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12 Frugal Lessons From the Great Depression

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: August 1, 2022
12 Frugal Lessons From the Great Depression

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During the Great Depression, frugality was considered a virtue and the phrase “Use it up, Wear it out and Make it do” was the guiding principal in most households.

Times were tough.  This meant that everything from bits of strings to worn out clothing was saved and re-purposed in some other manner.  Not only that, but every last bit of food from a can or bottle was swished out with a bit of water and used to flavor a soup or stew.  Printed chicken feed sacks became skirts and flour sacks became underwear.  Nothing was wasted.

12 Frugal Lessons from the Great Depression | Backdoor Survival

These days, most of us are too young to have lived through the Great Depression.  On the other hand, many individuals who were children or teenagers at the time have chronicled their life during that era, bring it back to life in vivid detail.

Something that rings true in many of these memoirs is that as youngsters, everyone was poor.  No one felt specially deprived since everyone was in the same boat.  And if one family was worse off than another?  Neighbors help neighbors the best they could.  Children, parents, and grandparents formed extended families that made do.

Times were hard then, yet family values were strong.  Things are different now yet one thing remains clear:  a second Great Depression could happen at any time.  For that reason, as citizens of the world and as preppers, we need to learn from the old ways and to embrace the time-honored frugality that was a way of life for our parents and grandparents.

Money Does Matter

As much as I would like to say that money does not matter, in the here and now, money is the currency of trade.  It is required to buy food, put clothes on our backs, and to pay for the shelter of our homes.  Plus, the last time I checked, you also need money to pay taxes (whether you feel you get good value from those taxes or not).

Here on Backdoor Survival, I have written about family preparedness as a lifestyle.  I have tried to impart choices that you can make to ensure that you and your loved ones live a good long time in good health and within a safe environment.   From time to time I throw in an occasional essay or rant too, because after all, we all need to get the angst off our chests once in a while.

So where does that leave us?  Here are a dozen old fashioned tips for conserving your hard earned cash so that you have a little extra left over for those extra preps as well as a few lifestyle treats that we all need every once in a while.

Frugal Lessons Learned from the Great Depression

1.  If you already have it, use it

Think about it. Over the years you have accumulated lots of stuff. Some of it may be a bit shop worn and out of style, but the stuff is still serviceable. If it still works, use it.  You may even begin to think of you oldies but goodies as trusty friends.

Don’t give in to the bombardment of ads encouraging you to go out and purchase the latest model or the next best thing.  If money is burning a hole in your pocket, use it for something you truly need, not something you merely want.

2.  Shop for a bargain and get it cheaper

Research all of your major purchases and some of the minor ones, too. Check out the online reviews and also the recommendations of friends so that you can be an informed consumer. Ask the clerks at the store when the item of interest will go on sale. Believe it or not, you will sometimes be offered a discount on the spot. It happens.

Here is related hint: watch for price protection and price matching.

3.  Used can be just as good as new

Sometimes it makes good sense to buy used. Furniture can be purchased for a song on Craigslist or at garage sales and heck, you can often get some pretty good stuff for free.

Another area where you can save really big bucks is on clothing. Ebay is a gold mine for name brand clothing that is often new. Evening gowns, tuxedos, wedding wear and other dress-up items are especially cheap on eBay. On the other hand, be wary of used electronics since there is no substitute for hands on testing prior your purchase.

4.  Learn to cook

Restaurant meals can be a rat hole for cash.  So is your local, specialty coffee shop. That is not to say that you should avoid eating and drinking out completely, but make those occasions a special treat rather than something you do because you are too tired or too lazy too cook.

Can’t cook?  Get yourself a basic cookbook and call a friend over to help get you started. Once you start eating home cooked food, you will be hooked on how delicious those vegetables and salads taste. While you are at it, don’t forget about cakes and cookies. Homemade is always better than store bought.

Remember grandma’s fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, or in my case, Biscochos?

5.  Become a fix-it guru

Before sending that broken appliance to the garbage heap and replacing it with something new, try to fix it yourself. There are many web sites (, that offer lots of how-to’s for fixing everything from your Maglite to your laser printer to your espresso machine.

In addition, you can find service manuals for many products on line at the manufacturer’s web site. And lastly, try calling the customer service number. Many times the company will guide you through troubleshooting steps or even send you free parts. I have found that this works especially well with plumbing issues.

6.  Make if yourself

You do not need a PhD in home economics or engineering to make your own cleaning supplies, build your own compost bin or construct a set of bookshelves.  Using inexpensive supplies and some basic tools, you can create all sort of things.

The Instructables website mentioned above as well as YouTube are a haven for the both the novice and the not-so-novice do-it-yourselfer.  Just be forewarned.  Once you go to either site to look for something, you may find yourself browsing – and learning – for hours on end.  It’s actually fun!

7.  Move fashion to the bottom of the list

Choose function over fashion. This is difficult, I know. But think about the item you intend to purchase and how it is going to be used. A fancy, Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer may look great on your counter, gorgeous actually, but if you only cook the basics and don’t bake, a hand mixer may be all that you need.

This same concept applies to lots of things: clothing, TVs, jewelry, you name it.  This especially applies to cars.  My own vehicle is 13 years old and still going strong.

8.  Do it yourself

Mow your own lawn, clean your own house, give yourself a manicure, wash your own dog. Now if you truly hate to do something, don’t do it if you can afford to hire it out.  Or better yet, trade a chore you detest with a chore that someone else dislikes.  You both get the job done without spending a dime.

Life is too short to be miserable. But for the most part, with a bit of time management, there are lots of things you can do yourself with just bit of effort. Not paying for services that you can perform yourself is a great way to save a lot of money.

9.  Take advantage of freebies

Use public beaches, parks and trail systems for recreational activities. Use your public library. Go online and download geographically specific recreational guides and even preparedness manuals from your state and county web sites. None of these are technically free because your taxes have paid for them, but they are free in the sense you have no additional out of pocket costs.

Speaking of libraries, have you checked yours out lately? Most libraries now have a robust collection of eBooks, audio books, audio book players, music CDs, DVDs and more. I often will select a book at the library so that I can look it over prior to making a purchase for my Kindle.

10.  Get out of debt

This is obvious and is the subject of the recent article, The No-Nonsense Guide to Getting Out of Debt.  Check out the snowball method described in this article to pay things off as quickly as possible.

Sure, you may have a mortgage payment and possibly a car payment.  But credit card debt?  I hope not but if you happen to be saddled with credit card debt, come up with a one or two year plan to pay off the debt.  Just be sure that you also toss all of your credit cards into a drawer, never to see daylight again unless there is a dire emergency.

The old saying made popular by banksters “use your credit card . . . it is the same as cash” simply does not work any more.  It never did.

Go back over the tips listed above.  Use what you have.  Fix it if it is broken.  Choose function over fashion.  Now put that credit card back in your wallet!  Better yet, hide it in the back of your dresser drawer.

11. Build an emergency cash fund

Stuff happens.

Your car has a mechanical breakdown and there is no other way to get to work or to town so you have to have it fixed.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a cookie jar full of dollar bills so that you can pay for the repairs?  In the old days, this was called a rainy day fund.  These days, it is called an emergency fund.

Much like prepping, this is one thing you can do using baby steps.  How about one meal a week of beans, rice, and a nice chunk of healthy bread (that you have made yourself)?  This type of meal is extremely economical and you can put the money you save into your emergency fund.

Equally important is that no matter what your age, by saving a small amount each week, you are building a lifetime habit – one that will serve  you well for many years to come and hopefully one that you will pass on to your children.

12.  Save for the special things in life

Now we get to the nitty gritty.  This is my favorite tip.

Reward yourself for being a both smart and frugal.  Come up with an occasional treat.  Perhaps it is a shiny new pocket knife. Or perhaps a special meal out and movie.  Or perhaps it is a weekend away at the ocean.  For some, the special treat may be something a simple as a bouquet of flowers or a some decadent dark chocolate.

My current splurge is a new Adult Coloring Book.  This is a fantastic hobby that I took up a few months ago.  I admit to being totally obsessed.  A new coloring book in print format and is a total splurge over the eBook version I can print for free.  This is my own personal “special thing”.  Find yours and save for it.

Life would be very boring if you did not reach out and do something extraordinary once in awhile.  Go ahead.  You have earned it.

The Final Word

Being frugal is not being cheap. And being frugal is definitely not the same as being chintzy.  Quite the contrary. Being frugal means that you have made a lifestyle choice to spend your money on the things you need, no more and no less. I call that the Sweet Spot of Frugal.

If you plan well. you will be able to celebrate your frugality y doing special and joyful.  So my recommendation? Go ahead and use it up, wear it out and make it do.  And if you can not do that, do without.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to email updates.  When you do, you will receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-Book, The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide.

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Bargain Bin:  Below you will find links to the items related to today’s article as well as some books and supplies to get you focused on frugality.

Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories, and Recipes from the Great Depression: If you don’t know about Clara, be sure to read Depression Cooking: A Visit to Clara’s Kitchen.

Growing Up in the Great Depression: If you liked Clara’s Kitchen, you are going to love this book.  Written by 93 year old Delores Mixer, learn about her life growing up during the Great Depression.  The ways that she and her brother contributed to the family “kitty” are ingenious.  (Going to the Ice Warehouse, picking up pieces that fell off the ramp, then selling them to neighbors for a few cents a chunk – that is just one example.)

Color Me Calm: 100 Coloring Templates for Meditation and Relaxation:  This book was my latest splurge and what a fantastic adult coloring book it is!  Yes, I am totally addicted. As far as pencils go, I love the cheapies I purchased so much more than the pricey Prismacolors.

The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness:  This is the simplest, most straightforward game plan for completely making over your money habits. It is based on results, not pie-in-the-sky fantasies.  I personally know a number of people who have conquered debt by using Dave Ramsey’s plan.

The Prepper’s Financial Guide: Written by Jim Cobb, this is the book you want to learn about a  disaster-proof investment strategy to ensure stability and security before, during and beyond a marketplace meltdown.  Read more in the Book Festival article Prepper Book Festival 8: Preppers Financial Guide.

The Penny-Pinching Prepper: Save More, Spend Less and Get Prepared for Any Disaster :  There is nothing not to like about this book.  Written by Bernie Carr, is packed with inexpensive DIY projects for keeping your family safe in any worst-case scenario.

Make the Bread, Buy the Butter:  A fun book that will make you feel a teeny bit less guilty when you buy instead of making it from scratch.

Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets (Pack of 10): I do believe in helping my neighbors in the community so a supply of these will be handy to hand out to those in need. You will be surprised at how warm these will keep you. Be sure to test one out in advance so that you have the confidence to trust the blanket in an emergency.

iRonsnow Dynamo Emergency Solar Hand Crank Self Powered AM/FM/NOAA Weather Radio, LED Flashlight, Smart Phone Charger & Power Bank: This unit has it all in one portable package.  It can be also be powered using 3 AAA batteries.  This is a great value.


10 Pack Mini LED Flashlights:  What a great deal on 10 mini flashlights on a key ring – button batteries included.  I happen to like a more sturdy ring so I remove the one that comes with and use a small bit of tie-wrap (zip tie) instead.   The included battery seemingly lasts forever and at this price, you can stash them in the car, purse, pocket, tool box and by the circuit breaker box, and still have some left over for other uses.

Shipping is free.


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25 Responses to “12 Frugal Lessons From the Great Depression”

  1. I’m 61 years young and was brought up on “use what you have, make it do,etc.” When cleaning out my great grandparents attic, we found a box marked “pieces of string too small to use”. That’s exactly what was in there. Another use for old clothing is quilting. If there’s no one else to pass it down to and parts of the fabric are still viable, cut quilt pieces from it. Another of my great grandmas taught me to quilt. Quilts make cherished gifts!

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  3. manual tools; no electricity but wood- or coal-stoves; always hand-washed dishes as well as laundry; domestic animals; kitchen-gardens w/everything that will grow; hand-dug gardens; home-canned fruits, vegetables, “cellared” potatoes and root-crops — rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese and a pig home-slaughtered, processed and preserved — that is how I grew up and my “PLAY” was helping with the chores starting at age three with small things, gradually progressing towards more elaborate chores and increasing responsibility; we grew up on home-made clothing and hand-me downs and all things frugal, but did not miss much, even survived WWII and lost everything — AGAIN ??? Hopefully not, as my family live far away and I am old now w/ some mobility problems which leave me dependent on some, yes, some help 🙂 🙂

  4. Very inspiring comments. Its quite informative to learn useful practical life skills which have been practiced successfully by others. I seem to believe that resources are not adequate for quite a majority the world over. As such, the comments posted here are quite imvaluable. Thank you colleagues for your sharing such useful wisdom.

  5. If you are a fan of the adult coloring books-find and Ollies Outlet store near you. They have really nice books, 10-25% of the regular cost. I get them for the people on my Christmas list-and they love the nice books I have found there.

  6. Love the list. People, young and old need to learn this. However, using the Kitchenaid mixer as an example wasn’t being frugal. I purchased mine in the 1970s with babysitting money. I wanted to learn to make bread and these have a bread hook. It’s the only mixer I’ve ever purchased and I still use it constantly! Great investment.

  7. We have always been frugal. As we have gotten older, the companies that will hire someone older reduce their pay to what it was, doing the same work, 25%. Is it fair? no. As I said, we are very frugal. Despite the fact that our children are all adults, we still have 14 grands. I worked all summer perusing ebay and Amazon for Christmas.Amazon (the prices increase at Amazon when getting closer to the holidays) I have done well. Eight dollars per kid for the older kids B’days the youngest get a book for Christmas and a small toy for Birthday. I In all honesty, we have worked around that 25% loss really well. We both make gifts as well, but not this year. We put up food, and buy on sale and put in the freezer. We do other things, but the biggest advantage for gifts is buying for the Holidays ahead of time.

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