38 Savvy Frugal Living Tips From The Great Depression


The Great Depression affected everyone’s wealth.

The rich became poor and the poor became destitute.

In order to survive, you had to adapt to the times by becoming frugal and smart with your money.

Today, the economy is not in such despair, but many are struggling financially.

If you want to get ahead, or even break the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck, you need to keep your spending in check.

But where do you begin?

By applying many of the frugal living tips from the Great Depression era, you can get a hold on your finances and in time, take your money to the next level.

All these tips that were critical to survival back then still apply now.

So learning about and using these 38 money saving tips in your everyday life will benefit you greatly.

Let’s get started!

What Was The Great Depression?

frugal living tips from the great depression
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When we talk about The Great Depression, many people think of an economic crisis in the United States.

While this is true, the Great Depression was felt worldwide, effecting many other nations.

As a result, the period that the depression raged on varied by country.

In the United States, it ran from 1929 through 1933.

However, the economy only began to recover in 1933.

The effects were felt for many more years.

Some experts argue that things didn’t return to normal until after World War II, close to 20 years later.

At its height, worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) fell by roughly 15%, according to estimates.

Compare this to the Great Recession of 2008-2009 where worldwide GDP only fell 1%.

How The Great Depression Changed People’s Wealth

If you think how wealth was affected in 2008, you can imagine what it was like back in the 1930’s.

Times were much worse and the lasting effects for many was never overcome.

If you have any grandparents or great grandparents who were children during this time, you know they were dealing with the aftermath their entire lives.

Many people who grew up and lived during the depression era always kept cash hidden in the house as they did not trust banks.

This is because so many banks became insolvent during the depression.

Overall, people who lived through the depression era kept most of their frugal lifestyle their entire lives.

I was lucky enough to have interviewed my grandmother and grandfather who lived through the Great Depression.

The interview was done as part of a school project in 7th grade.

Looking back, I learned a lot about this time period and how to be smart with money.

Here are their favorite depression era money saving tips.

38 Frugal Living Tips From The Great Depression

#1. Grow A Garden

During the Great Depression, nearly everyone with enough space had a garden.

Purchasing fresh produce at the market was too expensive.

Neighbors shared plants and seeds to save money.

I started my own garden almost a year ago and have saved a lot of money.

And you don’t even need a big outdoor space to grow a garden.

In fact, anyone can grow one, even if you live in the city.

When starting out, keep your garden simple.

Pick the vegetables you eat most often and plant those.

Then slowly add additional vegetables every year.

However, one word of caution.

Understand how the plant grows before you start.

For example, if you are growing in a small space, cucumber might not be the best vegetable to grow since the vines spread out everywhere.

On the other hand, growing a tomato plant is easier since it grows upwards.

In addition to your vegetable garden, consider planting an herb garden too.

These are easy to grow and you can have fresh herbs year round.

You can even use some of the herbs to make your own seasonings.

At the end of the day, planting a garden is a relatively easy way to cut down on the cost of food.

#2. Bartering

Bartering is a fancy way of saying you can trade with others.

You can get what you need by bartering instead of spending money.

You can request and trade items easily on social media, pages and groups.

Barter items you longer need or use.

You can begin by searching for local ‘No Buy groups’ on the internet.

Include your zip code or city in your search and you will find local groups offering free exchanges.

You can even use a site called Freecycle to find and trade all kinds of items.

This is a site dedicated to keeping things out of landfills by connecting people with items to trade.

And finally, you can consider dumpster diving too.

You can find some great items in the trash outside retailers, construction sites, colleges, and more.

Of course when meeting strangers, you want to follow safe practices.

Remain alert and meet in a safe public place.

Unfortunately, there are untrustworthy people in this world.

You can also have a small bartering circle consisting of your family and friends.

I was surprised by how much money I managed to save.

#3. Forage For Food

I was intrigued when I learned many of the plants I thought were weeds are nutritious and edible.

The dandelion greens you can buy at the market are the same as the dandelions growing in your yard.

Of course you need to identify the plants correctly before you taste them or you can become ill.

And don’t forget about wild berries too.

The same rule applies here as well.

Make sure you correctly identify the berries first, otherwise you could become gravely ill.

#4. Decrease Waste

Nothing was wasted during the Great Depression.

Leftovers and scraps were stretched for new meals capable of feeding families for days.

Nowadays, our lifestyle has us throw everything out without even thinking.

It’s time to start thinking differently.

Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Compost bin. Make a compost pile with kitchen scraps, stale or rotten food and then use the compost to fertilize your garden.
  • Make soup broth. You can take the chicken bones and uneaten parts of vegetables and make a base for soups and stews.
  • Have a pantry challenge. Go through your pantry and make meals based on what you have instead of buying more food.
  • Bacon grease. My grandma would save bacon grease and reuse it all the time for cooking, to flavoring other meals, and even as a lip balm!

Once you get in the habit of finding other uses for food and other items around your house, you’ll be amazed at how much less stuff you throw in the garbage.

#5. Cook At Home

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Your grandparents most likely dined out for special occasions only.

This was a treat as opposed to a normal weekly occurrence like most people do these days.

Since dining out has a major impact one one’s food budget, one of the best ways I have found to save money is by cooking at home.

No matter how busy your schedule is, you can eat at home with a little planning.

To save the most money, review the weekly sales flyers to find out what is on sale.

Then meal plan based on those items.

If you want, you can double the recipes so you have leftovers for other nights or even for lunches.

We love having leftovers because there is always a night where work runs late or the kids have something and we need a quick dinner.

And speaking of grocery shopping, make sure you shop around.

I made a list of the things we typically buy and then visited a few grocery stores, taking note of their prices for each item.

While it takes a little longer to get the grocery shopping done since I visit a few supermarkets, we save a lot of money.

Finally, make it a point to do some online searches for cooking tips.

It’s easy to learn some more cooking basics which will help you with your cheap living adventure.

You might even want to search for depression era recipes to find specific meals that were made during this period.

#6. Enjoy Meals Without Meat

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to include meat with every meal.

You can make healthy, delicious and budget friendly meals without meat.

If you are buying on lobster, crab legs and filet mignon on a regular basis, this need to stop.

I recommend you make a couple of meals every week without meat for frugal friendly meals.

We call it Meatless Mondays because it has a catchy name.

Here are just a few ideas to make dinner without meat.

  • Vegetable or other soups
  • Pasta dishes
  • Tofu stir fry
  • Breakfast for dinner (think eggs and potatoes)
  • Salads
  • Vegetable Lo Mein

Additionally, you can make traditional meals without meat.

For example, I like to make Kung Pao Chicken with cauliflower instead of chicken.

With the sauce coating the cauliflower, you don’t realize it isn’t meat.

#7. Learn How To Can

During the Great Depression, canning was a way of life.

I remember the food storage pantry where my grandma kept all of her various homemade canned goods.

Leftovers were canned to make all of the following.

  • Salsa
  • Purees
  • Jams and jellies
  • Sauces
  • Fermented foods
  • Salad dressings

I admit I was scared at my first attempt at canning.

I made certain I was safe by following the guidelines for proper canning.

I learned which supplies I needed and managed to get my canning jars at thrift shops.

Once I understood the terminology, I was able to get started and haven’t looked back.

The great thing about doing this is you can preserve this food for a long shelf life.

#8. Make Cleaning Products

homemade cleaning products
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I have always been horrified at the cost of brand name cleaning products.

The homemade cleaners I learned how to make cost a fraction of the price.

You can make a good general cleaner that even cleans produce by placing diluted white vinegar into a spray bottle.

You can pay more than $5 for one bottle of eco-friendly cleaner at your local store.

Conversely, I can make several bottles of DIY cleaner with white vinegar by paying $1 dollar for a one gallon jug.

The cleaning products you can make are close to endless.

All you need are basic ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, borax, and others.

If you are a frugal shopper, you can get all the items you need at deep discounts.

My sister in law even makes her own laundry detergent!

Not only will you save money, but you will also avoid using harsh chemicals.

This is critically important especially if you have pets or small children.

And even if you don’t, you should consider making your own cleaning supplies.

For example, some of the weed killer you can buy is linked to cancer.

The bottom line is, making your own is safer and less expensive.

#9. Stop Purchasing New Items

If you need something, don’t settle for buying new.

First take some time to see if you can get it another way for much less.

Here are a few ideas.

  • Barter like mentioned earlier
  • Find a friend, neighbor, or family member and borrow it
  • Check thrift stores and buy it used
  • Check Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace to buy used

I enjoy thrift shopping both from visiting in person and online while relaxing at home.

I’ve even gotten some great deals on Facebook too.

We bought a couch for our basement, saving over $800. It was 1 year old and in excellent condition.

I only shop for necessary items now and have saved a lot of money.

#10. Get Discounts When Shopping

Speaking of shopping, never pay full price.

There are always ways to get discounts.

For example, many stores will give you a cash discount.

Gas stations are notorious for this.

If shopping online, make sure you do a search for coupon or promotional codes to get instant discounts.

Or, you can use credit cards to save money.

Many offer cash back when you pay with your card. Just make sure you pay your balance off in full so you don’t get stuck with interest charges.

Lastly, just asking for a discount works more times than not.

#11. Review Your Monthly Budget

Knowing where your money goes is another great way to be thrifty with money.

Back in the day, you didn’t have subscriptions to cell phones, Netflix, and other services like you do in today’s modern day life.

You didn’t have widespread credit card usage either.

Most people paid with cash and used a basic budget to understand their income and expenses.

While you don’t have to go on a cash only diet, it wouldn’t hurt.

Knowing where your money is going is key to improving your finances.

And when you see how you are spending, it makes it easier to make changes and start saving.

So make it a point to track your money.

Ideally you want to track every penny you spend, but you can also just start small and build in time.

At the very least, employ the service BillTrim.

They will review your bills and subscriptions and help you cancel them.

They will even negotiate your cable bill for you!

#12. Become Mr./Mrs. Fix It

We’ve become way too lazy these days.

When something breaks, we either toss it and buy a new one, or we hire someone to fix it for us.

This is ironic to me because you can go on YouTube and find a video tutorial on how to fix just about anything.

While it does help to be handy, this is not a requirement.

I fix as much as I can around our house.

If I can’t fix it, then we consider paying someone.

I estimate I’ve saved us over $10,000 in labor costs and new item costs, just by learning how to fix things myself.

#13. Purchase Reusable Products

Of all the frugal living ideas, this one will save you a ton of money if you follow through with it.

We waste a ton of money on disposable products that we use once and throw away.

I attribute this again to advertisers.

They are great at getting us to think we need fancy products to wipe away dust when an old rag works fine.

The truth is you can save money by switching to reusable items.

And you will help the environment as well.

So try to switch from disposable items over to reusable items.

Take your time on this since it can be a reality check for some.

I say this because I fall into this camp.

I used paper towels for everything.

Then we had kids and we were going through them like crazy.

We ended up ripping some of my old t-shirts for rags and bought some more rags at a yard sale.

It was hard at first to switch as I always went for the paper towels, but eventually it clicked.

You can also do this by purchasing reusable grocery bags, cloth for napkins, or even save glass containers and reuse them to store things.

We even switched from Ziploc bags to reusable food storage containers like Pyrex bowls.

Finally, if you have a baby, consider using cloth diapers.

While there is more work involved to clean them, you will save thousands of dollars in the long run.

And you will keep used diapers out of the landfills.

#14. Find Free Or Cheap Entertainment

fun things to do with friends
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Saving money on entertainment is as simple as investing time with your family and friends.

Entertainment is more than going shopping, eating in fancy restaurants and purchasing expensive video games.

You have so many options to have fun without dropping much money.

  • Have a potluck dinner
  • Watch your favorite movies
  • Play board games
  • Have a picnic in the park or on the beach
  • Learn new hobbies together such as sketching, knitting or ethnic cooking
  • Simply talk and laugh together while sharing memories
  • Pull out your old photo albums and spend an evening reminiscing

For many of us, when we stop and think, the most important things are creating memories with our loved ones.

And when you think back to your favorite times, most likely it wasn’t because you were spending a couple hundred dollars at a fancy restaurant.

It was because of the conversation and the joy you got by being with friends.

#15. Make Your Own Gifts

Homemade gifts are special because they come from the heart.

When I receive something homemade, I know the person cares about me enough to spend their time making me something special.

We live in a consumer driven society.

This means giving gifts is not nearly as special as it was in the past.

Everything seems to be mass produced and available 24 hours a day.

Homemade gifts are a great way to save money and show someone you care at the same time.

Just the fact you spent your valuable time creating something for someone else says it all.

When it comes to making your own gifts, you have many options.

  • Jellies
  • Soaps
  • Knitted scarves and hats
  • Candles
  • Beaded jewelry

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Think about where your skills lie and these would be great gifts.

For example, can you paint or draw? There is a gift.

Do you work with wood? There is another idea.

Learn to think outside the box and you can save a decent amount of money on gifts.

#16. Lower The Cost Of Utilities

While my grandparents didn’t have all the electronics we have now, they were still thrifty when it came to electricity.

I can still hear them telling me to turn off the lights when leaving the room.

But saving on electricity costs don’t end there.

In fact, if you just focus on a few of the big hogs of your electric, you can save a lot of money.

For example, consider not using the clothes dryer as much as possible.

Instead use an outdoor clothes line and let the sun dry your clothes.

If you don’t have a yard, buy a clothes drying rack and dry your clothes indoors.

Here is the one we use from Amazon.

Actually, we use 2 of them since we have multiple load of laundry every week.

You can place the rack near a window that gets sun to help dry your clothes faster.

In the winter, the benefit of air drying your clothes like this is it adds moisture back into your house so you lessen the static electricity.

If you must use your dryer, throw in a dry towel with the wet laundry.

This will help dry the clothes faster.

When it comes to washing your clothes, opt for cold water as much as possible.

By not heating the water, you save on electric costs.

Another frugal living tip when it comes to electricity is to get a programmable thermostat.

Set it for a degree or two higher in the summer and a degree or two lower in the winter.

The savings will add up.

Finally, consider investing in a convection oven.

Here is the one we use.

While it is pricey, it is amazing.

We use it more than the oven and this saves a lot of money.

It’s less area to heat, so it’s much more efficient.

And when we do use the oven, in the winter we keep the door open after cooking so the hot air warms the house.

#17. Rent Out Extra Rooms

During the Great Depression, renting out a room was a common practice.

The homeowner had a second income and the renter had an affordable place to live.

Since I live in a warm climate, I did not need a garage.

I converted it into a nice room with a small kitchen and bath.

I have since made back every penny I spent and more.

My brother had an extra room and found someone trustworthy to rent it to without updating anything.

Just make certain you screen your applicants to make certain the person can be trusted and afford to pay rent.

The process is fast, easy and very similar to Airbnb.

You can also rent out your car during the weekends or if you have an extra vehicle.

You can be creative with the resources you already have to make some extra money.

#18. Play Spending Games To Save

There are ads for products and services everywhere.

On TV, your phone, the radio, basically everywhere you look, there is an advertisement for something.

Because of this, it is easy to spend money.

To make not spending money fun, you can play games.

Here are a few spending challenges you can play to see how long you can go without buying things.

  • No spend challenge. Here you pick an area, like clothing and not spend any money for a period of time, like 30 days.
  • Pause test. Here you pause or wait before you buy anything. When you see something you want, put it back and wait a day before buying it.
  • Would you rather test. With this game, ask yourself if you would rather have the item or the cash that the item costs. If you answer the cash, put the item back and move along.

There are many more money saving challenges you can play that will make it fun to save money.

#19. Be Smart With Your Car

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Cars can cost a good amount of money to maintain, let alone buy.

You can lower these costs by being smart.

When buying a car, you can opt for a less expensive used car instead of a brand new car.

Of course, walking instead of driving is an option too.

People from the generation that lived through the depression walked almost everywhere.

If you do have a car, get routine maintenance on it, and wash and wax it on a regular basis.

This will cost money in the short term, but your car will last many more years, saving you from paying for a new car.

#20. Be Active

Being active is a frugal living tip that no one really talks about.

If you think back to the older generation, they were always on the move.

There was no binging of television shows.

There was no bar hopping every weekend.

There was work to do and they did the work.

And all this activity kept them healthy.

Today, we need to be more active.

By sitting around less and moving instead, we release dopamine in our system.

This improves our mood and outlook, which in turn helps our mental health.

Additionally, being active lessens the risk for health related issues down the road.

So while being more active might not pay off right now, it will in the years to come.

#21. Earn Extra Income

No frugal living tips post would be complete without talking about making some extra cash.

My grandfather always talked about how many jobs he had as a kid to help his household finances.

Today, there are plenty of ways you can make quick cash on the side.

You can do odd jobs around your neighborhood, complete surveys, get a second job, and more.

Thanks to the internet, you can work many jobs from home too.

#22. Take Care Of The Things You Own

One of the biggest lessons I learned from my grandparents was to take care of the things you owned.

I can picture walking through their house, looking at all of the old things that were still in amazing condition.

When you treat things with care, they last longer, saving you money in the long run.

Even their cars were always clean, both inside and out.

I’ve taken this lesson to heart and have some clothing, among other things, that is close to 20 years old.

But you would never know by looking at it.

Make it a point to start caring for your possessions more and they will last much longer.

#23. Learn to Be Content

Here is my favorite takeaway with the frugal living tips from the Great Depression that I learned from my grandparents.

Learn to be happy with what you have.

You do not need to have everything your neighbor down the street or coworker has to be happy.

There is an old saying that true happiness is wanting what you already have as opposed to having what you want.

Once you learn to be content with everything around you, you will not only save money but be more contented with your life.

My grandparents never complained about what they didn’t have.

They made what they had work and made it enjoyable.

Was it always perfect? Far from it. But they focused on what they had and appreciated it all.

Bonus Tips For Saving Money

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Here are a handful of additional cheap living tips that are simple to do.

#24. If you insist on using paper towels, cut the sheets in half to make them last longer.

#25. Use every last drop of things. Add water to soap and shampoo bottles, turn condiment bottles upside down, and cut toothpaste tubes to get all the toothpaste out.

#26. Replace scrap paper with a dry erase board. Or take notes on your phone.

#27. Make your own bread instead of buying it. You can even make your own muffins or pancakes too.

#28. Drink more water. You don’t need all these fancy drinks.

#29. Buy food in bulk to lower the cost. If bulk items are too big, see if you can split the items with loved ones or neighbors.

#30. Freeze fruit that is going bad. Then use the fruit to make smoothies for breakfast.

#31. Eat more eggs. They are really cheap and contrary to what many think, are healthy for you.

#32. Eat more pasta. Like eggs, pasta is cheap. Just try to pick whole grain pasta and eat it with vegetables to help keep your weight in check.

#33. Make meals using lentils. Again, they are cheap and they are really healthy for you.

#34. Make your own coffee instead of paying for the markup at the coffee shop.

#35. Take advantage of your local library to rent books and movies instead of paying for them.

#36. Skip pre-cut and pre-sliced produce at the supermarket. Cut it yourself to save money.

#37. Likewise, don’t buy the salad in a container. You get more for your money by purchasing the ingredients and making it yourself.

#38. Set Up An Emergency Fund

The last tip is all about building up an emergency fund.

When you have a savings cushion, the hard times are not so hard because you have wiggle room.

You have a built in security blanket to help you make ends meet when times get tough.

Start off by using the money you save with these tips to fund your account.

In time, you will have hundreds of dollars in the account to fall back on.

But don’t stop there.

Keep saving until you have close to one year’s worth of living expenses saved.

This will give you the peace of mind if anything happens, you will be OK financially.

My favorite place to set up an emergency account is with CIT Bank.

They pay a higher than average interest rate, so your security cushion grows faster.

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Wrapping Up

Many of the same money saving tips from the Great Depression that people used to survive then can still be used today.

And by being smart with your money, it will go farther, allowing you more choices in life.

An added benefit to coming up with depression era tips to save money is it is fun figuring out unique and creative ways to reach your goals and save money.

So start thinking of different ways you can do things and you will be certain to save money in the process.

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