26 Money-Saving Tips From Depression-Era Elders

bread bag tiesMy grandfather and his twin sister, born in 1920, grew up amid the Great Depression and learned to live a very frugal life. In our family, my grandpa is still, at 90, a well-known cheapskate about certain things, and his sister was a chronic saver, a bit of a hoarder minus the trash. 

After my great auntie passed away, the family got the task of emptying out her home. She saved everything from twist ties and buttons to wool socks darned a million times and every pair of scissors she and her mother (and maybe her mother's mother) had ever owned. You never know when you might find yourself in need, right?

Of course, from a financial standpoint, there's a lot we can learn from our Depression-era elders. They got by on very little for a long time.

Writer Kate Forgach agreed to share with us several the frugal living lessons she learned from her Depression-era parents, who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s when the mantra was "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!"


26 Lessons Learned From My Depression-Era Parents

1. Good to the Last Drop

Women of the Great Depression wouldn't think of throwing away a lipstick tube until they dug out the last bit of tint with a toothpick. How often do we toss the last bit of soap, make-up or whatever because it's inconvenient to use until gone?

2. Cleanliness Is Not Next to Godliness (Sorry, Mom)
Being a housewife used to equal housecleaning. Gaaah! In my book, keeping things neat above board is far more important than running dust-bunny patrols under every bed. It's cheaper, too, because superficial cleanliness requires fewer products and allows you to focus on truly frugal practices. Unless you really enjoy housecleaning, keep it hygienic and allow the dust to fall where it may. When you need impetus to do some brute cleaning, have a few guests over or throw a party.

But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. (Sorry again, Mom.)

3. On the Other Hand, Cleaning Is Cheaper Than a Health Club
On the other hand, if you're shelling out big bucks for a health club, just cleaning your kitchen and bathroom is major exercise and sweat isn't your only reward.

4. Turn Off the TV
Dad had a great way of limiting our television time. He controlled the TV (including a homemade mute button) and liked to watch a LOT of World War II documentaries. You've never seen a room clear out so fast as when he'd turn on those old PBS black-and-white specials. Perhaps that's why I picked up this nasty reading habit and watch so little TV now.

In modern terms, there are lots of benefits to reducing TV time:

  • Cheaper electrical bills, particularly if you turn off the entire system.
  • Less exposure to advertising that makes you want to buy, buy, buy!
  • Time to focus on more useful stuff, like exercise, reading and family activities.
  • You'll sleep better. (Studies show two hours or more of TV per day can cause significant sleep problems.)

5. Mom Would Have Adored Craig
Yes, there really is a Craig of Craigslist. I met him at an Oakland fundraiser in the late 1990s, when his free website for classified ads was just getting started. Craig looked just like Silent Bob from the movie "Clerks," complete with trench coat and taciturn manner. But I digress.

Craigslist has entirely displaced the newspaper classifieds, the most important part of the newspaper during the Depression. That's where people found jobs, second-hand furniture, cars, rentals, just about everything they needed. Come to think of it, times haven't changed much, except we now find all those things online.

My point is -- and I do have one -- many people still don't know about Craigslist, or that there's no charge to advertise just about anything.

There are rules and you have to be an informed consumer, but isn't that true for everything these days? Before you get started on Craigslist, read "avoid scams and fraud" and "personal safety tips."

6. Libraries -- I Swear!
Weekly visits to the library were a big event when I was a kid. The Carnegie Public Library was my favorite, with the lemon scent of its ancient wood floors and regal stone lions surmounting the entrance.

My co-workers laugh at me, but your local library offers so much free entertainment, education and useful information if you're willing to walk through those doors. Hell, you don't even have to go to a library building anymore to reap the benefits. Here's a brief rundown of services offered by my local library.

7. Shop Small Food Markets
Big-box supermarkets are a comparatively recent innovation and their massive mounds of merchandise make me uncomfortable. Perhaps that's why I tend to patronize two local markets, where the prices are really quite good, the food is much fresher and the service is great. They even take coupons.

I only bring in two canvas shopping bags for smaller trips and, once those bags are filled, I can't buy more. This obviously limits any unnecessary purchases. Since I only buy fresh food, I avoid buying produce that will turn brown in the drawers.

You can expand this principle to suit the size of your family, say to four bags or one cart, but it's clearly easier to follow when you're only shopping for one or two people.

8. Buy Generic Over-the-Counter Drugs
Look at the name-brand label. Now back at the generic. Now back at the name-brand label. Now back at the generic. See the difference in the ingredients? You don't? Sadly, that's because they're exactly the same (unlike your man and the Old Spice guy).

Now buy the generic. (It's not on a horse.)

9. A Dab Will Do You
This one comes from my brother James: "Mother was big on 'one drop of dish soap in a small amount of water.' Once, at my friend Ken's house, we were getting ready to do dishes and I filled the sink with a bit of water and added the one drop. Ken teased me like crazy for being so dumb. He took the bottle and put in a HUGE squirt of soap. His mom saw it, yelled at him, asked why he did that and he told her about me and my 'little drop of soap.' His mom said, 'That's called economizing Kenny...James' mother is smart ... it saves money!'"

Brother John weighs in with a memory of Mom using the soapy dregs to clean out kitchen window wells. "Waste not, want not."

The truth is, a modern dishwasher is more economical overall, but not all of us have these new-fangled machines, so a little dab will still have to do us.

10. Toothpaste and Vinegar Clean Nearly Everything
Cheap toothpaste: Whitens piano keys; unscuffs linoleum; removes yucky junk from steam irons; lifts stains out of carpet; whitens the rubber of tennis shoes; polishes leather shoes and chrome; lifts crayon off of walls; removes water rings from coffee tables and lipstick from fabric; fills nail holes in walls; cleans the sour smell from baby bottles; and shines diamonds.

White vinegar: Cleans coffeemakers, floors, drains, glassware, countertops, garbage disposals, microwaves, refrigerators, tea kettles, laundry, paint brushes, steam irons, windows, showerheads, dishwashers, metal, mini blinds, plastic food containers, tarnished brass, copper and pewter, and the mold off walls.

Pant, pant, pant. Obviously, I could go on and on but I'll save it for another blog post.

11. Give It 10 Seconds
This is the short version of the previous rule. I used to watch Mom stop for 10 seconds and think before popping something into her grocery cart that wasn't on her list. Ask yourself why are you buying this item? Do you really need it? If not, put it back.

12. Sit on It
Did your parents ever make you save up for a purchase? The anticipation sometimes proved to be better than the actual buy. You also occasionally realized you'd rather spend your money on something else.

When considering a major purchase -- anything over $100 -- I sit on the decision for a time period that varies depending on the amount of the purchase. Sometimes I've changed my mind by the time I get home.

Some call this the 30-day rule, but waiting 30 days often means that car, house or other major purchase won't be waiting for you at the end of a month. These major decisions can wait long enough for me to sit down with paper and pen to consider the pros and cons before saying yeah or nay.

13. Rent the Home You Need, Not the House You Want
Our eyes tend to get bigger than our wallets when we look for a new home. Mine did. The last time I went shopping, my boss had just projected a solid fiscal year ahead and I walked into a stunning house that was double my intended price. No problem, I'd find a roommate. Turns out that's not so easy when the economy falls into a pit, you're over 50, live in a college town and your boss suddenly shutters the business.

It took me a year to get out from under that lease, but my present home costs less than I can afford and still suits me just fine. Sure, it's not as beautiful, the doors don't close perfectly and I can't run the clothes washer and space heater at the same time, but I never worry about paying the rent.

14. Freeze Your Credit/Debit Cards
The Greatest Generation lived without credit cards. We can go without them for a day or two. So the next time you feel the urge for some shopping therapy, follow this process:

  • Take out a set amount of cash from the bank (only what you can afford, be it $5 or $100.)
  • Put your cards into a Ziploc baggie with water and a coin.
  • Stick it in the freezer until frozen.
  • (The coin will keep you from trying to quick melt the card in the microwave.)
  • Go shopping and spend the pre-set amount of cash.

15. Never Pass Up a Chance To Earn Extra Money
Dad was an incessant freelancer. Of course, he had eight mouths to feed. As a professional photo journalist (among other things), he never let an opportunity go by to sell a photo to one of the wire services. Even at their cheap payment rates ($5 per photo or less), it added up over time.

For many years, even though gainfully employed, I wrote freelance editorial columns, theater reviews, entertainment columns -- you name it, I wrote it (except sports). When times got thin, editors remembered the breadth of my experience and hired me for innumerable freelance gigs, ultimately resulting in this full-time gig.

16. Wash Your Hands
You hear this one a lot in terms of health, but imagine how much your family would save on medical bills, medications and work-time lost if you could avoid whatever is going around. You don't have to use all the fancy antibacterial soaps. Just wash thoroughly and dry your hands on something other than your pants.

17. Darn Those Socks
Find a darning egg (or lightbulb -- not a CFL), a large-holed needle and some darning thread or embroidery floss. Next, learn how to weave darns without pricking your fingers and saying damn. It's surprisingly rewarding to make something new again with so little effort. Besides, darning eggs are just so darned adorable.

18. But Don't Forget the Fourth "R"
Reduce, reuse, recycle and REPAIR!

Two captains chairs saw constant use in our kitchen for more than 30 years, requiring endless repairs. By the time they were retired from service, there may not have been an original piece left on their sagging wooden bodies, but they were still handsome rogues. Repair parts are readily available online, so there's no excuse.

Recycling has made us less of a disposable society, but we're so used to not being able to fix stuff anymore that we tend to think first of replacing. (I'm looking at you, Steve Jobs, and your uncrackable iPhones.)

19. Learn to Mend
While it's true the last two items are all based on the theme of repairing, there are subtle differences.

Along with fireside chats and rocking-chair grandmas, mending torn and tattered clothes seems to have fallen by the wayside. It's hugely mystifying why people will pay what Grandma would have called "good money" for clothing that looks totally trashed but object to wearing a mended outfit.

Cut large swaths of fabric from discarded clothes to use as clothing patches or -- should you ever become so handy -- quilt pieces.

Oh, and save those buttons. I found several giant cookie tins filled with buttons after my mother passed away. One had every gold and silver button from our many uniforms, blazers, etc., and they made the loveliest jewelry. Even if you never find a use for them, your kith and kin might.

20. Make Your Debt Visual
Get those debts off your conscious and down on paper. Create a giant progress bar and, each time you pay down a little bit of debt, fill in a little more of that progress bar. Keep your eyes on the prize as your debt shrinks to zilch.

21. Reuse Every Container That Comes Into the House
Everything comes in reusable containers these days. My nails, screws, etc. are stored in repurposed jars, just like Dad's. My freezer is now lined with repurposed spaghetti jars filled with the previously mentioned pesto (ready for Christmas giving.) And the Tupperware in my cupboards is actually old yogurt and cottage cheese containers. (Tossing plastic unrecyclable plastic is a physical impossibility.)

22. Tea Leaves and Coffee Grounds Make Great Plant Fertilizer
An entire china industry grew up around little bowls for used tea bags, so grandma could dunk, dunk and dunk again. I'm willing to use a tea bag twice, but then the leaves go straight into planters as fertilizer. Same with coffee grounds. (I understand some coffee filters can be composted, but I drink espresso and don't need filters.)

23. Replant Your Seeds
You can keep your garden going all summer by removing the seeds from some vegetables, drying them out and replanting. Continuing this cycle within the same summer depends upon the length of your growing season, but you can save the best seeds for next year.

24. Re-Gift Gift Wrap
Girlfriend Cathy's family re-used birthday paper wrapping until the "givers" became the "recipients" within an embarrassingly short period of time and commented on how familiar the wrapping looked.

I do recycle particularly pretty wrapping paper, but "wrap" the majority of presents in Dollar Store gift bags. Still, you have to use tissue paper to pretty up these bags, so I flatten out old tissue paper from store purchases and previous gifts.

25. Spend Evenings Together
Not only can you shut off electricity and heat in other rooms but you'll increase that oh-so-important family bonding time. Play cards, discover the new world of innovative board games, mend clothes, build something or just talk.

The time I treasure the most from my childhood years is the time we spent together, just being a family. Video games, Facebook and soccer tournaments can't replace that interaction.

26. Not Everything Has to Match
Pots and pans from grandma are likely more durable than those you can afford today. I still use my Mother's utensils and copper-bottomed pans. (One still has the wood handle Dad created to replace the melted original.)

Styles come and go, but quality kitchen supplies are worth holding on to. Don't ditch the good stuff just because you want to be matchy matchy.

Read the complete version of Kate's article: "50 Lessons Learned From My Depression-Era Parents"

Got any good tips you learned from your Depression-era elders?


Image via Lisa Congdon 

Read More >