9 Money Lessons to Take From the Great Depression


Lasting from 1929 until 1939, the Great Depression was the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn of the 20th Century. Unemployment went as high as 25% in the U.S., over 5,000 banks failed, and hundreds of thousands of Americans became homeless. Extreme situations call for extreme measures, and that's when everyone looked at ways to cut back, save money, and survive. Here are nine tips from that era that are still just as relevant today, and can save your household a lot of money.

1. Waste Not, Want Not

The definition of that proverb is, "if you use a commodity or resource carefully and without extravagance, you will never be in need." In other words, don't waste anything and you'll always have enough. That was something people from the Depression lived and breathed daily, and yet in today's throwaway society, we are often guilty of ignoring it. How often do we all throw away leftovers, or even dump the chicken carcass once the meal is over? Get into the habit of using every part of everything that you can. A great stock can be made from chicken bones. If you use a juicer, put the pulp left behind into muffins and breads. And when your t-shirts are ready for the trash, cut them up and use them as rags.

2. Pad Your Ground Beef Meals

The cost of one pound of ground beef is currently hovering around $4, with grades like 93/7 (which means 93% lean, 7% fat) running $5-$6 per pound. However, the cost of a pound of lentils is significantly less, with most grocery stores having one-pound bags for under $2.

During the Depression, it was common practice to pad out ground beef meals with filler, like lentils or oatmeal, and if done correctly, the taste difference is subtle. If you're making meatballs, add more breadcrumbs. Interestingly enough, the humble British Yorkshire Pudding was used as a substitute for meat during the wars, when rationing made meat very hard to come by (and costly when available).

3. Stop Replacing, Start Fixing

It would have been unthinkable in the 1930s to replace a broken or malfunctioning item without first trying to fix it. But these days, with the price of so many items being very affordable, it's easy to just throw the broken thing away and buy a new one. Well, stop. You happen to have the greatest possible resource at your disposal: the Internet. Whatever is broken, from a toaster to a laptop, there are hundreds of online tutorials available in both written and video form. Some of them go step-by-step with photos, through every single part of the process.

If your lawn mower refuses to start after the winter, don't just throw it away and buy a new one. A simple tune-up kit costs $20 and could get it back on its feet. An ice maker in the fridge can be replaced by you, with parts available online for a lot less than a plumber would charge. Get into the habit of fixing things first. Then, if you can't do it, hire someone who can (if it's cheaper than replacing it). Only buy a replacement if all other options fail.

4. Grow Your Own Food

Sure, the grocery store is nice and convenient, but you can easily grow a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables yourself at a fraction of the cost. There is even a "grow your own food" movement, with thousands of people converting some, or all, of their backyards into fruit and vegetable gardens. Self-sustainability is not only cheaper, but important, should anything ever happen to the foods you take for granted.

Start simple with potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and blueberries. When you get confident, and have a great crop, expand to beets, lettuce, cucumbers, cabbages, rhubarb, and strawberries. Of course, where you live in the world will dictate the kind of success you have, and what you can grow well, but there are also products that can help. A greenhouse can help you weatherproof your crops, and you can also grow inside with the help of indoor cultivators. (See also: 7 Fresh Veggies You Can Grow From Kitchen Scraps)

5. Don't Buy Anything You Can Make Yourself

There are plenty of items you can make at home, using raw materials and a little skill. For instance, several cheeses (including cottage cheese and fresh mozzarella) are very quick and easy to make at home, and cost far less than they do in the store. They're also fun to make. Yogurt is also very simple and easy to make. Then there are breads, cakes, pastas, and even beers and wines you can make yourself. Back in the Depression, it often wasn't an option to go to the store and buy whatever you needed. It's all too easy to pop to the store, but you will save a lot of money doing it all yourself.

6. Layer Your Clothing

It's not always an option with small children in the house, but if you do have the opportunity to do it, layering is far cheaper than heating the whole house. Wear several layers in cold weather, and set the thermostat between 50-60ºF during the hours you sleep. Put extra blankets on the beds, too. If you're watching a movie with someone, huddle up together in a blanket together. Do whatever you can to warm your own body without paying to warm every room in the home. You can also invest in a small heater that you can take from room to room. Use a hot water bottle, or an electric blanket. It may seem very frugal, but when money is tight, it can vastly reduce the heating bill.

7. Buy Used, or Even Get Things Free

There are so many avenues open to you to save money on used items. From clothing and furniture, to electronics and accessories, you can get excellent used goods from thrift stores, Craigslist, local classified ads, eBay, Amazon (look for the "used" option), and even friends and neighbors. It's often great to host a get-together and bring clothing that you can swap, either for yourselves or the kids. And don't be ashamed to seek free items. Dumpster diving, also known as freeganism, can bag you an incredible amount of perfectly good food, clothing, and furniture without spending a cent.

8. Buy Essentials in Bulk

It is much cheaper in the long run to buy the things you use week in, week out, in bulk. Stores like Sam's Club and Costco make it very easy for you to load up on soap, flour, toilet paper, canned goods, coffee, diapers, cleaning supplies, and pet food. This dramatically reduces the "unit cost" of the items, saving you money over time.

However, there are a few warnings that come with bulk buying. First, when you initially bring home some of these things, it's very easy to dig right into them. You must have willpower and proper rationing to make it work. And second, don't be tempted to buy bulk items that are not going to be used often. Remember Kramer in Seinfeld, buying industrial-sized cans of beefarino? Not a good idea.

9. Learn to Go Without

What do you want, and what do you need? The two are very different. With the availability of credit cards and loans, it's easy enough to get the things we want and pay for them later (at additional cost). But before bringing out the plastic, or diving into savings, consider the want vs. need argument. Do you really need that new watch or pair of shoes? Do you need all the channels on cable TV? Do you need a new car? Do you need 14 different flavors of soda in the pantry? What can you do without, and still live a life you consider happy and comfortable?

What other Depression-era hacks can we still use today? Share with us in the comments!

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Guest's picture

Barter goods and services. Be entrepreneurial. One grandpa would go from store to store in his town, pick up a broom and sweep the place spotless, even if they could only give him an apple, he'd take it. My grandmom was a grocer's daughter, she would take orders, buy a whole cow and butcher it. She'd keep the organ meats for her family and make a bit of profit. Buy less. It wasn't uncommon to have only one pair of shoes and only a few outfits. Share tools. Help your neighbor out. That same grandpa gave his only winter coat to a man who was homeless. Forage. An older friend said she and her mom would pick wild strawberries for a meal.

Guest's picture

My grandparents' wisdom was a variation on the list above: Buy the most durable items you can afford, invest the time and money to maintain them but skip the fads, "bells & whistles" & don't buy more than you need. This applied to everything from apparel & appliances to tools. As for needs vs wants, a sale of $20 off a $100 item you don't need is not a 20% savings, it is an unnecessary $80 cost. Don't buy what you might need, only what you know you do need. Something you might need in the future is only a want right now.