Survival Basics From Depression-Era Kids
My parents and my husband’s parents were children during the Great Depression. Mine lived in large cities; my in-laws, small towns. Their families started this era from neither a position of wealth nor desperation; just to add perspective, though, I’ll mention that their parents wouldn’t have considered lack of indoor plumbing a sign of poverty, at least in their early years. Here are the basics of how they managed to survive using tactics that are still viable today.
1) Play outside.
Like most kids then, my dad spent his days when not in school outside playing with his older brother and the neighborhood kids. He did have to forgo riding on his tricycle after it was repossessed, but apparently found other things to do.
Outside play is generally free or cheap, even if it means driving to the playground. And, when I operated on a very limited budget in a small town right out of college, I spent much of my leisure time outside, usually hiking in the nearby mountains with friends. My favorite hikes were Stone Mountain (one of my mentions in things to do for $5 or less) and anywhere on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
2) Write letters.
My father-in-law's brother used to write letters for a hired hand who worked the same land as his father, a tenant farmer, did. Sadly, the hired hand couldn't read and write well enough to correspond with his girlfriends so he relied on someone else for his correspondence.
Margaret espouses the benefits of writing letters as a way to get attention from companies. It can also be a form of entertainment or pastime, and way to record one's history; my mother has letters from her mom and reading them makes me feel as if she is right next to me, sharing her story.
3) Keep your government job or any not-overly-exciting-but-stable position.
My mother-in-law’s dad was a mail carrier with the United States Postal Service (a government job) and so had a reliable source of income, unlike many of their neighbors. Her family was able to help others in their small, rural community.
I am sure that there are many exciting and well-paying government jobs but a key element of their attractiveness is stability. There is often a trade-off between the opportunity for higher pay in a risky environment and lower wages in a safer arena (consider looking for a new job if you have a low-paying position in a volatile environment).
4) Grow meals in the backyard.
My grandmother raised chickens in her tiny, urban backyard; when she was ready to fix dinner, she caught a chicken and cooked it. My mother-in-law’s parents had a garden on land they owned; everyone was encouraged to grow produce in order to feed themselves and sell the excess to neighbors, as the reliability of food distribution was uncertain.
The get-closer-to-your-food movement has been gaining momentum though many never abandoned this concept. My in-laws now have a farm in which they grow corn, potatoes, peppers, and more. My parents have always had tomato plants and my dad is an expert farmers’ market shopper, always investigating and committing to memory who is a farmer and who is a reseller only, who has the best _____ (peas, limas, cantaloupes, peaches, etc.) and who doesn’t.
Though I do have a few plants now, cultivating my backyard is one area that shows the most promise in saving money and living better.
5) Generate as much income as possible.
My grandparents took in boarders though my dad, still young at the time, didn’t really like having strangers in the house. My husband’s grandparents also had boarders but the kids, then young adults, enjoyed the company. At some point, both of my grandmothers worked outside the home to bring in money for their families.
Frugality can go only so far. Cold cash is often needed to pay for basic supplies, such as food and clothing, or make payments on credit-card debt.
6) Get government-sponsored training.
My father-in-law’s oldest brother joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. He worked and lived in a camp in Oregon, and learned job skills. Back home, he first worked as a candy salesman and then started an auto-parts store and trained his younger brother in business. Eventually, they both operated stores in small towns. My dad and father-in-law were fortunate to get a college degree on the G.I. Bill.
Today, taking classes at the community college is an inexpensive way to get work skills. Many community colleges also offer consultation for starting and running small businesses.
7) Stay put.
My dad’s parents lost their house to foreclosure. But, because no one else could afford to buy the home, they were able to stay in the house. They happened to live near the downtown area of a large city with work, schools, and stores within walking distance, so it made sense to stay where they were.
Paul explores the concept of not paying the mortgage in order to receive benefits from the government bailout though I wouldn’t recommend this tactic (not that he does either; he was just sparking discussion). What I have learned from this story is that there is not always a ready market for housing.
8) Move to where the jobs are.
My father-in-law’s family (his parents and brothers) moved to Newport News so that they could work in the shipyard (my father-in-law stayed back until he could finish high school and then joined them).
Obviously, this tactic seems to be in direct contrast to #7 and was useful only when World War II efforts began to stimulate the economy. But, having started my professional career during a recession, I’ll echo that moving for work, if you can afford the start-up costs or have even a basic relocation package (mine was 30 days in a hotel, allowing me to get a first paycheck and find a roommate before putting down a deposit on an apartment), makes sense.
Here are some things I’ve learned from Depression-Era Kids:
- Save, and save more.
- Develop multiple streams of income.
- There are risk and uncertainty everywhere, even with government-sponsored benefits and guaranteed returns.
- When you retire, your job is managing your streams of income and investment portfolio.