Yesterday, a couple of readers pointed me to a CNN Money article about why Amish businesses don’t fail. Good timing, because today’s guest post is from the author profiled in that piece. This is a guest post from Erik Wesner, who researched the Amish for his new book Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive. He blogs about Amish culture at Amish America.

Most people associate the Amish with certain things: simplicity, rumspringa, funny hats. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Amish over the past few years. And I’ve found there’s both truth and myth behind many of the perceptions.

But one thing that is accurate is the idea that Amish use money and resources wisely. I’d like to share a few observations from my time in Amish America — simple ideas for amping up your savings accounts, cutting waste, and maximizing what you get out of what you already have.

Lower tech, lower costs
Contrary to common belief, the Amish do actually accept a good degree of technology. During a recent stay at my Amish friend Abe’s home, his three-year-old woke up one evening with a nasty bark. I first thought it to be whooping cough (sounds pretty Dickensian, I know) but turned out to be the “croup”, something less menacing.

The next morning, Abe asked me to pick up a medicinal vaporizer from Wal-Mart. The kind with a plug that goes in the wall. Abe’s home, of course, lacks the outlets needed for that type of thing.

You may be wondering how they expected to operate it. Well, the Amish do have a way of using plug-in devices. Diesel-powered generators coupled with an inverter (a device that creates 110-volt current) can produce enough juice to operate small appliances. It’s how they run their 1950s-era wringer-style washing machines and a variety of other implements.

Before you start to think that the Amish have sold out somewhere along the line: It’s inconvenient and loud having a diesel engine blasting in your backyard, so it’s not something you’re apt to overuse. And running one round-the-clock isn’t cheap.

And that’s the point: Amish allow certain technology, but the way they use it is costly and inconvenient, so they’re compelled to limit its usage.

Amish choose to restrict ownership of technology for a couple of reasons:

  • First, owning cars and having new gadgets around the house both invite the world in and take them far from home, potentially threatening their way of life, affecting family and community.
  • Secondly, accumulating all the latest gizmos (as many of us know firsthand) can get pretty expensive.

The takeaway? We’re not talking about trading in the Chevy sedan for a Yoder buggy. But it makes one wonder: How much cash does overuse of technology (or for some, an outright addiction to it) suck out of our pockets?

It could be anything from the new set of wheels every third year to the seemingly cheap iPhone apps to the value of the time burnt browsing the net for hours. Hang onto your laptop. But it’s worth thinking about how we use technology — not just in terms of the benefits it brings, but the costs it imposes.

Debt is a tool — and a bit of it is healthy
Along the same lines, some Amish do use credit cards. It’s nothing near a majority, but those who use credit do so for convenience’s sake. Habit and a mentality that says you always pay back your debts means that Amish rarely carry a balance. They use credit cards as one ought to — as a tool that makes life easier, not as a way to spend beyond one’s means.

Much more common among Amish would be taking advantage of bank credit for a home mortgage or to fund a business. Not only does this help one reach life and business goals, but when used properly, it can even be a motivator. Having something to pay back gets you out of bed and gets you moving, as an Amishman once explained to me. So the right type of debt, Amish realize, can be healthy.

Lose the high-interest consumer type as quickly as you can by following the debt snowball method or the other great ideas detailed here on Get Rich Slowly. But do take advantage of the right kind of debt as a tool to build a future.

“Little things make a big difference at the end of the year.”
This advice came from an Amish business owner who is also a bishop, so when I remember it, it comes with an extra dose of gravitas. (Amish bishops come with the gravitas built-in!)

Along those lines, another Amish entrepreneur brought up the impact of longer breaks. He figured 10 extra minutes a day added up to a week of work lost on an annualized basis. Writing this makes me wonder how many weeks of work I burn checking emails (like I did just now) in the middle of tasks where I’m meant to concentrate (there I go again) until completion.

Abe, an organic produce farmer who is also something of a coffee fanatic, brought a battered travel mug along on a recent road trip. “I guess I should probably wait a while before getting a new one,” he explained. This was just one of many little day-to-day costs that Abe was avoiding. Though it looked a bit beat-up, and maybe didn’t insulate as it once did, it still kept the coffee off my floorboards and in the mug. The bottom line is that if it still works, it still has value.

This extends to the things we might normally toss. The coffee grounds from that morning brew end up on Abe’s flowerbed to fertilize the plants. The eggshells from our 6 a.m. breakfast go back out to the chicken house, where the birds like to peck at them for calcium. Once picked, Abe’s produce is housed in an old semi-trailer converted into a cooling unit. Nothing gets wasted and new uses are found for seemingly tired and spent items.

Even Abe has his weak spots, though, and he lets himself off the hook with a small treat from time to time. For this health-conscious Amishman, that means those fresh-squeezed store-bought juices that cost triple the regular price. He’ll splurge occasionally. It makes him happy.

The point: Little savings matter. But even the Amish don’t take things to extreme extremes. If you’re consciously living a frugal lifestyle, treat yourself from time to time, so you don’t end up resenting it and regressing to old habits.

Not reinventing the buggy wheel
This isn’t revolutionary stuff. But it doesn’t take revolutionary ideas to amp up your savings and slash waste from your life. Simple ideas work — one reason Amish businesses have shown a 5-year survival rate of over 90%, roughly twice the US average.

Applying these ideas, whether in business or in life, doesn’t take an MBA or even a GED, as 8th-grade educated Amish prove. Rather, it takes a choice, or rather a series of repeated choices, in the way we think about things like debt, spending, and what we throw away.

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