If you are like many of my visitors here, you are quite intrigued by the Plain folk (that is, the Amish, Mennonite, Quakers, and others like them.)
And for good reason – they look and behave so much different than the rest of society.
Have you ever wondered how Plain Mennonites save money? How do they manage it, stretching it as far as possible?
After all, with families of as many as twelve children, they have plenty of shoes and winter jackets to buy!
And we all know that farming (which is the occupation of the overwhelming majority of Plain Mennonites) does not pay very well.
The short answer is that they manage it well!
The truth is that they rely on some very old-fashioned skills and practices to make their money stretch.
And even better – these are skills and practices that are available to pretty much every one of us.
No Daycare Costs
With at least one adult at home all the time, Plain Mennonites do not, as far as I have seen, use daycare.
Although it certainly may happen, it seems very unusual for mothers to have outside work.
That does NOT mean that they never contribute financially. In fact, mothers who are caring for children are often a very important part of the family’s finances. In many cases, they open up shops inside their homes so that they can earn money while caring for the children.
There are certainly single parents among Plain Mennonites.
Divorce (but not remarriage) does happen, and of course death can leave both men and women as single parents (who usually, but not always, remarry).
Even then, the community pitches in so that the children are cared for until the eldest child is old enough to take over.
The same happens at the other end of life, with the elderly generally living with family until they pass.
A doddyhaus or “grandfather house”, is a small house attached to the main house, which gives elderly grandparents security and independence as long as possible.
Grandparents can be as young as my friend Leona, approaching fifty and raising elementary aged children but with married children who need the big house. At the other end of the spectrum, a widowed great-grandmother could be in a small doddyhaus, with grandparents in a house attached to that, and both of these within shouting distance of the big house.
The benefits of such an arrangement are felt on all sides!
Sewing At Home
Not every Plain Mennonite woman sews well.
Some of them, of course, can sew anything they put their mind, too, but not all can do that.
But they all, as I’ve been told by several of them, “at least sew enough to make their own dresses”. That, it seems, is the lowest bar they consider acceptable.
From early childhood, girls start learning how to sew doll clothes and work up to making quilts and simple dresses.
Recently, I picked up my new dresses from my friend Lydia. She is a fantastic seamstress (which I most certainly am not) while her sister, an excellent cook and baker, makes her own dresses but would never sell her services.
Dresses, men’s shirts, hemming, clothing repairs – all of these are done at home by whichever woman is most talented at it. Some, like my friend Leona, can make men’s pants and the family’s winter coats, too. That is a very handy skill for a woman with seven children.
While she does not sew for others, she saves the family a lot of money by making almost everything they wear.
Eating At Home
As mentioned before, many Plain Mennonites avoid restaurants and convenience foods. I wrote more about this in Why You Need to Eat at Home.
Girls are taught to cook at a young age and those older than ten are generally able to put together a simple meal for the family.
Basics like bread, muffins, cakes, pies, pickles and more are all made at home. A few years ago, shopping with one of my friend Leona’s daughters, we passed a display of decadent donuts. I asked what her favourite donut was. She looked confused for a moment and then said, “I’ve never bought a donut. When we want them, we make them.”
Most Mennonite families have handwritten cookbooks that have been slowly built over the years. When I started working on A Cabin Full of Food, I spent many hours with these cookbooks, listening to my friends’ suggestions of “This is a really good one.” and “I’ve made this ever since I was married in 1950.” It was wonderful seeing, so often, the gradual change from a school girl’s careful script to the hurried writing of a busy mother.
The result was a massive 320 page encyclopedia of old-style cooking updated for modern tastes.
Anyone who wants to “cook like a Mennonite” should have a copy of this!
We’re not finished yet! 🙂 Keep reading for the rest of the ways Plain Mennonites save money.
For those things that aren’t made at home, like buggies and bridles, my Plain Mennonite friends hire people they know.
This keeps the money in the community, cements ties between neighbours and often costs less for far better quality.
This also opens up opportunities for bartering and borrowing, which my Mennonite friends certainly do. Especially when it comes to large and expensive machinery, it is less expensive for one family to own it and the others to rent, barter or borrow. This is one way I’ve found that Mennonites save money.
I should make a very important note about borrowing.
One thing I learned from my Old Order friends is to always pay instead of asking favours. For example, if I take laundry to do at a friend’s house, I pay her an amount per load that she considers fair, even though she might insist that I can do it for free.
Later, she might want blueberries from our fields. Again, she will pay a fair price for them – much lower than a stranger might pay, but an amount that we agree to be fair.
As strange as it might seem at first, this system prevents friends and family from feeling taken advantage of.
Even those Plain Mennonites who use the internet are subject to far less advertising than most people.
Without TV and radio telling them what they can’t live without, they are more likely to make purchases based on actual need. And of course those that live without electronics have no need for the latest smartphone, ipad or laptop model! Since most Mennonites rarely travel far from home, and they certainly don’t live in big cities, they avoid billboards and constant advertisements. And since many of them send their children to small, local schools, and parochial schools when possible, the children are around like-minded children and adults.
I often see an ad on bus stop benches that says “You’ve just proven advertising works”.
The less you see of it, the less you’ll spend!
There is nothing wrong with advertising, of course, but if you are trying to save money, you’ll want to limit the amount of it that you take in. Internet PLUS television PLUS radio PLUS billboards PLUS peer pressure …. it all adds up.
Keep It Simple
One of the things I love most about living a more plain life, one of the lessons I’ve learned from my Mennonite friends, is that I can clarify my standards and then draw my line in the sand, saying “This far and no more.”
It’s incredibly freeing, knowing that there are certain things I simply will not buy or use.
It saves me a lot of money on jewelry and makeup and clothing, for example!
There’s no temptation when the television companies come out with a new, larger, or more defined television – that’s simply not something we use.
This has the added benefit of making shopping and spending much easier, more streamlined and definitely less expensive.
One misconception that I’ve often come up against is the idea that simple living means giving up everything. Whether you call it voluntary simplicity, getting back to basics or Plain living, it is all about deciding what is of importance and value in your life and getting rid of the things that create stress and busy-ness without benefit.
For most of us, by the way, while a horse and buggy might represent the ultimate in simple living, we lack the infrastructure or background to make them simple! Simplicity looks different in every situation.
One thing I’ve noticed about my Mennonite friends is that they always buy the very best quality that they can afford, and then they use the items until they wear out.
None of my Mennonite friends would think twice about spending $300 on a pair of work boots that will be worn daily, for example.
When my friend Leona needed a new washing machine, they bought a top-of-the-line computerized, high efficiency machine. I’m not sure where they got it, but instead of measuring laundry soap, she just pours the entire box in, and the machine does the measuring!
This is a household that still uses a rotary dial phone (although they bought a touch tone one for calling people that require it), would never dream of having a computer and internet in their home, but they purchased a highly computerized washing machine.
Since it will save them a lot of time, water (they’re on a well), electricity and, in the long-run, money, they didn’t even hesitate to buy it.
Stay Close To Home
Related to buying local, Plain Mennonites are often quite committed homebodies.
While youth and the unmarried may take group trips, married adults are more likely to center their lives around home (farm!) and church.
Church traditions enforce that.
When the Mister worked for an Old Order Mennonite sawmill in southern Ontario, we learned that employers in that community were expected to end the workday at a time that allowed everyone to get home for dinner.
Among the Old Order Mennonites, this restricts people from working farther than a short buggy ride away from home.
The simple fact is – travel is expensive!
There you have it – nine ways that Plain Mennonites save money every day. They don’t do anything particularly special that we (to some degree or another) can’t do.