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Frugal living tips from the Great Depression… We can all learn a lot from our grandparents and great-grandparents’ frugal Great Depression lifestyles. While we can’t predict what happens in the world, we should plan for unpredictability. And we can control how we respond to the bumps along the way.
Whether you personally feel like you’re in the Great Depression (job loss) or just want to build a hedge of protection around yourself so you never have to be desperate, these frugal living tips from the Great Depression really can save you a fortune. And therefore, help you grow a fortune.
#1 Frugal Living Tip from the Great Depression: Use what you already have.
There’s an old quote by Boyd K. Packer: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” It’s a prudent way to live. And it was a key frugal living tip during the Great Depression. Could we use it today?
During COVID-19 lockdowns, certain items were scarce due to high demand – think flour, toilet paper, hand sanitizer… Similarly, during World War II, many foods were rationed. You could only buy certain items if you had a government-issued coupon for it – which you needed for meat, cheese, sugar, coffee, canned fish, and canned milk.
Fast forward to today… when you need an ingredient, you run to the grocery store to pick it up. Even if it’s just one item! Or alternatively, you fill a $35 minimum delivery order to get it. But those unplanned trips to the grocery store can add up to a lot of extra money.
First, you’ll almost surely return home with up to half a dozen extra products that weren’t even on your list. Second, running your car isn’t cheap. Especially when it’s for one item. Oh… you say your store is only a mile from home? Even so, they recommend you not just drive your car for five minutes and then park it. Finally, if your time has any value, running to the store for one item burns through productive time you could be using to earn money with a side hustle or spend with your family.
Substitution Hacks Save Money and Time
Doing without that item may take a bit of ingenuity and creativity. Think outside the box. When a recipe calls for some kind of veggie, do you follow it to the letter, or are you willing to substitute a different veggie instead?
I have a recipe I use periodically to clean out my refrigerator. It uses leftovers – meat (protein), starch (rice/potato/pasta) and veggie. Start with a base of torn up bread pieces (any kind) and shredded cheese in a pan, layer the meat, starch, and veggies… then top with a basic white sauce with or without cheese. More bread crumbs on top are optional.
You can also turn fresh veggies near the end of their shelf life into veggie soup. Turn bread heels into homemade croutons… You get the idea. Learning a few substitutions can help too. Did you know these?
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice = ½ teaspoon vinegar
- One cup sour cream = 1 cup milk + 1-1/3 tablespoons vinegar = 1 cup plain full-fat yogurt
- 1 cup butter = ½ cup buttermilk + ½ cup applesauce
- ½ cup soy sauce = 4 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce + 1 tablespoon water
- White wine = equal amount of chicken broth or apple juice
- Red wine = equal amount of beef broth or grape juice
- 1 cup mayo = 1 cup plain yogurt
- One egg = ½ banana or ¼ cup applesauce
- 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning = ¾ teaspoon sage + ¼ teaspoon thyme
- One cup buttermilk = 1 cup plain yogurt
I got sick of wasting productive time running to the store and now rarely if ever do it. Even if you’re only a mile from the store, it’ll cost you at least half an hour of time by the time you drive round trip, find your item, and check out.
#2 Frugal Living Tip from the Great Depression: Grow some of your own food.
Gardening can save you a fortune. Did you know that one zucchini plant can produce about 10 pounds of zucchinis? If the price of zucchini at your store is about $2/pound for conventional and $3/pound for organic, you just found a way to grow money. Only partly kidding. That’s $20 or $30 of produce from a few cent’s worth of seeds.
Similar calculations can be done for other produce.
Of course, there are a few startup costs involved if you don’t already have access to good soil (an essential), a few simple tools, and a soil nutrition booster (think compost, liquid plant food). Plus, there’s a bit of a learning curve. But YouTube can bring you up to speed quickly. Another big benefit is that you can grow organic without paying organic prices. What’s more, it’s fun and educational for kids (of all ages) to watch the plants’ progress every day.
#3 Frugal Living Tip from the Great Depression: Cook with Depression-era recipes.
During the Great Depression, not only was money scarce… it was also hard to lay your hands on butter, eggs, and milk. Even those who produced them faced shortages, because they couldn’t afford to eat their profits. When times were tough and foods were in short supply, people relied on frugal recipes with short and cheap ingredient lists. Think beans and potatoes, not meat. And when butter, eggs and milk were in short supply, they found ways to make baked goods without items that we consider staples today.
There are a number of Depression-era recipe collections online. What they all have in common is a short ingredient list and ready availability of most of the ingredients. For example, cabbage soup (cabbage was a garden staple), potato soup (and various other potato dishes), bean soup, dandelion salad.
Meat was rare, so dishes contained just a tiny bit of meat, and was served with plenty of starch. One that my mother used to serve weekly was creamy chipped beef on toast. Wacky cake is a Depression-era chocolate cake that doesn’t require milk, butter, or eggs. And it’s kid-friendly. So even if you run out of “basics,” you can cook without a trip to the store.
There’s one caveat to these Depression era meals from a health viewpoint – which you must preserve if you want to build wealth. (See this article about why.) These dishes all tend to be high in starch and can therefore trigger insulin resistance and weight gain – which then become triggers for several other conditions. You need to balance saving money and guarding your health. Because if you lose your health you’ll have to spend more on doctors and insurance.
My advice? Cook non-meat dishes two or three times a week – with a bean, cabbage, or veggie-based menu. But keep potatoes, pasta, and rice to a minimum.
One study did find that refrigerating starchy foods after cooking them, improves their fiber content and lowers the health risk. So consider making your potato or bean soup the day before you plan to eat it, and refrigerate overnight before eating.[i]
Learn to substitute liberally. It can also save you a fortune. (See #1 above.) Cycle leftovers, soups and casseroles into a freezer. Great way to use up fresh produce quickly. Here’s an excellent, highly-rated freezer with good Amazon support. It’s perfect for a couple or small family who purchase in bulk, freeze garden or farmer’s market produce, and cook make-ahead meals. If you’re single you might be happier with this smaller model.
#4 Frugal Living Tip from the Great Depression: Make your own stuff.
A hundred years ago people made most of their own stuff. Today you can buy most of this same “stuff” and have it delivered straight to your front door within a day or two. It makes impulse spending a real temptation. Did you hear that? A real temptation.
Knowing when to make versus buy is critical when times are tough. Some savings seem so trivial as to hardly count for anything. But remember… little hinges swing big doors. Every dime you save can help you pay off debt and save for retirement. And it’s more fun if you can make it a game.
For example, you can make your own laundry detergent. Those who do, say they save 10 to 20 cents per load. If you do five to seven loads a week, you save 50 cents to a dollar each week. That’s up to $52 a year. Doesn’t seem like much. But if you’re trying to shed debt, every dollar you save on consumables multiplies due to the effect of compound interest on your debt.
Kitchen and bath cleaners are an easy DIY project. All you need is baking soda and vinegar – both of which are cheap at places like Costco.
If you really want to save big, try building your own furniture. Check out the possibilities at www.ana-white.com. Ready to invest in some basic woodworking tools? Here’s a list from my husband combined with advice from my brother-in-law, an expert fine furniture builder and instructor. These are basics for the task. You can recoup the startup cost of these items by your savings in things you build.
- Table saw
- Circular saw
- Miter saw
- Cordless drill
- Drill bit set
- Tape measure
- Speed square
Incidentally, learning woodworking can make you a more savvy, discerning shopper. And could even become a viable side hustle.
#5 Frugal Living Tip from the Great Depression: Don’t waste or throw away food.
There are endless ways to use up leftovers. And you don’t have to just reheat them till they’re mush. Since we’re on the subject, it’s so brain-dead simple these days to find recipes online that use an ingredient (or two) that’s about to go bad. Make it into something and freeze it if need be. Don’t throw good food away.
Need a freezer? It can be a great savings tool. Here’s an excellent choice that’s great for a family of four, and it has good Amazon support. Again, if you’re a single you might think a smaller freezer is more appropriate. Here’s one I like.
Start your savings by placing veggie scraps like tops, ends, skins and roots in plastic bags in the freezer till you collect enough to make into homemade vegetable stock or soup broth.
Scraps that work well for soup stock or vegetable broth include:
- Carrots and celery
- Onion and garlic
- Green beans
- Corn cobs
- Bell peppers
- Beet greens, carrot greens
- Stalks from herbs such as parsley, basil, cilantro
Stock is easy, too. Just throw everything in a kettle with water, bring to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer while you go about your day. Another potential use for these same scraps is to collect them in the freezer and then compost them or amend your garden soil with them.
#6 Frugal Living Tip from the Great Depression: Simpler, cheaper entertainment.
Depression era folks couldn’t fathom spending $100 or $200 per month for cable TV with or without sports and movie packages. In fact, we could learn a great deal about living a simple life from them. Things like going for walks, hiking, biking, and just enjoying the outdoors were common attractions. And good for your health.
Board games like Monopoly became a big hit during the Depression. It helped people forget their struggles and gave them hope and dreams for the future.
#7 Frugal Living Tip from the Great Depression: Reduce your energy use.
It’s kind of an unfair comparison, since you have far more electronics than your great-grandparents did. According to the October 2019 study of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average monthly bill for Americans ranges from $84 to above $151 – depending on where you live.[ii] What if there were simple ways to reduce your energy consumption that’ll save you money? Here are some ideas to super-charge your savings:
- Unplug laptops, tablets, cell phones, and wireless speakers once they’re completely charged. (Bonus: Decreases your exposure to EMF waves during use, which benefits your health.)
- Use ceiling fans to reduce your dependence on AC in summer and circulate warm air during winter.
- Turn off your TV (or radio) when no one is in the room.
- Don’t run your clothes washer or dishwasher unless you have full loads.
- Skip the dryer and hang your clothes to dry (assuming no neighborhood prohibitions).
- Turn off your oven a few minutes early and let the residual heat finish the cooking job.
- Before you open the refrigerator, plan what you need to get out so you can retrieve them quickly. Remove or replace multiple items at the same time to limit opening the refrigerator.
- Turn off lights when you’re not in the room.
#8 Frugal Living Tip from the Great Depression:
Don’t pay someone else for what you can do yourself.
Can you even imagine your great-gramps paying $20 + tip for delivering pizza in a box to his door? Doubt it.
Companies make a fortune on basic human laziness. If money is tight, or if you’re in debt, stop paying others to do things you can do yourself till you have your financial house in order. This goes for cleaning your car (or your clothes), mowing your lawn, cooking your food, repairing broken appliances.
You can save a fortune doing basics around your home or yard instead of hiring it out. Which can then be put into debt reduction, an emergency fund, a side hustle, and investing for your future.
If, however, you’re securely making six figures, have no debt, and are heavily investing in your future, be my guest. One of the benefits of growing your wealth is the ability to pay someone else to do the things you despise doing. Just don’t sacrifice your future for it before the right time.
If you’re looking for ways to reduce spending and put yourself on stronger financial footing, give some or all of these money-saving hacks a try. You might just discover they become life habits you like.