trike with kids, this bike with pedal assist feels incredibly light and nimble by comparison. Even though it's about 65 pounds. The assist is a wild sensation when you're used to using a throttle powered assist - it kicks in naturally, like little angels lifting your feet along.  :D We've taken it for a few 10 mile rides, no issues other than needing to downscale the assist level so the battery would last all the way home. I could ride without it, but it's so nice to have that boost at the end of a long ride.

It has the awesome kickstand, a rear wheel lock for quick stops, a front wheel "deflopilator", the two baby seats, a saddle that I hadn't even noticed the first 5 rides or so because it was so comfy as to be invisible, power assist, and an integrated front light with a solar powered/activated rear light. It has so many built in goodies it's almost embarrassing to look at my kids second hand bikes and realize that they don't even have fenders or chain guards! The one thing it lacks while the kids are on board is storage, so Alicia threw in a pannier bag that hooks onto the back baby seat. She also threw in wonderful rain covers for the kid seats - they're made to fit right over the seat, baby and all, and keeps them out of the wind and rain. It's like putting a poncho with a vinyl window over them, but more breathable and fitted.

I love these bikes, and I wish I could import them, but I've come to a point where I've accepted that it's not for me to do right now. I have enough on my plate with 4 kids! If anyone is interested in importing used mamacharis to fix and sell, email me and I'll pass along my research and contacts.

Meanwhile, I've discovered that our local Commuter Services offers some very nice incentives to bike/walk/carpool/vanpool/bus to work. If you get stuck or have an emergency, they'll reimburse you for your ride home! (They call it a free ride home, but that sounds like they'll pay your Uber driver for you on the spot, and that's not quite it.) I requested a beginner bike commuter pack, and they sent a huge envelope of information, a bumper sticker, and a set of cheap but bright blinky lights! They went right on Catherine's bike, since she's riding to a friend's house almost daily now, and I want her to be safe in bad weather.