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 (www.fixya.com, www.instructables.com) 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!

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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.

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

  1. No no no.
    1 if we went into a “great deprestion” it will be 1000 x worse then that one. No one will have any money. N no one will want it. Trade! Will be your friend. Skills will be you lover. If you worie about what the fashion of the week is YOU WILL DIE. Seeds, water, food, ANY Cloths, tobacco, pets / livestock, and Any usefull Skills like welding, building, surival, crafting, mechanics, emergency medical care, surgical care. are the best, cooking, cleaning, babysitting, some types of health care will be useless as will never pay well. As for home cooking “anyone can fry an egg”. Oranges, anything with high asid cleans well, and bleach, peroxide should be cheap. But your best bet in these events if you are able is to start from scrach, go get lost, build your own home, n hunt, get away from others, as they are what will kill you, or you will cercome to suicide. Go off grid. Harvest n hunt the moment you reliy on others you are putting your life in there hands. Do you trust pepole that much? Do look to be better then others, or selfish but more akin to help your self so that you may help others. Or even just have a better quiallity of life. How many pepole in big citys died at that time verus in the country ajusting for population. If you relie on a store, you are relieing on more then just that, the disburter, trucker, 100s of clerks, ect… In the wild its just you. But if you know what you are doing you can atleast trust yourself.

  2. I’ve always been the most frugal of my sisters, though we all grew up in very comfortable circumstances. Working after our sons began school (teaching) helped us save for retirement, college, and fun. Now, though, in retirement, I find my thinking slides toward “It’s only money,” while fearing the cutoff or reduction of my modest pension and our carefully saved/invested funds. Screwy, huh? Some of our generation is benefitting from our parents’ frugality through inheritances, which may give us a false sense of wealth. Meanwhile, our adult children face a far more slippery slope and either inevitable debt or never reaching the ‘heights’ we did. And the economy almost ensures that they won’t be getting any inheritance. Sorry for the rant, but it took me till my mid-fifties to feel calmer about buying basic necessities, and now I need to revert to being very careful again.

  3. When I stopped using a debit card, for the first time in my life I was able to save money. Now I have a short term savings, a retirement fund, and a rainy day fund. I only use the bank short term and not for any savings account. I pay for everything in cash that I can, and I fix everything at home myself, and it works! Got credit cards, to be sure, but my 18 month plan to pay them and discard them is in the works right now, and I will make it. There ain’t nothin’ in this world like becoming independent.

  4. Great stuff! I had the privilege of being raised by a mother who grew-up during the Depression (she is currently 91) so I learned all of the things mentioned in the article from a young age, and they have made a HUGE difference in my life, because I can live very well on very little money, which in turn has afforded me a degree of freedom unknown to most of my peers.

    The Depression was great! It seems to be prosperity which destroys people. For one example: My mother, at 91, is still in good health (Mentally and physically) because instead of being raisded on junk food, she was raised on very simple but very nutritious home-cooked foods, like beans & broccoli (I refer to them as Italian peasant foods… My grandparents were Italian immigrants- and their food wasn’t the rich fattening fare seen in Italian restaurants…but simple, healthy dishes, with lots of beans and veggies).

    It’s also quite interesting how different people responded to the same conditions (The Depression), while my mother has always been very generous and lived nicely on very little, one of her sisters became a veritable miser- i.e. just a cheap person, who hoarded things- and although she had a lot more money than my mother, you’d never know it. (And interestingly, that sister also died at one of the youngest ages of anyone in our family- only making it to 76 or 77- in a family where people generally live into their mid to late 90’s and stay in good health).

    But what I’d like to stress, is that one can live well, and not have to cheap or a hoarder, while being frugal and efficient with their money and possessions. I see so many people today just frittering their money and time away, and having little to show for it. It’s not just about being cheap…it’s about value.

    And the best thing I learned from my mother: Never be in debt! Save-up and buy it, or do without. That is the single most valuable economic lesson. Don’t buy thing on time; don’t do credit. ESPECIALLY so for big-ticket items which depreciate. Think about it- you finance a car for 5 years (or more) and pay interest, on something that depreciates the minute you drive away from the stealership! My current vehicles are 17 and 18 years old. One has 300K miles on it. They run like clocks…..

  5. “Use it up, Wear it out and Make it do” or do without, right?

    My grandfather would rattle off many of them old time bits of wisdom, too young for the first world war and too old for the second, his generation got the great depression and prohibition, but made do, and had the stories.

    On the coloring, interesting, my relaxing hobby is photo colorization and restoration. Similar idea, relaxing coloring pictures like a kid with a coloring book, but with image manipulation software(photoshop, gimp, etc).

  6. I grew up Depression style. I still to this day REALLY hesitate when we need to “get rid” of something that is beyond repair or re-purposing. Pop was the king of pack rats due to actually growing up during the Depression. He never could get rid of ANYTHING LOL. I’m not THAT bad but the DH teases me every once in awhile as I try to figure out if something still has any life in it LOL

  7. Everyone of these tips could have been written by me. This is how I have lived my whole life. It is soul-satisfying to know that we pay as we go in life, find the best deals (always), make homemade remedies, and are more concerned about building our emergency reserve and food storage over expensive night-outs, new clothes and gobs of shoes, and luxurious trips. I also include in this: helping others learn the same. We often make do, use it up, and wear it out. It’s common sense living and gives one peace of mind!

    • I know several couples (I’m retired) in their 40’s and fifties, who like me chose not to raise kids. Raising kids is very expensive and not practical when this country is headed for a train wreck. Best to get with like minded friends and form bartering groups if things slide down hill and get worse. America’s future is zero as many see it now, not a time for couples to raise kids that’s a given.

    • Raising children may not be for some, but for those of us who have chosen to have children and raise them, “their price is far above rubies”. One cannot put a value on another human being and say that they are too expensive. My husband and I are responsible adults who planned for our children and welcome each one as a gift from the Lord. Every parent becomes more frugal when a child is born and these tips are great for everyone: single, married, parent, grandparent, etc. Perhaps the future looks a lot like that of 1930’s. If everyone had quit having children then, you and your friends would not be here.

    • Being a mother and raising kids is the most important “job” in the world (Assuming one actually stays home and actually performs that task…) -But i have toheartily agree with the other poster- this is not the time nor the place. I vowed when I was still a teenager, that I would never bring kids into a world in which they could not be free (And the world was a lot freer in 1978 when I made that vow!)- Today, kids are just another excuse that the state uses to control you, and really, I’m not in the business of creating new tax-slaves for the state. Looks like more people are starting to figure this out, thankfully- and that means that maybe more people are seeing reality, and then maybe something somewhere can be done about it, so that there may again be a time and place in which it would again be suitable to bring new life into this world.
      Seriously, look at all these people in places like Africa, and Haiti and Detroit….their proclivity to procreate is causing their own poverty, and guaranteeing that their children will be even worse-off (As will we, because we are forced to pay for their indiscretions and have to support those kids as well as their worthless parents).

    • I will disagree on the credit card somewhat. Carrying a balance, NO, you are correct there, pay that off ASAP. But, once you DO get it paid off, get a cash back card and anything you were going to use your cash to pay for, use the card and pay it off by the end of the month. Most of us do online banking anyways today, so you can go online and flip the cash into the credit card a few times a month if you need. The point to this is, run the money through that card so you can get your 1 to 2 percent cash back, but make SURE you pay it off before the interest hits, this is a must. At the end of the year, you can find yourself with several hundred dollars, which you can also use as your special treat money.

      On this, many cards, the banks are just fighting for your business and some are offering nice incentives for using their card. Sometimes these incentives are a few hundred dollars for spending xxx in a certain time. Again, cycling money through the card is the key. Make that minimum, but PAY OFF THAT CARD every month!! Take your 200 dollars and be happy!!

      Yes your credit rating may take a small hit for getting a new card, but that hit goes away after a few months, and keeping that card paid off builds your credit rating too. Don’t sign up for too many cards at once, only do one at a time or you might get yourself into trouble. I typically go for one ‘gimme the greenies’ card every 6 months or so. Once you have satisfied the obligation where you are free and clear, close that account and open the next one. This way you don’t get dinged for ‘too many accounts’.

      If you are creative and do this wisely, you can easily get yourself 1000 dollars or more a year.
      Good luck and enjoy !

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