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20 Frugal Tips from Someone Who Lived Through the Great Depression

Filed in 20s , Financial Crisis , Frugal Living , Saving Money 13 comments

Great DepressionDuring another weekend road trip to visit the family for Mother’s Day, I always make it a habit to drop in on Grandma and soak in a few hours worth of knowledge she’s accumulated over her near 75 years.

Gifts were exchanged, I overindulged in home cookin’, but in the end, I sat with a piece of paper scribbling notes on what it was like for her (and other family members) to live through the Great Depression.

I’m fortunate that I haven’t felt the effects of the recession, so I thought it would be interesting to get her point of view since she lived through one of the harshest periods of American history.

In the end, I wasn’t exactly surprised because I’ve heard many of these frugal living rules over and over again, but it’s finally nice to get them down on paper.

I hope you can learn as much from her wisdom as I have over the years.

  1. Save a dollar for every dollar you spend.  I’m a big believer in the Pay-As-You-Go rule, but if you allow more cash to go out of your door than goes under your mattress, you’re asking for trouble.
  2. New doesn’t automatically mean better.  New this and shiny that may get you a lot of attention and give you a feeling of importance, but new stuff usually costs more than old stuff.  Slightly used, gently used, or just plain used will often to the job.
  3. Be thankful for what you have.  All of us have complained about eating leftovers when we didn’t want to or complained about eating the same thing three times a week, but there are quite a few people in this world that might not know where the next meal will come from.  Just be thankful you have what you have … if you have it.
  4. Learn how to fix/maintain what you have.  Nothing can be more frustrating than having a piece of machinery, whether it be your car or your laptop, that you rely upon, paid good money for, and have to pay someone to repair it.  Eliminating the need for the repairman will save you countless hours and dollars over the years.
  5. Waste not, want not!  If you’re discarding a substantial portion of what you bought (or made yourself), you’re essentially throwing money in the garbage can.  Either cut back on what you’re making, or find ways to reuse it at a later date.
  6. Make cheap food taste like a million bucks.  I probably violate this suggestion most of all because I’m a wannabe chef, but during my college years, my food budget rarely exceeded $100 per month. Learning how to make good eats on the cheap will save you thousands per year if you can learn a few cooking basics.
  7. Don’t pay what you can do/make for yourself.  It seems like an odd question to ask, but why would you pay someone to do something that you can do for yourself.  I understand that we’re all super busy and we may not be an expert in everything that modern society pushes upon us, but thanks to the Internet (praise be Google!), you can find a DIY video for almost anything on your Honey Do List.
  8. Preparation can keep you from being blown off course.  Many times during your life you’ll face some type of adversity.  The more prepared you are to handle it, the better off you’ll be at weathering the storm. As the old adage goes: you can’t control the wind, but you can adjust your sails!
  9. Family time is fun time.  I’m one of the least social members of my family, but nothing beats a classic game of Monopoly with the folks.  This weekend happened to be catching up over baseball games on TV and lots of hanging out in the kitchen.  Funny how positive social interactions work aren’t they?
  10. Make your big purchases off season.  One of my cardinal rules of shopping (which I loathe to do) is buy most of my winter clothing in April.  This way, the retailers are desperate just to break even on their investment and clear the excess inventory to make way for Spring/Summer months.  This works equally well when buying summer clothing in November.
  11. Marry someone who complements your weak points.  No this doesn’t mean someone who will say “good job” each time you do a good deed.  Not that kind of compliment.  In a complementary relationship, your strong suits will make up for your companion’s weaknesses and vice versa.  In the end, the marriage is stronger than the two individuals!
  12. Exchange time, skills or service as currency.  If you know how to play the piano and your neighbors want their kid to learn to play piano, find something they have that you want.
  13. Learn to preserve and store food.  Even if you’re not into growing your own food, it never hurts to buy in bulk and keep it frozen for a few months.
  14. Start a garden and pay yourself for growing your own food.  Why pay a grocery store for food that you can grow yourself?  Many people these days are under the false impression that gardening is too difficult to try and best left to the hippies and hillbillies.  Hardly the case since Michelle Obama and started a victory garden on White House grounds.
  15. Credit cards are the devil.  If you tell my Grandma that you bought her Christmas present on credit, you better hope you got your fill of pumpkin pie prior to opening gifts.  Chances are, she’ll cut you off and give you a 10 minute lecture from Proverbs.  Most old school consumers won’t even think about buying something unless they pay in cash.
  16. Patience is a virtue.  Be patient, save your pennies, and wait until they turn to dollars.  Paying cash is the only way to go.  I admit, this doesn’t translate well to 2009, but if you can rely upon your debit card more than your credit card, you’re on the right path.
  17. Work hard, and work often.  My family wasn’t exactly the affluent type back in the day, so I’m glad to have some of that blue collar mentality rubbed off on me.  I never really understood what it meant to say “I built that” or “I made that from scratch” when I was a kid, but I certainly learned what those phrases meant once I became a bit older.
  18. At the end of the day, think how to make tomorrow a little better.  This phrase is fairly common, but it’s been sitting on my grandfather’s antique desk for as long as I can remember.  Probably longer than I’ve been alive.  But to me, it’s a testament to how both of grandparents lived their lives.  Over time, little improvements add up a lot quicker than you think.
  19. Envy is still a sin.  Even though I’m the blaspheming evolutionist of the family, it doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention to sound advice.   Believe it or not, the Bible has really good tips on debt avoidance and the “debt is slavery” principle.
  20. Speak convincingly and be a leader.  We all know a hierarchy exists in most families, and if that happens to be you, don’t be afraid to voice your opinion.  Even if you hurt a few feelings here and there, they’re family and they’ll eventually forgive you.

Remember, these tips are coming from a 75 year old so the advice may not transfer all that well to modern times, but only a (young) fool would ignore someone that has accumulated a lifetime of worthwhile knowledge.
Attribution License by Koshyk

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Posted by CJ   @   13 May 2009 13 comments
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May 13, 2009
11:42 pm

GREAT POST!!! Yes, that was all caps. I love reading old school tips like these because they are timeless. If you liked putting your grandmother’s tips up, checkout the May issue of Smart Money. They found three guys still actively managing portfolios that were working on Wall Street in 1929. It’s funny how the scenery has changed, but fundamental principles have not. Thanks for putting this out there.

May 13, 2009
11:55 pm
#2 Matt :

Thanks Michael. Glad you liked it!

It took half a day to get all of those tips out of her, but it was a great talk. Plus, you can’t beat the free homemade apple pie! ; )

I’ll checkout that Smart Money article. Sounds like a good read.

May 18, 2009
1:15 am
#3 Matt S :

I like this post a lot. I should really save more money!

I came across this blog randomly, and think you’re doing great work. I’m going to read ’20 reasons why i love the recession’ now…

Sep 28, 2010
10:44 am
#4 Trish :

I came across your web site quite by accident. I have been attempting to learn more about how people got through the great depression, in an attempt to help me to become more frugal and get through this recession.Your posts are very interesting and insiteful and I have sent your web site address to my financial planner and college age son,both of whom could use your help and advise. I will continue to check out your site. I am not computor savy so to keep me reading on this thing is a major accomplishment.Thanks again

Sep 28, 2010
10:46 am
#5 Matt SF :

Thanks for the kind words Trish.

Oct 8, 2011
7:03 am
#6 c :

im 21 and i hear you loud and clear


get ready for 2012 food/fuel shortages

Mar 10, 2013
7:20 am
#7 Mike :

“Don’t pay what you can do/make for yourself.”

Don’t be daft. If I took this one seriously, I’d have to fire my live-in housekeeper and, what, um, are you KIDDING ME?– clean my own toilets.

I am above that. You may not be, but I most emphatically am.

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