Romantic portrayals of the Amish may have them doing business by barter, or producing the majority of the goods they consume, largely cut off from the non-Amish economy. In fact, Amish participate in modern commerce in a variety of ways.
Do Amish use money?
In reality, Amish do use money just like anyone else. Besides cash, the most common way of paying for goods, paying monthly bills, and making other transactions, is by check. Nearly all Amish adults will have a bank checking account. Married couples typically have a joint account, and an Amish youth will open his own account at age 21.
Additionally, some Amish use credit cards. This remains a minority of all Amish, perhaps 1/4 to 1/3 of households. As with non-Amish users, credit cards offer Amish convenience, and also a way to handle business expenses. Typically bills are paid off monthly, as Amish are unlikely to carry a balance or use credit cards for excessive consumption.
Amish shop at Wal-Mart & other stores
Amish are plugged in to the economy in other ways. While Amish make some of their own goods, and waste is frowned upon, Amish do shop at places like Wal-Mart, attracted to the low prices and bulk quantities offered.
An Amish housewife may travel with other housewives once a month to do a large shopping trip at a supermarket. She will share the cost of hiring an “Amish taxi”—usually a large van—and do a large amount of shopping at one time.
Most Amish homes have a garden, and Amish produce large amounts of their own food for canning. However, Amish will buy food and other household amenities—paper towels, disposable diapers, medicine and health items, etc—at stores as well.
Amish businesses market themselves locally & nationally
In addition to interacting with the economy as consumers, Amish also provide products and services to both their own Amish markets and non-Amish, or English, markets. The scope of their businesses can even reach far beyond their local communities to the nation as a whole, and even overseas.
Some Amish advertise their businesses on websites operated by third parties. Others have dealers who sell their goods, such as furniture, online and in retail stores scattered across the country. Research has shown that Amish-made furniture, in fact, may comprise even 10% of all domestic furniture shipments (“Wood Use”, Bumgardner/Romig/Luppold).
Other Amish work in upscale neighborhoods in metropolitan areas in the Midwest and East Coast, building new homes and renovating existing ones. Additionally, Amish participate in tourist industries that have developed in some of the larger communities. Amish do not exist in a bubble, and with the high price of farmland, they have been compelled to make a living by engaging local, regional, and even national markets.
Amish consumer culture?
Amish believe in simplicity and in living humbly. They stress equality before God’s eyes, and for many years, this sense of equality was replicated in the physical world.
When all Amish were farmers, with 8, 10 or more mouths to feed, most had similar income levels. Certainly few Amish would have been considered “rich”. Yet with rising land prices, and the shift from farming to running successful businesses, Amish have experienced previously unknown levels of wealth.
Some Amish fear the implications of this influx of wealth, seeing the development of a class system and status pressure in a previously classless society. Higher incomes have resulted in expensive vacations, more trips out, expensive hunting gear for men, and more of what previous generations of Amish would consider luxuries around the home.
It remains to be seen how well Amish society will retain core values in the face of financial success. The thoughtful Amish approach to modernity, resistance to change, and reliance on tradition all serve to hamper drastic changes in the values and composition of Amish society.
Regardless of how Amish will adapt to change in future, the fact remains that today’s Amish are largely plugged into the modern economy, and interact with that economy in fairly sophisticated ways.
For further information, see:
Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits, Donald B. Kraybill and Steven M. Nolt
Bumgardner, M., R. Romig and W. Luppold (2007). “Wood Use by Ohio’s Amish,” Forest Products Journal 57(12), 6-12.