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Frugal Living Lessons from the Great Depression

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Depression Era Bank
There are many useful lessons that can be learned from how people lived during the Great Depression. This is a guide about frugal living lessons from the Great Depression.


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By 19 found this helpful
August 23, 2010

I grew up in a family who knew The Great Depression. They made a Great Impression on how I lived, as well. My Frugal LifeMy Grandpa raised his own hogs, and showed me how to make a ball out of a hog bladder early on. (You just tie up one open end, blow it up, then tie off the other end.) He and my Grandma both showed me how to garden, save the seeds for next year, and use leaves plowed under to fertilize the soil so no fertilizer ever had to be purchased for their farm. My grandma made most if not all my clothes, some from empty flour sacks and feed sacks.


Grandma also taught me to make my own toys and to play with nature's gifts. I used scraps of cloth to make doll clothes for paper dolls I had cut out of magazines and pasted onto pasteboard which came out of newly bought dress shirts, etc. I used scraps of soap to make my own bubble solution, and used her empty spools from thread to blow the bubbles. They work much better than today's bubble stuff, too.

Grandpa was thrifty with power and heat, as well. He sat by the fireplace in the evenings of winter, lights out, singing hymns with us. We loved it, and cherish those memories to this day. When it came time for bed, the fire died down, and out came the horse-hair blankets for our bed. We were plenty warm without any heat in the house, and Grandpa would be up and heating the house back up before we got up. We used a nice, fresh snow to make snow ice cream, rather than buy it, and would put extra in the freezer to make ice cream on July 4th every year.


Life was simple then - no cellphones to answer, no TV to mess with our minds as it does many today (I do not watch TV even now, though my hubby does). We made friends with farm animals, and had cats to catch mice, dogs to guard our house, a horse to ride, a mule to plow, and goats to milk and keep the grass cut nicely. Chickens laid our eggs, or became Sunday dinner. We even grew our own peanuts. The only way my grandma could keep me out of the peanut barrel (she thought!) was to tell me they would give me a belly ache if I ate green peanuts. I ate plenty and never got a belly ache! haha. A simple, frugal life can be very good, when one does not mind working at it a bit.

By Jacketbacker from Greer, SC

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August 23, 20100 found this helpful

Those are memories that you will never forget, and you are right, we really don't need a cell phone, TV and such, TV, I can do without, cell phone, husband insists i have it, all is good. But, we really can get along without them all, life back then I hear was hard, but then I can hear my husband and his brother and sisters tell, they were always outside playing with the other kids, but, the parents always knew where they were.

People watched out for the other person, helped each other out, shared with each other. That day is all but gone, we need to keep these things alive, each one helping the other one out. My brother in law likes to (pay it forward) help someone out, and instead of getting paid for it, tell the person you helped to help out someone else.

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August 27, 20100 found this helpful

A wonderfully told story that is so familiar to me and our family's way that I could have written it myself.

It's always so nice to hear from others who know how to really live without all the "comforts and discomforts" of 2010. I wish every child sitting in front of a TV right now could spend a week doing the things we did. Most would come away with a renewal of attitude and a desire to change what's going on in today's world.

Thank you for sharing a really great story.


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August 27, 20100 found this helpful

Thank you so much for sharing a life so special that, sadly, barely exists at all anymore!

I was very Blessed because even growing up as a city girl in the 50's and 60's I could spend a few days each year with both sets of grandparents who did canning and stored it and fresh foods in the cellar. Being able to feed the chickens and watch their eggs hatch and, eww to people these days but, being able to watch one grama ring a chickens neck and place it in boiling water to remove the feathers and bake for dinner. Among other old fashioned contraptions one grama had a washing board and wringer washer to do the laundry and hung clothes on the line to dry and the other had a wood burning cooking stove until she passed away in the late 1970's!

Even in the city neighbors helped each other with yard work and took turns taking the weekly trash to the old fashioned landfills and everyone watched out for each others children and felt safe to scold them when needed! TV was only watched after dinner or cartoons on Saturday morning as a treat before the expected weekly chores that were expected to be done and we children didn't sit around 24/7 on telephones or computers on our free time but rather spent as one on one, face to face time with family, friends and neighbors and playing outdoors.

My heart wrenches for the young ones of today who are not even aware of the most simple pleasures and everything that seems important now is technology and gadgets and, truly, most younger folk don't even know how to socialize because everything has become robotic. :-(

Thank you again for sharing your lovely memories!

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August 31, 20100 found this helpful

There's nothing I want more than to get back to a simpler way of life. Being 24, I'm in the midst of the generation of consumerism, and I can't stand it. All I can do is strive to change my own ways and encourage others.

Thank you for sharing your story.

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August 31, 20100 found this helpful

Thank you! I like the term for what you learned: The Great Impression. Somehow we think that love cannot be expressed without material goods, and being indulged. Your article showed that is not true. I have some lovely picture in my head of your life, especially of your firelit hymn sings.


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September 14, 20100 found this helpful

Thank you all for the kind words and encouragement. I sure hope some of what I said will sink into some of our youth so they can have at least a glimpse of the wonder of growing up in a safe, simple, hard-working world!

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By 23 found this helpful
November 5, 2010

My Grandma Smith (Opal was her first name) was the perfect example of what a Grandma should be. I feel very blessed to have had her for my grandma. I was the youngest of her many grandchildren and, until I was an adult, she always told me I was her baby. I can still hear her say that and see the smile on her face as I sit here and type this.

Grandma never had a lot of money. She lost her husband the year before I was born. She lived on the family farm with one of her sons that never married. She was one of the hardest working people I have ever known.

Grandma, in her younger years, was a school teacher. She had a love for children that I have seen in few other people. In her later years, she worked around the farm and, lucky for me, I got to spend a lot of time on the farm with her often helping with chores.

Grandma always had a big garden, and this is Iowa, so there was always good old Iowa sweet corn grown. She grew everything under the sun and she would can and freeze produce to get my uncle and herself through the winter. There were lots of fruit trees, apples and pears, in the back yard at Grandma's house. I remember the big chest freezer she had full of produce as well as the shelves of canned goods that lined her back porch. I remember when she had chickens and turkeys and the days of going to help butcher them. I can also remember gathering eggs from the hen house. Grandma also had a milk cow that provided not only milk, but butter and other milk products.

Grandma had a large family, 6 children and many grandchildren. I remember going for meals at Grandma's house. She made everything from scratch and it was the best food I have ever eaten. Between her and my mom, I have been blessed with many recipes and lots of experience with food and cooking.

Grandma also did her laundry on an old wringer-style washing machine for many years. It wasn't until I was quite a bit older that she actually got a regular machine. She used to hang her clothes out on the line in good weather to dry. She hung lines in the house or on the porch to get the clothing dry when it was cold out or raining. The heat from the big gas stove that she had would dry the things quickly!

The only heat the farmhouse had was from two old gas stoves, one in the kitchen and the other in the living room. Grandma was always very careful about gas usage as they could not afford to fill the big tank out in the back yard very often.

The best days of my whole life were spent on my grandma's farm, riding my horse and helping with chores, but the best part was Grandma. She would let me spend whole weekends with her and we never had to do anything big and exciting. It was always so nice just to be with her.

Grandma lived to be 98 years old. She died peacefully in her sleep. So thankful for all the things she taught me about frugality as well as so many other things way too numerous to count! So glad she was my Grandma!

By Robin from Washington, IA

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Comment Was this helpful? 23
November 5, 20100 found this helpful

What a beautiful story! You had a wonderful grandma who taught you so much, and you were smart enough to take in that knowledge, Thank you for sharing this.

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November 7, 20100 found this helpful

How inspiring. You're grandmother lived a beautiful life we all need to contemplate. It's not about money. She gave the gift of love and a wonderful example of living large with what we have.

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November 7, 20100 found this helpful

This was so nearly like reading about my grandmother - many similarities. I lost her a year ago at 98 also. Thank you for writing it.

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November 7, 20100 found this helpful

I so enjoyed your loving story about your Grandmother! I only hope my grandchildren remember me someday with the love and wonderful memories that you have of yours. Thanks for sharing your memories.


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November 9, 20100 found this helpful

Love your story, I can only hope my grandchildren will feel the same about me.

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By 9 found this helpful
December 10, 2008

Frugal this, frugal that. I have always read the frugal news articles and magazine tips about living frugal with not just a little disdain. I was raised by a grandmother, aunt and uncle who survived the great depression, where frugal was the way to survive without starving. That childhood ingrained in me the "frugal" mind set. Even though the depression was long over, my family still embraced a frugal lifestyle.

As years passed and I left their home to attend college and make my own way, these traits stayed with me, even though I developed some bad habits along the way. Skip down the road 20 years, I am married with a child of my own. Living the typical American family life, taking for granted everything I had and everything I wasted mindlessly. My husband had a tragic accident earlier this year and lost three fingers on his right hand. It happened on Valentines Day. We had been living paycheck to paycheck, mostly because of wasteful attitudes. All of a sudden, we were financially strapped, facing a severe cut in income.

Becoming conscious of what we had and how to stretch it out, kicked in my frugal upbringing. I now search the papers, TV, and magazines for ways to cut back. Stumbling upon this website was a godsend. It has only been a few days, but I have hope again. Scripture says something about training a child in right ways and they will never forget. Well, I guess I am living proof. I am very thankful for my frugal upbringing, and all you frugal contributors for helping me maintain a family.

Michelle from Labelle, PA

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December 11, 20080 found this helpful

I agree and can relate to everything you have written. I love the generosity of the ThriftyFun community. I've learned a LOT from this group.

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December 12, 20080 found this helpful

Happy to see others appreciative of Thrifty Fun :-) Definitely a Godsend and a wonderful community :-)

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By guest (Guest Post)
December 12, 20080 found this helpful

When I was young, I was a dorm parent at a private school. I observed how hard life must be for children raised in the lap of luxury. Some never get a sense of what is necessary and what is extra. I came to call them "poor little rich kids." IMHO, its easier to be raised poor then either stay poor or get rich than to be raised rich and become poor.

Thanks for writing.

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By guest (Guest Post)
December 12, 20080 found this helpful

I'm sorry to hear of your husband's accident. I hope he continues to get along well. This just reminds me that God gives us lessons in life and we never know when we'll be called on to use them.

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December 12, 20080 found this helpful

When I was just expecting my second child, we had old bills, one job in the family which my husband hated, and no credit (that's how it was then). I had decided to have my baby at home and knew I had to pay the doctor before delivery, and had to do everything to maintain my nutrition. I came across a USDA nutrition book at Goodwill, sat down and added up all our bills (most were fixed amounts).

We had an old 4 cylinder car which was paid for and we limited our trips to work and groceries. I went to a store that had bins of bulk food, and a butcher. I planned our menus to the serving by nutrition first and then found recipes I knew how to cook that we liked. I bought by ounces for all of us, it was that tight...My son wasn't in school so that helped. We had soup and bread, made turtle shaped loaves on bread day which was fun. I made cookies, etc. Our coffee was rationed. Everything was rationed. I made baby clothes and in those days babies didn't have as much stuff. I was going to nurse (did, 16 months, no supplementary bottles) so that saved us.

So many things considered 'necessary' now didn't even exist.

Every time you need something and don't have it ask yourself or an older person what was done in the 1960's, 50's, 40's, and so on as far as you can find out. You may find another way of meeting the need, substituting from materials on hand, or not needing it at all. I am sorry for your husband's injury, and the stress of it all, but creativity and researching back down the technology chain works wonders. Good luck.

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December 12, 20080 found this helpful

This site is truly a God send, for us all. Hoping and praying Susan is feeling better and home soon from the hospital!

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February 26, 20090 found this helpful

As I read these comments, I too had very frugal parents and grandparents. In those days I called them 'cheap'.

I have had many setbacks in the last few years but now I realize again, that I was guilty of waste.

Magazine subscriptions that I took that I never read but browsed through. Thrown away. Cosmetics that I just had to have...sometimes only the joy of getting them and only using them a few times and then added to the already full cosmetic drawers.

Clothes and shoes that I 'just needed'. They were good for a season and then when I lost weight.....gave them away. Others didn't have to buy and loved them.

God has given us this wonderful website to help us make the most of what we have without waste.

We must be good stewards to what He has given us.

It becomes possible with ideas from all of us to share with each other.

Thank you so much for your gift of this website and to all who share from their own experiences what they do to help us in our quest for a more peaceful life.

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June 3, 20090 found this helpful

I'm from Nova Scotia, Canada and I absolutely love this site.


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November 2, 20090 found this helpful

I too came across this wonderful website and I can honestly say that the TF members feel like an extended family. There is always someone who will answer any requests, or just reading all the wonderful tips just make you feel part of a very kind community. So many thanks to this fantastic website. helen

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February 17, 20100 found this helpful

I too am from Nova Scotia and grew up very poor on a farm where we had lots to eat but not much else.We had to be in the garden to weed most of the summer as that s what it took to feed 6 kids also ate beef lamb and goats pigs.

One thing that stayed with me is I always said when I grow up I will never weed another garden or eat any kind of animal. But I have grown a flower garden and I do eat a small amount of meat. I try to be saving and do without when I have to but can't say I am frugal. Pennypal

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August 15, 20100 found this helpful

When you grow up poor you appreciate life and you have a story to tell.You learn that every cent counts and if you are short of one cent to buy a loaf of bread,you can't get it and you go to school without lunch.When you go to school and your friends buy a packet of chips and you don't have and you trail behind them if they will offer you.When you don't have a jersey during winter and it is bitter cold.Learn to appreciate what little you have,you might be the lucky one.

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By 5 found this helpful
August 21, 2012

My husband is a professional appraiser and furniture restorer. I am often in his workshop while he is working to repair a piece of what was once lovely furniture.

An antique chair being restored.

CommentPin It! Was this helpful? 5

By 2 found this helpful
May 1, 2006

My Mother was raised during the depression so being Frugal is a way of life for me. Mother would never go anywhere unless it was to work, she did all her shopping on the way. If a store was more than a block or two off her route she didn't shop there.

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April 28, 2006

My mother, raised in the Depression, passed down a lot of thrifty wisdom to me. It was a matter of principle not to waste and to get as much value as possible.

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By 1 found this helpful
April 24, 2006

I wanted to tell you about how my mother was taught to be frugal. After graduating from high school during the Depression, she learned "make do, or do without".

My Frugal Life Logo

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Ask a QuestionHere are the questions asked by community members. Read on to see the answers provided by the ThriftyFun community or ask a new question.

By 0 found this helpful
December 27, 2010

How did they do things (living) during the depression? This time in history is very interesting to me.

By Zoe from Staunton, VA

Answer Was this helpful? Yes
December 28, 20100 found this helpful : go to American Experience section of website, they have lots of episodes about life during the depression; I would also suggest you go to your local library and check out some period cookbooks and household management books. The reference librarian should be able to point you in a good direction.

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December 29, 20100 found this helpful

City folks had it very hard during the depression,soup kitchens and bread lines were the norm.

Poor rural general did not even realize there was a depression,life was a daily struggle,but at least they usually had a garden and some chickens or maybe a hog.One thing you may find interesting was the use of 'woodgas' to power cars trucks and tractors. this happened more in Europe than here and became very widespread during WWII. the 'gasifier' was mounted on the vehicle, filled with wood, and the engine ran off the gasses that were in the 'smoke' this consisted of H and CO so they were the first hydrogen powered vehicles. this technology is being revisited now all over the world to run engines to produce electricity from generators. I am in the process of building one to use biomass as fuel to produce electricity and heat for home and greenhouse. While this may not be the 'great depression', if you have been out of work long enough you have to do many of the same things they did to survive.

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December 29, 20100 found this helpful

Senior citizens in their eighties lived through the depression. Many of them still have sharp minds and good memories. Call your local nursing homes and ask for the activity directors and tell them you are interested in this era. Take a tape recorder and interview the ones who are willing to tell their stories.

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December 29, 20100 found this helpful

My Mother made it through the depression very well, compared to a lot of people, with 3 small children and a husband that had been crippled by polio at the beginning of the depression, They lived on a farm and survived almost exclusively on the barter system. Cook a couple of old hens that had quit laying, make big thick chicken salad sandwiches, load up the model A with produce from the garden and home canned food and head to town.

People in towns were literally hungry so they traded her food for anything she could use. A bushel of of peas might get you a kerosene lamp, or another bushel a gallon of kerosene. Dozens of eggs to the local grocery store got you 25 lb of flour. A jar of thick rich home canned chicken/veggie soup mix would get you a dozen canning jars or a few sandwiches could get you a pair of pillow cases. Gallons of fresh milk would get you enough gas to go in the car. when butchering, even things like big meaty "soup bones" and a few vegetables were traded to people desperate for fresh food and meat. They got food for their families and mother got things that she could not produce herself. Cooking pots, buckets, printed flour sacks to be used for making clothes and quilts were all acquired without any money changing hands.

Unlike now things were used and patched and reused. If your boiler or dishpan sprung a leak there were washers designed to be screwed over the hole to patch it. If you had a crop to get in there were always men desperate for food and willing to spend the day working for a ham or big cut of beef and some vegetables to feed their families. They canned and preserved every scrap they could possibly lay their hands on. Bruised tomatoes had the bad spots cut out and made into stewed tomatoes or tomato sauce Corn fed the animals, was ground into corn meal for the family and made into huge pots of hominey to can for the family. Sour milk became butter and cheese. Chicken feathers became mattress' and pillows. Wild blackberries and plums became the winters juice and cobblers.

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December 29, 20100 found this helpful

As a child during the great depression, I don't remember much. I do have a habit of buying things when they are on clearance, still cooking with economy cuts of meat when I can actually afford more. When I was working some of the women complained about mothers-in-law who would put every bit of leftovers in the refrigerator. Their mothers are my age. I explained that some things were used to the last drop and that's what their relatives were doing. I continue to be frugal, even when it isn't necessary. So I have lasting patterns of behavior even though I don't have actual memories.

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January 2, 20110 found this helpful

If shoes were wearing out, they would do their best to repair them, cardboard insoles, for example.

Patches on clothes, hand-me downs, gunny sacks made into clothing. Salt sandwiches (yup, just salt on bread). Sugar and milk on bread. Lots of bread, oatmeal or pasta used as fillers in hot dishes and hamburgers or soups. Meatless meals. My Dad's family often had shortbread with strawberries and milk on top as a meal.

People walked a lot more then, too, than us grand-kids do.

They took in renters, too, to rent a room from them (just as I am now doing with my basement. Hey, it's well worth the $500 a month to lose my basement and have to be a little quieter). They also went fishing a lot and dug up their own bait. My dear Mom had to wear her three older sisters' hand-me-downs. One day in school, she stood up and nearly died of embarrassment when her old hand-me-down panties fell down as the elastic waist had lost it's elasticity!

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