Frugal Living Lessons from the Great Depression

We may think we’ve got it rough today, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. During the Great Depression, for example, people found ways to survive on virtually nothing. Thanks to a series of events, including the Dust Bowl, famine, drought, unemployment and a beckoning world war, Americans had to learn to make do with less, and ultimately frugality became their second nature.

We may not be in as dire straits nowadays, but most of us still could benefit from some extra lessons in frugality. Following are some lessons we can take from those who lived through the Great Depression:

Make Do

Americans who lived during the Great Depression learned to make do with what they had. Today, we tend to desire the newest, latest and best goods and gadgets. New electronic devices, cars, homes and appliances are considered a status symbol. But next time you’re going to make a large purchase, ask yourself if you really need the item, or if you can just as easily make do with your current model. More often than not, our purchases satisfy wants rather than needs.

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Look for Quality

Great Depression-era consumers were extremely price sensitive and every penny counted. When they were able to save up for a major purchase, such as a car or home appliance, they might spend a little more to purchase an item that would last longer. Today’s society has become accustomed to inexpensive disposable items. But repairs cost extra money, and replacements cost even more. Instead, purchasing a well-made item will cost much less in the long haul.


Americans of the 1930s understood the concept of saving for the future, even though they had very little in the present. Even if they could only save a few cents at a time, that was money they could live off of later if times again became tough. Many of today’s Americans also find it difficult to set aside any money when they are living paycheck to paycheck. A good rule of thumb is to save a dollar for every dollar spent, but if you can’t spare that, try just saving a dollar every time you make a purchase. You might be surprised how quickly it can add up.

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Celebrate Special Occasions

While we tend to treat ourselves often, people living during the Great Depression learned to save up for special occasions. Instead of going out to eat once a week or eating dessert every day, they could only go out on special celebrations such as birthdays, graduations and anniversaries – and then, only if they were fortunate to have some extra money set aside. Not only does saving the celebrations for special occasions save money, but it can actually make those occasions more special and memorable.

Waste Not

Americans living during the Great Depression didn’t waste anything. Even if it meant scraping out the ketchup and mustard bottles with a knife or spoon to get every last drop, they made sure to use every bit of purchased goods. We can save significantly by cutting down on our waste.

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Why purchase something that can only be used for one purpose when you can buy something else that has countless uses. Baking soda, for example, is one of the most useful items in the kitchen, and during the Great Depression people used it as an antacid, a mile disinfectant, a household cleaner, an exfoliant, toothpaste, shampoo and even silver polish. They collected fabric scraps such as old clothes and dishrags to use as bandages, rags and quilts. They even found an endless list of uses for vinegar, including hair conditioner, household cleaner, weed killer, stain remover, disinfectant and class cleaner. If we found as many uses for household products, we could save a bundle.


There’s no sense in paying someone else to fix your car, repair your home or mend your clothes if you can do it yourself. Americans living during the Great Depression relied on themselves for all of the above and more.

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Waste Not

Waste not, want not was a motto of many Americans living during the Great Depression. After all, if you take good care of what you already have, you’re less likely to need to repair or replace it in the future.

Eat Less Meat

Unless they lived on a farm, Americans of the Great Depression often cut back on the amount of meat they consumed simply because meat was expensive compared to many other foods. With the price of beef skyrocketing, we face a similar predicament today. Instead of serving meat for every meal, create entrees with beans, pasta and cheese.

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An Apple a Day…

Malnutrition was a serious problem during the Great Depression. Americans living during the Great Depression quickly learned that not eating properly had its own costs, and frugality should never take precedence over nutrition. Even if you’re trying to significantly cut back on your grocery bill, be sure you’re getting the important proteins, vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy. After all, that apple costs a lot less than a visit to the doctor.

We can all learn a thing or two from those who survived one of the most difficult economical periods in America. Unfortunately, one day soon we will lose this valuable resource, and our only reference will be history books. If you are lucky enough to have someone in your life who survived the Great Depression, even if that person was just a child, learn what you can from them. You never know when you’ll be glad to have the knowledge in the future.

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by on May 19th, 2015