Sure to be some of your favorite frugal living tips, these ideas from the great depression will inspire you to save money the old-fashioned way. Let’s reset our modern expectations about what we deserve, what we can afford, and how to save money, and get inspiration from tough times and tough people.
Only buy what you can afford in cash
During the Great Depression, credit was rare to non-existent.
And to be honest, not having the temptation of credit cards probably made saving money easier. Handing over real money sends a message to your brain that using a card does not. When you are dealing with credit cards and online accounts, the amount of money you have seems very flexible, almost imaginary. What’s the difference between a few numbers on a screen, you think to yourself as you order one more thing.
Well paying with cash ends that fantasy quickly. You are spending real money that you (or someone else) worked hard for. Seeing that money leave your hand makes sure you don’t forget it.
Buy fewer, better things
It’s always smart to think about how long something will last when you are buying it. Sometimes spending a little more makes sense and saves you money in the long run. And sometimes it is better to spend less and forgo bells and whistles that are likely to break.
When you are considering buying something, think about how it will look in ten years. Can you paint it as time goes on? Will it be faded, junky plastic? Will you have thrown it out because it’s actually not very nice? If you plan on every purchase being a long-term purchase, you reconsider a lot.
Take good care of your possessions
And with that, take care of what you have bought. When you have spent the money on something that’s built to last, make sure you are getting the most out of it by performing maintenance, keeping things clean, and storing them well.
During the Great Depression, people had to take great care of what they had because it couldn’t easily be replaced.
Repair what you can
There is a famous depression-era story about children who walked home from lunch every day, except when it was raining, because their shoes had cardboard soles that couldn’t get wet.
Now that’s obviously not what we are aiming for here. But if you can squeeze a bit more wear out your clothing, your appliances, your car, by making a repair, instead of buying a new one, you will save a lot over time.
Don’t spend so much on utilities
Air conditioning and central heat are clean and convenient. But they are expensive!
Heating your home with wood is a big cost-saving measure, and usually saves money even if you have to buy your firewood.
Air conditioning is a huge expense in hot regions, and it is definitely hard to live without, especially when it is humid. But one of the best depression-era money-saving tips to remember is that recently, a lot of today’s necessities didn’t even exist. So even though it doesn’t seem like it, air conditioning is a luxury. Treat it like one!
Use less water
It saves water to turn it off while you are brushing your teeth and doing the dishes.
Try filling a bowl with water at the sink and using that to wash the dishes instead of having the water running constantly. Time your showers and try to shorten them.
DIY what you can
Not for everything, but for some things. Painting, mowing the lawn, cleaning, washing your car, and other simple jobs can be done by most healthy people. Or consider hiring a neighborhood teen in need of a little extra money!
Air dry your clothing
Your dryer is one of the biggest uses of electricity in your house. Luckily, it is one of the appliances that can easily be replaced with a little hard work.
Hanging your clothes up to dry takes a little getting used to, but you might find that you actually enjoy it after a while. It’s a chance to get outside in the fresh air, stretch your body, and feel truly productive. It extends the life of your dryer, saves money on electricity, and the sun does a great job of bleaching and freshening clothes.
If your clothes feel stiff after drying outside, try moving them over to the dryer for about ten minutes when they are very slightly damp.
Use rags for dishes and cleaning
We’ve all heard “waste not, want not”, and it’s absolutely true. If you’re able to make something out of nothing and save your money when you don’t need to spend it, you will be able to keep your money for something else. So instead of spending money week after week on paper towels while you’re grocery shopping, use rags whenever you can.
Old clothes and old cloth diapers make great rags for cleaning. When they are almost worn out, save them for really dirty jobs like wiping out greasy pans. Every little bit helps!
Make homemade cleaners
So many modern cleaners are expensive and not really necessary. You can clean almost anything with baking soda, lemon juice vinegar, soap, and water. For tougher cleaning jobs, try a mildly abrasive scrub like Bon Ami or Bar Keepers Friend.
🌻 Dive deeper in this related post: How to Save Money on Cleaning Supplies
Drink water or tea
Soda is SO expensive! And it’s something that is totally unnecessary when a perfectly good drink is available in your kitchen for free. Juice and other soft drinks can really add up over time, too.
Of course, drinking water all day can be extremely boring. But instead of stocking up on expensive pre-made drinks, why don’t sit down and relax with a nice cup of something warm? Tea and coffee and both frugal choices.
Don’t waste food
This is one of the frugal living ideas from the depression that lives on today in many homes, especially among older generations.
Save leftovers to eat later. Save stale bread to make stuffing. Save bacon grease for cooking. There are creative ways to reuse food, and then there’s good old-fashioned eating leftovers for dinner. During the great depression, throwing food away was not okay. And to be honest, when you have little money, it’s still not okay.
Make food stretch
Throwing away food is throwing away money. (Or if you’ve grown it yourself, throwing away lots of hard work.) If you find yourself throwing food out on a regular basis, set up a leftover night once a week when you eat everything in the fridge.
If your kids can never finish their food, give them smaller portions. If you don’t like leftovers at all, make sure you are fixing what will be eaten in one sitting.
One of my favorite great-depression era tips: cut toast into four small triangles when you serve it; it makes it seem like there’s more food.
Take whatever transportation you can get
Of course, we all love the idea of riding around in air-conditioned luxury, listening to our favorite songs, and having doors automatically open and close.
Depression-era travel was very limited and often very uncomfortable. Men would hitch rides on boxcar trains if they had to in order to head into the city for work. No one had the luxury of being snobby about a vehicle. Whatever would get you there, they would take it.
Keep a stocked pantry
Make sure that, like grandma, you always having something available in your pantry that you can make a meal out of. Nothing drains the budget faster than running out to the store for a “few” quick things that you need to make for dinner.
You can focus on canning your own food if you want, but the most important thing is to just have shelf-stable food on hand that you can serve without too much notice.
The idea of constantly snacking is a modern one. Up until the 1950s, there was no such thing as “snack time”. It’s okay to get a little bit hungry in between your meals! And there is nothing wrong with just having fruits or vegetables as a snack, too.
I am as guilty as anyone of buying snacks (and eating them!). But they are definitely a waste of money.
Make your backyard productive
Your backyard is not just for entertaining and relaxing. At least, it doesn’t have to be. Not so long ago, almost everyone with a yard raised chickens. They don’t have to be expensive; they can often live on grass and food scraps.
Vegetable gardens were almost everywhere during the Great Depression. Look up victory garden plans for practical ways to lay out your garden in a small space. If you have good sunlight, it’s amazing how much of your own food you can grow in a small space.
Visiting neighbors used to be a much bigger deal and a big source of entertainment. If you are looking for something fun to do during the day, instead of going out for coffee or lunch, why not go visit a friend or neighbor for a quiet visit. It’s free and easy. (There are probably many people nearby who are lonelier than you think and would love the company.)
Playing board games with your family would have been considered a luxuriously relaxing evening during the Great Depression.
This is a little thing, but little things add up. Save scraps whenever you can and when it makes sense. Depression-era housewives past couldn’t afford to be so wasteful, because everything was more expensive. Use both sides of your paper, save small amounts of fabric for quilting or dresses for dolls, etc.
Even if this doesn’t really save you tons of money, it gets you in the habit of wasting less.
Borrow what you can
Before you go buy that new tool or gadget that you will only use a couple of times, check to see if a friend has one you can borrow.
Be sure you have things that they can borrow as well so that you don’t become a freeloader. And always return things in better shape than you got them.
Many families have things languishing in their garage that they would be happy to lend out in exchange for a small favor.
Go to bed early and wake up with the sun
Staying up late is bad for your health, mood, and pocketbook. It tends to involve either being out spending money or sitting around being unproductive.
If you can get in the habit of going to bed early and waking up early you’ll find that it saves you money too, in the long run. Start your day early and get it off on the right foot.
Hard work = saving money
A lot of the time, the most frugal way to do something is the hardest. If you can accept that and lose any fixation on doing things the easy way, you will enjoy life a little more.
Walk wherever you can
This doesn’t always work. For some people who live far away from a town, it will never work. But if you are within a mile of your destination and there is a safe way to get there, why not walk? Not only does it save gas, but wear and tear on your vehicle, as well as being good for you,
As a bonus, you are less likely to buy things while you are out if you know you have to carry them home!
Only use what you need
A frugal living tip passed down to me: When you buy a refill of something (laundry soap, toothpaste, whatever), pretend you’re almost out of it from the very beginning.
Bartering is better than selling because you don’t pay taxes. It can either be a formal arrangement, like something you post on a message board, or a casual arrangement between friends.
If the idea of this feels strange to you, try just giving things away that you have plenty of but have real value: homegrown veggies, eggs, homemade soap, things like that. You will get things back, even if you don’t ask for them. Wait and see
Let your kids be bored
Or even better, let them work hard.
Okay, maybe you don’t want to send them around the neighborhood selling berries. But they absolutely can (and should!) clean up after themselves and do chores around the house.
Don’t be scared! They aren’t that gross or difficult (well, no more gross or difficult than regular diapers.) And they will save you loads of money, especially if you have multiple children and are able to reuse them.
Bonus points for line drying them outside!
Make depression era recipes
Now there’s no need to go cooking bizarre things no one in your family will eat in order to save money. But browse through some great depression era cookbooks to see what people eat when times are tough.
You’ll notice that most recipes are starchy, low on meat, hearty, and simple. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Not every meal has to be a multi-course affair. Keep it simple while you’re saving money.
Sell little things on the side
Many people who lived through the Great Depression have stories of little side business that, added together, were enough to make ends meet.
Many children sold eggs, garden produce, or fish, going door-to-door around town.
Maybe this isn’t realistic today. But all of us have some things sitting around that could be listed on Facebook Marketplace or a hobby that could be turned into a little income stream, like a craft project that could be sold on the side.
Fix up old things
Of all the overpriced things in this world, furniture might be number one! And so much new furniture is not built to last.
Luckily, you can get simple furniture inexpensively if you are willing to hunt through yard sales. And even though much of it won’t be beautiful, you can paint it, reupholster it, or just live with it. Grandma certainly would have lived with a table that wasn’t to her taste before going into debt.
A word about frugal living tips in general
I hope these tips from our great-grandparent’s era have been inspiring and helpful. Keep in mind that a lot of these aren’t practical for today’s world. But if you ever feel deprived, poor, or start feeling sorry for yourself, a little perspective can be helpful.