60+ Frugal Living Tips from the Great Depression
Using frugal living tips from the Great Depression era is a great way to teach yourself how to live frugally on less and save more. The Great Depression was a time of vast struggle, pain, and hard times for many people due to a lack of jobs, money, and resources. However, one small good thing that came out of it was that people learned how to make do with what they had and live within their means.
Many of us now face similar situations with job loss and struggling to pay rent with the coronavirus. Whether it’s affected you or not, learning how to live within your means is key to thriving financially.
Saving Money During the Great Depression
It’s pretty surprising how removed we are from what our grandparents (great grandparents, or older generations) did that naturally saved money. Our ultra-busy lifestyles have disconnected us from doing things ourselves and outsourcing what we can to save time – at the cost of our cash.
Some of my favorite frugal living tips from the Great Depression to help you live within your means are things I learned from my grandparents. My grandmother and mother taught us how to bake and cook from scratch, sew, and fix things rather than replacing them. Their frugal living ideas were passed down as a way of life, without me even realizing the importance of what were teaching us.
Our grandparents had to do everything they make do with what they had, since they were raised in some pretty tough times with little money and a lot of mouths to feed. Even in her 80s, my grandmother still reused bread and sandwich bags and even repurposed cereal that no one would eat. She was big on not wasting anything, and her frugal lifestyle and frugal living tips from the great Depression stuck with her.
Depression Era Advice to Save Money
Use these frugal living tips with a big impact to learn how to best live within your means:
Saving Money on Food
1930s frugality is something that we can easily include in our daily lives, no matter how busy they are. Food conveniences like dry spice mixes (think taco seasoning), precut vegetables, and prepared deli meals are more costly than their made from scratch counterparts.
While preparing taco seasoning from scratch might not make you a millionaire, the mindset of creating what you need from scratch can help to stop paying the fee of convenience. Learning to grow vegetables, canning them, and cooking from scratch can quickly add up to a nice chunk of savings. And since we’re all home anyway (thanks coronavirus), learning to cook from scratch is a great way to spend your time.
Here are some of the best 1920s, 19302, and 1940s frugal living tips to saving money on food:
- Grow fruits, herbs, and vegetables. People used to grow a victory garden in every available space to help avoid food shortages. Gardening does have a start-up cost, but you can make sure it’s not a lot of money by growing vegetables and fruit from scraps and seeds. Gardens can be grown in containers or a cheaply made raised bed, so you don’t have to till the earth. There’s nothing like fresh produce that you’ve grown yourself!
- Cook meatless meals. Chose meals that use cheap grocery list items like beans and rice instead of meat. These substitutions are an easy way to save money and create a filling meal.
- Eat everything. I remember my grandfather explaining how head cheese is made – using all of the bits of the animal to make sure nothing goes to waste. As a kid, seeing cow tongue at the deli counter at the grocery store was another reminder that some folks eat anything and everything from their animals. If you’ve got a strong constitution, using every bit can stretch meals a long way.
- Cook from scratch. All prepared food items are marked up – from precut veggies to sauces, dry mixes, and frozen meals. There are tons of great recipes on Pinterest to make just about any kitchen staple from scratch. Not only are you saving money, but eating healthier as well since you’re skipping all the preservatives and additives.
- Freeze, dry, can or dehydrate food. Learning how to preserve your own food is especially handy when all of the tomatoes you grew ripen within a week. It also makes it easier to vary your meals every week so that you’re not eating all tomatoes for three weeks straight.
- Learn to forage. If you’re in a rural area, you can easily find tons of edible mushrooms, berries, and plants. Use a book like this to help you identify what’s ok to eat and what’s poisonous.
- Raise what you eat. Hand in hand with gardening, you can raise any meat that your family eats. Depending on where you live, you can raise anything from turkeys, pigs, chickens, and even cows. Local processing places make it even better, so you don’t have to do the actual dirty work.
- Hunt or fish for food. If you don’t want the commitment of caring for a farm or animals, hunting or fishing is another great way to get meat cheaply.
- Make your cheese, yogurt, and butter or sour cream. Some basic cheeses, like mozzarella, are very easy to make and don’t have to be aged (I’m not dissing you, mozzarella – you’re one of my favs!).
- Buy food in bulk. Buying half of a cow is much, much cheaper than purchasing individual cuts at the grocery. Just make sure you have a deep freezer because that’s a whole lotta meat!
- Save grease to cook. I don’t have to tell you that bacon grease can give other foods unique flavors. When things like butter were hard to come by during the Depression, families would use lard, oleo, or grease to add flavor and fat to foods.
- Use leftovers. I don’t mean just eating the rest of your sandwich from last night. Use vegetable scraps to make homemade stock for soups or to start your garden. Stale bread is perfect for stuffing or breadcrumbs. Again, learning to use every bit of your food is essential to stretch your groceries as far as you can.
- Cook or bake with Depression-era recipes. Many people figured out great recipes that work around the lack of ingredients with no milk, eggs, or butter available. My mom has a fantastic chocolate cake recipe that uses mayo instead of eggs (because mayo is essentially eggs, anyway).
- Use the sun to make tea. Save on electricity by putting tea bags in a pitcher of water and placing it in the sun. The sun heats the water, and in a couple of hours, you have tea for a nice iced drink on a hot day.
- Use older fruit to make jam or preserves. Fruit can turn in the blink of an eye, so use that less than perfect fruit that no one wants to make some jam.
Saving Money Around the House
There are lots of great frugal living tips from the Great Depression that helped people to save money. While not every one of these will be feasible for you, there are some that you can use to maximize your savings. Pick out your favorite old-fashioned frugal tips:
- They took renters into their homes. Similar to becoming an Airbnb host, they rented out rooms in their homes. It’s an easy way to help pay the mortgage if you’re ok with a shared living space.
- They layered up rather than turning up the heat. My mom tells a story about visiting her grandparents and how she and her aunt would sleep under a foot-high pile of blankets to keep warm. Teach everyone in the family to layer up in sweaters, socks, and pants before kicking the thermostat up to save money on heating.
- They didn’t use disposable products. Rather than using saran wrap, they reused bread bags, used hand towels, or even newspapers to wrap food up. Today, you can buy reusable products like reusable beeswax wraps to store your food.
- They hand-washed dishes or clothes. By skipping the washing machine and handwashing, you can save on water, depending on how heavy of a rinser you are. However, many newer washers are eco-friendly now and save a ton of water – so this tip works best if you have an older model.
- Wear clothes more than once. This tip is handy now, with so many people working from home. If you’re not on video conference calls, wearing clothes multiple times helps to save water as well as wear and tear on your clothes, making them last longer.
- They bought clothes second-hand or accepted hand-me-downs. Buying clothes from a thrift store is a great way to get nice clothes without overspending. Often you can find brand new clothes with the tags still on them!
- They mended clothes. Rather than just throwing a holey sock out, they would darn them and patch the hole. Learning basic sewing skills, like fixing a ripped seam, a hole, or sewing a button back on, is a great way to help your clothes last longer.
- They flushed less. This one is most definitely a personal preference, but the old saying, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow,” is where this comes from.
- They bathed less. People used to do a Saturday night bath, so they’d be clean for church on Sunday. They’d do a quick clean-up with a washcloth, water, and soap using a water basin during the week. Again, this is a very personal preference, but it can be an easy way to save on water.
- Do one big task a day. By doing specific tasks in batches, you can save energy. For example, doing all of your baking at once saves energy since the oven is already on. Other tasks to consider batching including washing, mending, cleaning, and cooking.
- They collected rainwater. People used rainwater to water their gardens, wash, and bathe to save on their water bill.
- They composted. By composting, you’re providing rich nutrients to your garden instead of having to buy fertilizer. Save kitchen scraps in a jar with a lid, then take them out to a compost bin once a week. You’ll want to stir it every so often to help everything break down quicker. It’s ok to add things like leaves, but not grass or seeds.
- They used manual kitchen tools. Using manual mixers, mashers, and can openers, you’re saving electricity and building some serious arm muscles!
- Save your scraps. From clothes to wood, to food, save your leftovers. You never know when you can reuse something to save some money.
- Use newspaper as gift wrap. If you still receive the paper, keep it to use as gift wrap, packaging when moving, or just throwing it down when you’re doing something messy. I loved when my grandma would wrap my present in the comics – I thought it was so ingenious!
- Reuse glass jars, plastic bags, and containers. We will never need to buy another container with the number that we save and reuse. Everything from spaghetti jars to take-out containers can be reused. We use them in the garage to screws, feed stray cats, or organize all those hot sauce packets from Taco Bell (you know what I’m talking about!).
Save Money with the Family
Learning to use frugal living tips from the Great Depression is something that all family members can be involved in. They can help save extra money by incorporating the best frugal living tips found here:
- Plan an at home date night. The best date nights aren’t always the big expensive gestures like fancy dinners.
- Family fun doesn’t have to be expensive. There are tons of great no-spend activities to do with the kids, including things like playing board games or having a movie night.
- Downgrade family’s cell phone service to a cheaper plan that still works well, like StraightTalk.
- Have everyone chip in with chores that you’d usually pay someone else to do.
- Have family meetings to talk about cutting back on spending, and what ideas everyone has to do so. Get everyone involved, so they have more of a stake in it and will be more willing to participate.
- Shop together at thrift shops to see what you can upcycle together.
- Agree not to turn on the air conditioner or heater until a certain temperature is hit.
- Find legit odd jobs you can do together as a family to make extra money. While you might not bring in much money, it’s a great way to spend time together. Every little bit helps!
- Meal plan together, and help each other stick to the plan.
Save Money by DIYing
Another great old-school tip to save money is learning how to repair things rather than replace them. Unfortunately, we’ve learned that when something doesn’t work as expected, we buy new rather than take the time to figure out how to fix it.
A prime example of this is our twelve-year-old push mower, which began leaking oil and wouldn’t start. My husband wanted to put it on the curb and hit the store for a new one, but after doing some digging on YouTube, I convinced him to try sealing the gaskets. Thanks to a google search, a $6 tube of sealant, and an hour, he repaired it last summer. By learning to do it ourselves, we rescued our mower (and our budget), and it’s lived to mow another day.
Here are some of my favorite ways to save money by DIYing:
- Fix your stuff. Rather than immediately replacing something, try troubleshooting the issue. It’d be a shame to toss it out and buy new if it’s a $7 fix. Check YouTube for tutorials and to help troubleshoot.
- Make homemade cleaners. Pinterest has a ton of great cleaning recipes. One of my favorite frugal cleaning hacks is to use baking soda and vinegar to clean sink drains. It’s cheap and amazingly effective!
- Try natural remedies for non-serious health issues. There are lots of old-school healing hacks that can help to save money. Use a potato or Vicks Vapor rub to draw out splinters. An onion poultice can help with chest infections or earaches. They sound crazy, but I’ve had success with both!
- Make your soap. Making soap is cheap, and you get to pick the scents. Plus, it can be one of the fun and creative ways to save money.
- Make your laundry detergent. Did you know that about 80% of laundry soap is water? Making laundry soap is easy and so, so much cheaper. Check out recipes like these that can be either powder or liquid and made with easy-to-find ingredients.
- Learn the fine art of repairing. Take a class on how to do general repair work or find videos on YouTube. Learning how to fix one type of tool can help you when another breaks down.
- Pick up hobbies that create goods. Start hobbies that make items you can use – like baking, gardening, sewing, or woodworking.
- Give homemade gifts. Anyone can pop onto Amazon and grab something generic as a birthday present. Giving them something homemade and that took time is priceless and so much more appreciated. Check out these cheap Christmas gift ideas for more inspiration.
- Throw cheap birthday parties. Cheap doesn’t mean it’s boring or less fun. Just rethink priorities when it comes to celebrating. You can have just as much fun at home (or a free party spot) than at an expensive venue. Check out more cheap birthday ideas here.
- Reuse old clothes. Old clothes that are no longer mendable are the perfect rags for cleaning, car work, or cleaning up spills in the garage.
- DIY your home decor. Learning to make home decors like curtains and shelves is a fun hobby, saves money, and you’ll be so proud of yourself you can barely stand it!
Final Depression Era Guidelines to Save Even More Money
Whether you’re a senior or just moved out of your parents’ house, we can use frugal reminders on how to cut expenses. Some of them are basic but will still save a lot – like using the local library. Did you know that you can rent tools, like sewing machines, from most libraries?
Often, we followed money-saving guidelines with our parents or grandparents that we often forget about as we get older. Remembering these guidelines and implementing them again can help to shave down our budget. Here are some additional reminders of things to try:
- Learn how to barter.
- Ride your bike or walk instead of driving.
- Learn to make do and live on less.
- Learn to go without sometimes.
- Use everything up, including the toothpaste at the bottom of the tube.
- Use the library.
- Find free entertainment.
- Borrow what you can from your neighbors (within reason).
- Save for what you want by creating sinking funds rather than throwing them onto a credit card.
- Don’t buy new. Use Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or eBay to find the same items used.
- See if you can find it for free. Nextdoor is a great place to see what others are just giving away.
- Take care of what you have and start a maintenance schedule.
- Sell items you don’t need.
- Learn to be more self-reliant by growing your vegetables or raising animals.
Lastly, and most importantly, learn to be happy with what you have. Learning to live below your means helps to set your expectations and become more optimistic. By doing this, you’ll stop spending money you don’t have, pay off debts like credit cards quicker, and start saving more for your future.
A forty-ish web designer/developer by day, a budget & financial fanatic by night. I’m a mom, wife, avid reader, and DIY enthusiast who’s tracking our journey to debt freedom. Read More