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Frugal Living Tips from the Great Depression

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  By Forrest McCall | Last Updated:  April 9, 2021

The Great Depression is not a particularly bright spot in the history of the United States. This period of economic struggle, which was sparked by the 1929 stock market crash, was an incredibly challenging time for millions of people.

As with any period of struggle, there are lessons to be learned from this window of time. Those who survived the Great Depression had to learn how to live frugally, getting the most out of their meager resources. While we are fortunate today to not deal with these same kinds of struggles, we can learn some lessons that may help even in the modern world. 

In this post, I'll explore some of the top frugal living tips from the Great Depression. Let's get started!

65+ Frugal Living Tips from the Great Depression

Below are some of my favorite ways to save money by living frugally just like others during the Great Depression.

Growing Food

Grow Some of Your Food

This tip will be more practical for some people than others, but you might be able to grow some of the food products you need on your own property. Depending on your climate, things like berries, root vegetables, and herbs are good options to start with.

Related: How to Save $10,000 in a Year 

Use Conservatively to Live Frugally

Rather than dumping out a large pile of shampoo onto your hand in the shower, use just a bit and you will probably get the same results. Apply this same line of thinking to just about everything you use around the house. 

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Strategize Your Groceries

It would have been a major mistake to throw away perfectly good food during the Great Depression. Make the most out of your grocery spending by planning out meals carefully. If you use part of a bag of potatoes for one meal, for example, use the rest the next night for a different dish. 

Related: How Much Should I Be Spending on Food?

Turn to Upcycling

Tossing things out isn’t a great strategy when trying to stretch every dollar. Instead of throwing something out, think of creative ways to use that item for a new purpose. For example, you might try to renew your old furniture to keep your homes decor vibrant and refreshed. 

Develop New Skills

Self-reliance was a major part of getting through the Great Depression successfully. People in the modern world tend to hire out many different tasks but learning to do things yourself can save money and provide personal satisfaction. 

Ditch Disposable

How many things do you buy regularly that are disposable? It might be more than you think. Look toward reusable purchases to get more for your money time after time. 

Don’t Use Credit

Credit cards weren’t an option during the Great Depression. You could only make a purchase if you actually had the money in hand, which is a good rule of thumb today, even if you do have a credit account available. 

Save Money on Utilities

Be Thrifty with Utilities

Remember that the utilities that serve your home are not free. Things like water and electricity come with a cost, so modify your habits to cut back on consumption. As a nice side effect, you will be reducing your impact on the environment while saving money at the same time. 

Related: How to Save on Utilities

Cook Your Own Food

This is a simple step that goes a long way toward maintaining a good monthly budget. Skip meals out and get in the habit of cooking all of your own food at home. Depending on the size of your family, skipping one meal out each week can save you a few hundred dollars each month. 

Change the Oil

So, this is a modern take on an old concept. Most people in the Great Depression didn’t yet own vehicles, but they did a lot of repair and maintenance work around the house. You can apply this thinking and learn to change your car’s oil to save money and live frugally. 

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Borrowing is Powerful

You probably have a sizeable network of friends, neighbors, and family members. When you need something for a single use, see if it’s possible to borrow that item instead of buying it new. 

Shop Used to Live Frugally

This is actually easier than ever before thanks to the power of the internet. Look for deals on used items before you pay the new price, as significant savings may be available. 


Turn to the Library for Entertainment

Money wasn’t available to pay for entertainment during the Great Depression. One modern way to entertain yourself for free is to utilize your local library. 

A Replacement is a Last Resort

When you have something that isn’t working around the house, don’t think first about running out to buy a new version. Instead, think of replacing that item as only your last resort when other options have failed. So, first attempt to repair the item or see if you are able to borrow/share a replacement instead of buying one. 


Be Careful with Laundry

Doing laundry isn’t free, even if you own your own machines. For one thing, there is the water and energy required to run the cycle, and that doesn’t even take into account the fact that you are shortening the lifespan of your garments with every load. You’ll still need to wash your clothes periodically, of course, but maybe not as often as you have been. 

Control Emotional Impulses

Unfortunately, some people feel the need to turn toward spending to help settle their emotions or distract from another issue in life. This would not have been a viable option in the Great Depression, and it shouldn’t be a go-to strategy today, either.

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Affordable Upgrades

Living on a tight budget doesn’t mean you have to forgo all upgrades and luxuries. One affordable way to upgrade the feel of your home is to add a fresh coat of paint. The paint and related supplies are pretty inexpensive, and this project can make a big difference. 

Pick Up Other Work

The idea of doing whatever work was available to make some money was something that was widely accepted during the Great Depression. You can turn to this mindset and try to make extra money outside of your regular job. Consider trying one of these recession proof side hustles!

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Dry Clothes the Old-Fashioned Way

Hanging clothes out to dry was the only option at the time of the Great Depression, and it remains a viable option today. You’ll save on energy, and you can even cut dryer sheets out of your budget. 

Protect Your Clothes

It’s easy to take clothing for granted but replacing what you already have in your closet is an expensive endeavor. Consider using something like an apron for certain tasks to make sure you don’t damage your good clothes. 

Save Your Containers

When you purchase various products, you not only gain ownership of the product, but also the container it comes in. Whether those containers are plastic or glass, they may have plenty of purposes beyond their original use. 

Stay Close to Home

Travel has changed dramatically in the last century, but one thing hasn’t – taking trips is expensive now, just as it was then. Finding things to do and enjoy close to home can make a big difference in your budget. 

Skip the Coffee Shop

The difference in cost between making your own coffee and getting it from a coffee shop is dramatic. Get in the habit of making this drink at home and you’ll save significantly. 

Utilize Your Freezer

If you have a freezer available with extra space to store bulk items, make use of that opportunity. Buying larger quantities can often help you save money in the long run. 

Learn Butchering Skills

Paying for meat that has already been butchered is more expensive than doing at least some of the work yourself. Try buying whole chickens and learning how to cut them up into useful segments. 

Minimize Landscaping Expenses

It’s a safe bet that homeowners in the Great Depression weren’t too worried about what their landscaping looked like – they had bigger issues. You might not want to let your yard go out of control, but care for it in a cost-effective manner. 

Related: How to Save Money on Landscaping Costs

Trim the Cable Bill

Okay – so this is a modern spending problem, but the concept of paring back on services applies in any era. Try cutting out some of the channels from your cable lineup to bring the total bill down. 

Portion Control

A big part of your monthly spending goes down to food, so cutting back on what you consume can be good for both your budget and your waistline. 

Be Creative with Possessions

Don’t think that everything you own is limited to performing the task it is currently given. For example, a pair of shoes that you use for exercise at the moment could be transitioned into yardwork shoes as they lose some cushion. This will save you from buying a separate pair of shoes just for yard tasks. 

Don’t Compare

It’s easy to spend too much when trying to keep up with your neighbors or friends. Don’t fall into this trap – buy only what you need to enjoy your life. 

Maintenance is Important

Sometimes, spending a little money on maintenance is better than spending a lot of money later to replace something that has broken down. Keeping your car and home well maintained can save you thousands over the years. 

Limit Dishwasher Loads

All dishes were washed by hand in the age of the Great Depression, and you can still do the same today. Limiting how often you run the dishwasher will save you on detergent, water heating, etc. 

Creative Gifts

If you run out to buy something for every friend and family member who has a birthday come up, you’ll quickly ruin your otherwise tight budget. Be smart with gifts to save money while making a meaningful gesture. 

Be Smart with Showers

We aren’t suggesting that you go to work smelling foul, but you might not need to take as many showers as you do currently. The cost of water can add up so try to limit your shower and bath use to save money and live frugally. 

Start a Compost Heap

If you are gardening, start a compost heap with your food scraps and then use that compost to provide nutrients to your garden periodically. 

Make a Trade

Even if you need something, there are likely other things around your home that you don’t need anymore. It may be possible to work out trades – either with friends or through online marketplaces – to exchange useful goods. 

Do You Have an Extra Room?

Finding a renter for a room that is not being used at the moment is another possible way to improve your financial situation. 

Have Some Vegetarian Dinners

Meat was a luxury during the Great Depression, so you can be sure that plenty of dinners in that period were veggie-only. This is a concept that you can execute with ease in the modern world, and you’ll save money along the way. 

Experiment with Savings

To save money, you might decide to cut certain things out of your budget for a month or two – but those changes don’t have to be permanent. Experiment with what works and what doesn’t to continually improve your plan. 

Reusable Water Bottle

Don’t spend money on single use bottles of water that will only increase your overall consumption rate. Buying a reusable bottle instead is a better use of resources. 

Streamline Your Tech

Things like cell phones and laptops were not an issue a century ago, but you can be sure families in the Great Depression would have opted for economical models rather than top-of-the-line gear. 

Free Exercise

Cutting out a gym membership is one of the fastest ways to bring down your overall monthly expenses a bit. Try to get your exercise either at home or outside, where it is free. The costs to build a home gym might be less than you think!

Be Active During Non-Peak Times

Doing things when everyone else wants to do them tends to be more expensive. Be creative with your schedule to have your fun when costs are lower. 

Keep Your Car Simple

Automobiles were just starting to come into their own during this period of history, but today they are essential for millions of people. Don’t overbuy on your vehicle purchase by getting a fancy trim package or other features you don’t need. 

Embrace Nature

Enjoying the beauty of nature is always freely available right outside of your door. You might be surprised at how much fun can be had simply by immersing yourself in a lovely walk. 

Pool Your Resources

People in the Great Depression were forced to work closely together to get by. Think about working with others in your situation to help each other out and build closer relationships. 

Save Grass Clippings

Yes, even something like grass clippings from mowing your lawn can be put to use. The clippings left over after giving your yard a trim can be used as mulch or in compost. 

Print on Both Sides

Keeping with the theme of making the most out of everything you have, printing on both sides of paper is a quick and easy way to limit the amount of paper you purchase while still getting the same amount of work done. 

Consolidate Trips 

Given the cost of traveling out of the house at the time, those in the Great Depression would have had very good reasons to leave home. It’s not as costly now, but it still makes sense to bundle up your errands, so you don’t have to head out multiple times to the same general area. 

Virtual Gatherings

You will still want to see people face to face occasionally, but you can also leverage technology to meet-up digitally more often. Use any of a number of platforms to hold live gatherings with family or friends as a way to see those you care about without the expense of traveling. This is not an option that existed 100 years ago, so we are lucky to have it available. 

Ditch the Dryer

Whenever doing laundry, ditch the electric drier and instead opt to use a traditional clothes line outdoors. While this process will take more time than using a standard dryer, it will help you to save money and live frugally.

Create Your Own Entertainment

Instead of buying games or paying for costly entertainment outings, make your own games and activities at home. This is a great way to connect with your family and save money all at the same time. 

Keep Versatility in Mind When Shopping

When you do need to make purchases, plan those purchases carefully and be sure to buy items that can be used for more than one purpose. For example, try to buy clothes that can be used in both a professional and casual setting, rather than just one or the other. 

Cook in Batches

You can reduce waste – which is the whole purpose of using the Great Depression mindset, by cooking your food in batches. With the power of modern refrigeration on your side, it’s possible to prepare several days’ worth of meals all at once. 

Time Your Days with the Sun

If you live your life in a way that matches up with the daylight hours outside (whenever possible), you can cut down on some of your utility usage. This frugal living tip was used by farmers to create a schedule to work on their land.

Think Twice

It’s important to shift your mindset toward money when trying to be frugal. Instead of rushing to make purchases, take your time to think twice about all but the smallest of items. 

Build a Saving Habit

Saving was a luxury that many did not have during the Great Depression but do your best in the modern world to put away money when you can. This habit, even if it’s small at first, can pay off in a big way down the line. 

Always Eat Leftovers

Letting food go to waste is perhaps the biggest no-no with this type of frugal living. Leftovers are a valuable commodity that should be planned into your meals for the next day or two. 

Related: Cheapest Foods to Save Money

Consider Downsizing

If it’s practical for your family, think about moving into a smaller home. Many people have more space than they truly need, and all that space costs money in one way or another. 

Plan Ahead

In tough times, careful planning becomes even more important than usual. Do your best to chart a plan for the future so you can outline what money you will be spending and why. That plan can always be revised as time goes, but it will help keep you on track. 

Final Thoughts on Frugal Living Tips from the Great Depression

We all hope that there is no return to conditions like the Great Depression anytime soon. While we don’t want to revert to those days, there are valuable lessons to pull out of that era of history.

By thinking carefully about how people survived that difficult stretch of years and applying that to our lives in the modern world, we may be able to make better money decisions given our own circumstances.

Do you have any favorite frugal living tips from the Great Depression? Comment yours below!

Forrest is a personal finance, entrepreneurship, and investing expert dedicated to helping others obtain life long wealth. He has a Bachelor's degree in business and has been featured in many popular publications including Forbes, Business Insider, Bankrate, CNET Money, and many others. To learn more about Forrest, visit the About Us Page for more info.
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