Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
I’ve often wondered just how much we could learn about frugal living from studying how people managed to get by during the Great Depression. How did they cook meals from essentially nothing?
How did they get clothing when they couldn’t afford to buy material? How did they cook and clean with no electricity? The idea of living on so little has just fascinated me lately.
I’ve been reading lots of books about Depression Era living, and have been soaking up every little tidbit of wisdom from this very thrifty generation.
We all know that people had livestock and gardens for food, but how did they manage other needs? Here are some really interesting things that people did back then:
Many of these lessons are ones that you could incorporate in your own daily life. Even if you aren’t struggling financially, being more frugal is a great way to reduce your household’s waste and to save a little bit more for the things that really matter!
Make Your Clothes Last
New clothes were practically unheard of for families during the Great Depression. Rather than heading to the department store when you wore out a pair of clothes, you would mend what you had – over and over again, in fact, until they couldn’t be mended anymore!
There are a few ways you can make your clothes last. For example, some people would make smaller clothes out of larger hand-me-downs. Others would use the backs of worn-out overall legs to make pants for little boys and even overalls for babies.
You could also mend worn-out socks with patches from other socks. Every scrap of material was saved for making quilts, and they even made things like underwear and diapers out of sugar and flour sacks.
Wear out your shoes before the year is up – or before there’s new money to buy a fresh pair? You go barefoot. I’ve even heard of people making patterned chicken feed sacks to make aprons, curtains, and dresses for little girls.
Use three full sacks, and you have enough for an entire housedress! Some people even saved string that came loose from clothing and kept it in a ball of string for tasks like quick mending jobs.
Use it ALL Up
Is there still a drop or two of toothpaste left in the tube? Don’t throw it out! Use it up. Still some shampoo in the bottle? Flip that thing upside down. During the Great Depression, people used every last inch of what they had when it came to food items, cleaning products, and personal care items. We throw out so much now that doesn’t really need to be tossed.
While you’re at it, use less of those products, too. We use way too much laundry detergent and soap, for instance – you only need a little bit to be effective. Using too much can not only be wasteful, but it can be ineffective (or even harmful, in some cases).
Make Things Yourself
We take the convenience of the local grocery store for granted, that’s for sure! DIY wasn’t a “trend” or a fun Pinterest board back in the Depression era. It was simply life. People made things from scratch, whether those things were cleaning supplies, breads, or other staples.
We actually have a major advantage over people back then – we have tools like the Internet to show us how to do things. You don’t have to rely on other people knowing how to do something and teach it to you!
There’s no shortage to the things you can make yourself. You can DIY everything from shampoo to cleaning products (which you can make out of pantry staples like vinegar and baking soda) and even lotions and creams.
Grow and Produce Your Own Food
As much as possible, try to grow and produce your own food. Gardens were vital during the Great Depression. Shortly after the Depression, as the economy revived itself, gardens became unfashionable and fewer people grew their own food (until the trend of “Victory Gardens” during World War II, that is).
Grow your own vegetables, at the very least, to help cut down on your waste. It’s also great for the planet – you’ll reduce the need for the fuel it takes to ship your food across the country.
You can also forage for food, which is a lost art that can help you lower your food budget quite considerably.
While you’re at it, try not to waste food, either. We waste a ton of food – up to 40%, in fact. Even if you aren’t letting produce rot in your refrigerator, there’s a good chance that you’re leaving money on the table.
Here’s an example – what do you do with meat bones when you cook a cut of meat (like a roasted chicken or a prime rib)? Do you toss them in the trash? If you’re not doing this already, you need to start making bone broth.
It’s delicious and nutritious and turns your waste to practically zero.
When you do buy meat, buy the whole piece of meat. For example, don’t buy chicken breasts. Buy a whole chicken. You’ll save a lot of money and it’s easy to cut up a chicken and freeze it, too.
You can use citrus peels to make cleaning solutions, while other kinds of fruit and vegetable scraps are perfect additions to soups or smoothies. Even “inedible” scraps can be composted so that you have soil for your compost or fed back to livestock, like chickens and pigs.
Quit Eating Out
On that same note, stop going to the restaurants. Your great grandmother could probably feed the family for aw eek or more on the amount you spent the last time you went out to eat. Ditch the weekly takeout and cook some meals instead.
If you can cook from scratch, that’s all the better. Convenience foods did not exist in the Depression era – if you were going to eat something, you had to make it from scratch. Even things like premade bread were very rare during these times.
Don’t forget all of those little expenses, too – like buying coffee at the gas station each morning or purchasing your lunch instead of brown bagging it to work. These things really help save money!
Meal prepping, or “batch cooking,” is a great way to save money as well as time in the kitchen. To do this, you’ll do all – or most – of your cooking on a single day (usually Sunday). You won’t have to put much work into cooking during the week and you’ll save money because you won’t be letting ingredients go to waste in the refrigerator, either.
You can even meal prep your baking. You can make multiple loaves of bread all at once and then just freeze them for later.
Try to use every last bit of a food in your weekly meal planning. I like to play a game where I see how long I can make it before having to go grocery shopping!
Back in the Depression, though, this wasn’t so much of a game as a way of life. When there was nothing more to eat, they had lard sandwiches. You don’t need to be that extreme, but challenging yourself to go without instead of running to the store every five minutes is a great lesson in patience, creativity, and frugality.
Learn How to Preserve
Canning your own food can really help you get more bang for your buck! Buy fruits and vegetable sin bulk, when they’re at their freshest, then can them. You’ll have plenty of produce to get you through the season and you won’t have to buy quite as much at the stores, either.
On that note, keep a well-stocked freezer and pantry. Whenever you find a good buy on something, get a little more than you actually need and freeze it.
Buy in Bulk
When you do venture out to the grocery store, consider buying in bulk. When you buy in large amounts, you’ll save money on the overall price per pound. You don’t have to buy perishable items in bulk, of course, but nonperishables like flour spices, sugar, and other dry goods last a surprisingly long time.
You don’t have to go totally vegetarian, of course, but cutting out meat every now and then can really reduce your grocery bill. You may want to substitute items like rice, lentils, mushrooms, beans, or oatmeal where you would normally have meat.
Borrow or Rent
Sometimes renting isn’t economical – I get that. But there are plenty of times in which borrowing something is a much smarter decision than buying it.
For example, how often do you go to the library? Would you rather just order a book on Amazon? Buying a book is kind of silly, when you think about it – you’re probably only going to read it once!
For things that you won’t get much use out of, like books and movies, consider renting or borrowing instead of buying them outright.
You can check in with friends and family to se what they might have to share or again, rely on the Internet. There are all kinds of resources where you can find things for free or cheap.
Even switching to streaming services, versus buying movies, is a smart choice. For instance, if you have Amazon Prime, you can watch television shows and movies at no added cost.
Do Your Own Repairs
YouTube is a godsend when it comes to teaching us how to do things! You don’t have to be a repairman in order to learn how to do a few quick fixes. Rather than hiring someone to change your oil, learn how to do it yourself.
You can figure out how to do just about anything with the help of the good ol’ Internet.
Reuse and Recycle
Did you know that, in the Depression, some people used newspaper instead of toilet paper? That might not sound like the most comfortable thing in the world, but it’s simply how people got by.
You don’t necessarily need to start saving the classifieds to do your morning business, but you can start reusing and recycling more items that you use on a daily basis. Save your junk mail as scratch paper when you’re taking notes, or use that leftover glass jar to store leftovers.
Wash Your Clothes Less Often
Did you know that every time you wash your clothes, you wear it out a little bit more? If it doesn’t truly need to be washed, don’t wash it – you’ll know it’s ready for washing when it’s soiled or smelly.
Line-drying your clothes can also help you save money (and it’s better for the planet, too).
Be Content With What You Have
One of the biggest flaws with our society is that we are always wanting more. We can’t simply be happy with what we have – we are always striving for more. Find better ways to spend your time than by going shopping for things you don’t need!
If you have to get out of the house, consider free opportunities for entertainment. For example, you can grab a few free movies from the library or you can go to community events, like festivals or concerts. Volunteering is a great way to spend your time, too!
Building credit is important, but you should avoid relying on it more than you need to. Buy only what you can afford, and when possible, pay for it with cash. Save for the things you want rather than relying on plastic to get you by.
Rethink Your Heating and Cooling
Rather than cranking up the thermostat in the winter, put on a few layers and a thick pair of socks. That’s all you need to stay warm! And in the summer, rather than relying on the air conditioner, why not hop in the lake for a refreshing, cooling dip?
Embrace the Odd Job
Today we call it “side hustle,” back then, they called it “being a Jack of all trades.” Either way, there are plenty of ways you can make money in addition to a regular job.
We’re lucky now, because we have more resources available to us (like the Internet!) to help us make money. Consider mowing lawns, washing dishes, or anything else on a part-time basis if you’re struggling to make ends meet.
You can even work from home! There are plenty of ways you can make money online, ideal if you have kids that need to be watched.
You may also want to consider various skills you have – you can teach others those skills and make a bit of money on the side.
Sell What You Don’t Need
Ideally, you won’t have too much to sell because you won’t be buying things you don’t need! But sometimes, you accrue things that are useful at one point and then lose their usefulness over time.
One example would be baby items. You definitely need a crib for your little one, but once he grows up, it’s just going to be taking up space.
Don’t let clutter collect dust! Sell whatever you don’t need. It’ll help you feel more relaxed – and get some money coming in, too.
Bartering is one of my favorite frugality tips. You may have bartered for goods before, but did you know that you can also barter for services?
For example, you could offer to help someone with a job at their house if they come over the next day and help you at yours. This is a great system, especially if you have certain skills that are difficult to come by.
When there was nothing more to eat, they had lard sandwiches.
My favorite Depression-era tip?
During these challenging times, people they gave what they could to those in need, shared their meal with a starving stranger, and neighbors helped each other out.
Truly, this is the biggest lesson we could learn from such an unfortunate time in history. When times got hard, they stuck together.
A city girl learning to homestead on an acre of land in the country. Wife and homeschooling mother of four. Enjoying life, and everything that has to do with self sufficient living.