18 Frugal Living Tips from the Great Depression

18 Frugal Living Tips from the Great Depression

18 Frugal Living Tips from the Great Depression

Information about 18 Frugal Living Tips from the Great Depression


The Great Depression may have been almost 100 years ago, but many of the life lessons and frugal living tips from the Great Depression still apply today.

From 1929-1933, the Great Depression was one of the most significant economic downturns in the United States (and eventually the world). People lost their jobs; the country was rapidly moving towards World War II, and times were frightening. But at the same time, many of our grandparents and great-grandparents enjoyed happy childhoods, proving that it’s possible to live with less.

Woman in the great depression feeling sad.

While times may not be quite so dire these days, there are still plenty of lessons and frugal living tips from the Great Depression that apply to life now. If you’re looking for ways to save money and get yourself to financial freedom, use some of these frugal living ideas from the Depression.

18 Frugal Living Tips from the Great Depression

Today, most of us don’t need to live like we’re in the same state as our grandparents during the Great Depression. While we may face some difficult financial struggles, we can often do some things to help get ourselves out of debt and back to a place where we can be relatively comfortable.

During the Great Depression, the entire world economy collapsed. People were waiting in bread lines because there was simply no work available, even if they were willing to do it. People lost their homes and had to travel to find odd jobs while relying on the kindness of others.

Today, even at the most challenging points, unemployment has hit 14% but usually hovers between 4-6%. To put it in perspective, during the Great Depression, unemployment was at about 25%. While that only lasted a short time, the number of people out of work during the Depression were also mainly primary breadwinners. In today’s numbers, both household members might be counted (if they were previously part of the workforce. So, it’s a different economic landscape.

One thing about the Great Depression, though, it was a time before credit cards and even when most people didn’t take out a mortgage or have credit. However, in the 1920s, people began to take out “installment plans” to buy items and pay in installments. When the economy tanked, they also didn’t have much in the way of savings and had no way to keep up on their installment plans.

Today, folks often carry a lot of debt, with the average American having around $90,000 in debt (including a mortgage). Many of us have realized that we’re vulnerable to have more debt than we can manage. We’ve started to realize that we need to pay off debt and avoid taking on more if we don’t want our household finances keeping us up at night.

So how can we do that? How can we avoid taking on debt and start living more frugally? Follow these 18 frugal living tips from the Great Depression to help you get your finances on track. These lessons may be old, but they still apply today.

#1 Don’t Waste Food

During the Great Depression, wasting food was unheard of. If you had a chicken, you’d eat all of the chicken—using the whole bird. You might make stock out of the giblets and save the feathers for stuffing. Everything was used up, and nothing went to waste.

By meal planning and sticking to a list at the store, you can also cut back on grocery waste. Buy what you need and put it to use in multiple meals. Find innovative ways to use up the last of something before it goes in the garbage.

#2 Grow a Garden

Mom and child growing a garden in their backyard.

Back in the early part of the 20th Century, nearly everyone had a garden. Growing herbs, vegetables, and fruit meant your household would have at least something to eat. People were reliant on their gardens for a steady supply of nutritious foods.

Today, you might not be able to eat solely from your garden, but planting a garden can help ensure your family has some nutritious fruits and veggies to weave into their meals. Not to mention that growing easy items like herbs and lettuce can really help you save on your grocery bill.

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#3 Use “Whole” Foods

Most of our grandparents made foods from scratch. There wasn’t a wide selection of premade foods like there are today. As a result, the foods were often healthier in some ways—free of preservatives and additives—and less processed.

Eating fewer processed foods is good for us today. Not only is shopping for whole foods one of the best frugal tips from the Great Depression, but it’s also a great health guideline. Choose foods that are close to “whole” and minimally processed whenever possible.

#4 Make a Casserole

Yummy casserole made from plants grown in your garden outside.

During the Great Depression, when people needed to use up an ingredient, they might make it into a casserole, bake, or soup. Using rice or noodles in a casserole dish can stretch a flavorful ingredient like pork or beef. Turning a meal into a soup can make it last several more days with the addition of a bit of milk or water.

Follow these same frugal tips from the Great Depression by enjoying more soups and casseroles in your meal plan. Not only do these items freeze and reheat beautifully (many are also slow cooker friendly), but they’re often kid-friendly and crowd-pleasing.

#5 Enjoy Simple Meals

During the Great Depression, people ate simple meals. They didn’t have many expensive ingredients, so they made do with sandwiches, soups, and simple spreads. Buttered noodles, rice, oatmeal, or a simple bowl of grits could be a satisfying meal for pennies.

Today we can simplify our cooking just like they did during the Great Depression. Learn how to swap in items if you don’t have them on hand (like this recipe for “Wacky Cake,” which requires no eggs, butter, or milk). Keep meals stress-free and unfussy.

#6 Learn to Bake

If you want to save money and live frugally as they did during the Great Depression, learn how to create your own baked goods. During the Great Depression and wartime, there were often rations on certain ingredients (or people couldn’t afford them), but the simplicity of baked goods makes them easy to create.

Cookies, cakes, cinnamon rolls, pies, and bread, require few ingredients and cost a fraction of what the already-made versions cost. With flour, salt, sugar, baking soda, and little else, you can create all sorts of delicious dishes.

#7 Preserve It!

Several foods that are canned and preserved at home.

Another way that frugal folks saved money during the Great Depression was by learning how to can and preserve food. There was little refrigeration at the time, and if you wanted fruits and veggies over the winter, they’d need to be canned or pickled to last all season.

Making your own jam or pickles can still be a frugal way to make the harvest last all year. If you grow an abundance of cucumbers or beets, pickles are a good solution. The other way to make food last is by freezing. Cooking freezer meals is an excellent way to save both time and money.

#8 Keep a Pantry

The chances are high that your grandma had a pantry. Back in the early 20th Century, people kept dry goods on hand in the pantry to use all season long. It was essential to have staples like flour, sugar, and grains so you could make an inexpensive meal quickly.

Today, many of us may still have a pantry, but it’s important to keep it stocked with essentials so you can whip up a weeknight meal any time. Keeping pasta, canned goods, and other items in your pantry will help ensure that you never run out of dinner options.

#9 Save Money Faithfully

Money saved in a jar to build up wealth and prosperity.

During the Great Depression, people really learned the value of a dollar. They worked hard to save anything extra, and nothing went to waste. Having even an extra nickel often could mean the difference between feeding your family a meal or going hungry.

Today, one of the best frugal tips we can take from the Great Depression is to save money. Make putting money away a regular habit. If you get extra, don’t spend it right away. Pretend like you didn’t have that money come in and put it away for a rainy day.

#10 Don’t Take on Debt

The Great Depression taught many people the dangers of credit and buying “on-time” or “in installments.” When the money ran out, there was no way to pay off those debts, and it left many people in over their heads.

We can take this as one of the lessons from the Great Depression—don’t take on debt. Now, sometimes a mortgage, a student loan, or a car loan becomes necessary, but when that happens, try to take on as little debt as possible and put as much down as you can. Pay off your debts regularly with a little extra to watch it go down fast.

#11 Live within Your Means

Another of the Great Depression’s frugal lessons was to live within your means. When people bought a bigger house, more equipment, or more things than they could afford to keep and maintain, they found themselves in major financial peril.

Living within our means dictates that we don’t take on more than we can afford. Instead of buying a fancy car, we might buy a used clunker. Instead of buying a giant house, we buy a home with a mortgage we can afford comfortably. Give yourself some wiggle room in case an emergency comes up, or you find yourself in a financial dilemma.

#12 Write Down Everything

Many of us probably saw our grandparents write down all kinds of notes about money and spending. Maybe they kept a booklet in their car to write down the gas mileage each time they paid at the pump. They likely balanced their checkbook, kept a grocery list, and wrote down important notes.

Today, with so many online services, it may seem obsolete to balance your checkbook (if you even write checks) or track gas mileage. But staying organized means keeping track of where your money goes. Writing down a budget and tracking money out can help you quickly pinpoint what’s happening with your bank account.

Use our 2022 Goal Getting Planner to write down your goals for 2022!

#13 Spend Time Managing Your Money

On a similar note, during the Great Depression, people spent time tracking every single cent that came in the door. Everyone knew how much money they had because it was scarce and hard to come by. They never lost track of a penny.

We can take this as a frugal tip from the Great Depression—make time to manage your money. Put a time to review your budget, check out your bank account, and pay your bills on the calendar. Keep it just like an appointment. Managing your money is one of the most important things you can do!

#14 Use Your Talents to Earn

Mom and daughter making Christmas crafts to sell and make money.

During the Great Depression, people tapped into their talents to earn money for their families. Maybe they took on sewing repairs for the neighborhood or did odd jobs for others around town. Some people took on childcare so that others could go out and work.

Tap into your talents and follow this frugal tip from the Great Depression. We all have a talent for something. Look at how you could teach those skills to others, how you could make something to sell, or how you could employ your talents to make more money for your family.

#15 Work as Hard as Needed

People in our grandparent’s day had a strong work ethic. They knew that when work was scarce, they had to be willing to do anything that came along. They didn’t shirk a task, and they gave it their all, no matter how tough or unpleasant.

We can take this lesson from the Great Depression and apply it to our lives now. Of course, life shouldn’t be all about work, and we have to have time to enjoy our kids and family. But by focusing on our work and really doing our best job when we’re working, we’ll get more done and find more pockets of free time to enjoy.

#16 Learn DIY Beauty

Woman using DIY goodies for beauty like cucumbers and natural face masks.

During the Great Depression, trips to the salon were unheard of. People learned how to give at-home haircuts, use natural beauty products and make do with what they had. During WWII, the materials for women’s stockings were limited, so ladies would draw a line up the back of their legs to look like they were wearing silk stockings.

While we might not paint on our socks today, we can still apply many DIY beauty tips to help us save money. Learn how to trim your bangs, cut your kids’ hair, or do your own manicure to help you save. Consider DIY beauty products like face masks and sugar scrubs to help you save money (while still treating yourself)!

#17 The Best Looks are Neat and Simple

During the Great Depression, people didn’t spend a lot of money on fancy items. However, many people still took great pride in their appearance. Many of us probably recall our grandparents shining their shoes and ironing their clothes. That’s because it made even inexpensive clothes look fancier and more luxurious.

We can apply this same frugal tip from the Great Depression today. If we want to make inexpensive clothes look nice, keep them clean and lean on the side of simplicity. Look for clean lines and classic shapes that will stay in style for a while. Instead of buying trendy clothes, look for things that will last. Keep them polished, pressed, and looking their best.

#18 Keep Your House Clean

Like keeping your clothes in good condition, keeping your house clean helps you feel proud of your home, even if you can’t afford the latest home décor. During the Great Depression, people learned to decorate using little touches—paper cutouts, homemade decorations, and natural items like flowers to spruce up their houses.

If you want to decorate your home frugally today, you can follow these same lessons from the Great Depression. Learn how to do household repairs, fix up items with a coat of paint, or rearrange them for a new look. Look for inexpensive ways to decorate your home and keep it looking nice by keeping it clean and tidy. It doesn’t need to cost a lot to have a beautiful living space.

As you can see, there are many amazing lessons we can learn from history. Our grandparents and great-grandparents survived during tough times and still found ways to be happy and to enjoy the company of friends and family.

Even if you’re trying to save money and live frugally, you can still enjoy life. Follow these frugal tips from the Great Depression to keep yourself and your home looking great on a budget.

More frugal living tips from the great depression?

Do you have more frugal living tips from the great depression? Have you tried any of these tips? Let us know in the comments!

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