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How the Amish deal with credit cards and the credit crunch

Some have them, but tend to manage them better than the 'English'

By Geoff Williams

For those who romanticize the Amish as one of our few living links to a bygone era before credit cards and cell phones, you'd be more likely to find that in the pages of Mark Twain. Yes, the Amish are famous for being thrifty and for being not the sort to become mired in debt, but even the Amish use credit cards.

Take Daniel Miller, 41, an Amish businessman in West Union, Ohio, which is something of a tourism mecca for locals who want to breathe in the rolling Appalachia countryside and the Amish culture that comes with it. Miller looks the part, with his beard, suspenders and clothes that resemble a photo one might find in an 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. But when he discusses how he uses his credit card, there's no doubt that he belongs firmly in the 21st century.

Some Amish use rewards points, cite convenience
Miller runs Miller's Furniture, several dozen yards away from two other businesses that his brothers, Harry and Larry, operate and own, Miller's Bulk Food and Miller's Bakery & Gifts. The businesses accept Visa and MasterCard branded cards from the public -- these days, they'd be crazy not to -- but the Amish use them as consumers, too. In fact, the Amish wrestle with many of the same credit card issues as the "English" -- the term they use for the nonAmish.

"It's easier to use it, especially when you're traveling or even like when my wife's shopping at the store," says Miller. "I daresay, if we have 100 Amish families in the area, 90 percent of the families use them." In fact, Miller, who rides in a horse and buggy and has as normal of an Amish lifestyle as anyone else, can nevertheless sound like any of the English when it comes to using his credit card.

For starters, he candidly admits that in the past, before he took over the family business 15 years ago, there were times when it would take him three or four months to pay off a purchase made on a credit card. And currently his favorite credit card is a store credit card that comes from Cabela's, a retail chain that sells hunting, fishing and outdoor gear. When he is able to get to Wheeling, W. Va., where the nearest store is located, he uses the points that he has accrued on his Cabela's Visa card to trade in for items in the store. He says that Cabela is a favorite credit card of the Amish in Adams County.

Not all Amish use plastic
Not every Amish community is the same, however. As Tom Cross, executive director of the Travel & Visitors Bureau in Adams County, Ohio, observes, there are progressive Amish communities and very conservative Amish communities. "I would call this a middle-of-the-road one," says Cross.

Miller's estimate that 90 percent of the families in Adams County have a credit card, but at least one Amish expert, Erik Wesner, estimates that across the 1,600 Amish communities throughout North America, the number is more like 20 percent.

Wesner writes a blog called AmishAmerica and is working on a book about Amish business wisdom to be published in the spring of 2010 by Jossey-Bass, a division of Wiley. He estimates that in the past four years, he has visited 20 Amish communities in five states and has met with about 5,000 Amish families. He also used to have a bookselling business, in which he had about 1,300 Amish customers, many of whom used credit cards.

Most Amish, however, who tend to have bank accounts just like any English person, "are more likely to use a check than any other means of payment," says Wesner. "It's difficult to judge, however, for a number of reasons... Besides a few common theological and cultural tenants all Amish adhere to, there are no ‘top-down' dictates over Amish society when it comes to the cultural rulebook, and for example, what technologies are acceptable."

Those theological and cultural tenants that Wesner is talking about are generally known, but often misunderstood, by the English.  Everyone knows that they travel in a buggy pulled by horses, that they don't have electricity and generally shun modern conveniences on a daily basis, and they especially shun bringing technology into their homes. They aren't allowed to divorce or leave the Amish community without being excommunicated, but in many other ways they are, figuratively, plugged into the rest of the world.

They are allowed to be passengers in cars, for instance, and to fly in airplanes.  Some Amish like to watch TV if they're at a friend's house or staying in a hotel.  But as a general rule, they would never own a TV, a computer or an iPod because that would be too much of a distraction from devoting their lives to worshipping God. On the other hand, they believe that God wants them to make money like anyone else, and so if an Amish businessman needs a website, he will hire someone to set one up for his storefront, even if he himself never sees it.

For instance, Wesner knows some Amish who use e-mail for work purposes. On the other hand, Miller has never seen a website and won't even see this article, unless someone prints it out and shows it to him. And yet in many ways, Miller is extremely savvy and, according to him, it's the English who are just now beginning to catch up to him.

There is no electricity in his store, but the credit card machines that he uses for his customers are as fast and efficient as in any other retailer. He uses green energy to power his credit card processing machine. It comes from a wind turbine and solar panels.

Using caution and common sense
For the Amish who do use credit cards, the rules that they live by are their own -- not mandated by the church -- and nothing you couldn't figure out on your own. But if you wanted to follow the Amish blueprint to using credit cards, you would do well to:

  • Each month, pay for everything you buy. Roman Mast, 49, is the bearded and bespectacled general manager in Adams County's Keim Family Market, which sells everything from food to furniture. He says that the Amish don't have any personal finance rules that they have to follow, but personally, "I would advise if you can't pay what you owe at the end of the month, you're better off throwing the credit card away. I know the credit card company doesn't make any money that way," adds Mast, "but I'd rather be fair to my family than to the credit card company." Miller, who says he pays off the balance every month as well, agrees and says, "Before I swipe, I ask myself: 'Do I really need this?' "
  • Teach your children the value of being thrifty. Both Miller and Mast stress this, and it's more important than ever for the Amish, since their generation is arguably the first wave of Amish to regularly use plastic. Mast, who has had a credit card for 20 years, says that his parents never used one. "It wasn't an option for them. They would always say, ‘Be thrifty, try to pay for what you buy,'" says Mast. "If he were alive today, my dad would frown on credit cards."
  • Look for warning signs that you have a money management problem -- and get help before there is a crisis. The Amish are particularly good at this. Miller says that if they notice someone seems to be having problems paying their bills, the community has a fund that can help an Amish resident -- and the church elders will get involved and assist in creating a workable budget.

Miller admits that he'll occasionally see his own English customers appear to have problems. Miller says, "I'm not dogging anybody, but I'll see a customer putting a card through, and it won't take, and then a second card won't go through either, and then finally they locate a third card, and, yes, they can buy something in my store, but I don't know if I'm helping them or not."

Credit crunch
When the financial markets took a tumble in September, and suddenly credit started drying up, some of the Amish couldn't help but notice. Not all Amish are working the farms. Some of them are working in hotels and factories, and Donald B. Kraybill, a religious studies professor at Elizabethtown College, in Elizabethtown, Pa., and the author of books including "Amish Grace" and "The Amish of Lancaster County," says that the Amish who work in the construction industry are particularly worried about the economy right now.

In Lappanee, Ind., for instance, many Amish working in the recreational vehicle manufacturing industry were laid off last summer, as high gas prices strangled consumer demand for recreational vehicles.

The Amish are well known for their pacifism. Not only do they not fight, they don't like to criticize anyone, and so it's hard to find Amish people who will say anything negative about their English countrymen's propensity to buy now and worry about paying for it later.

That said, from the Amish populated community of Lancaster, Pa., Wesler's contact who uses e-mail and who wishes to remain anonymous, sent him a message that suggests some Amish are anxiously following the economic news -- and lay the blame at the most logical suspects: "The prevalent opinion with the Amish is the crisis was caused by lending and borrowing money that could not be afforded, with the fault lying with both lenders and borrowers. Some young Amish couples would be in real trouble were they not able to find work. But so far, no homes and not many jobs have been lost."

But over in West Union, Ohio, Mast says that business is doing just fine -- indeed, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, there were plenty of shoppers milling about and purchasing the quilts and homemade soft pretzels -- and wonders if the media is making too much out of the credit crunch.

"What you read in the paper and what we experience in the store is contrasting," says Mast. "We've been very busy and blessed, and we don't worry about what you read in the papers. If anything, I think what you read in the papers makes people stop buying."

 

Published: November 18, 2008


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