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.

9. Share. Having a home and a steady job allowed my mother-in-law’s parents to share with others; at some point, they gave shelter to a young woman in need.

Here are some things I’ve learned from Depression-Era Kids:

  • Save, and save more.
  • Invest.
  • 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.
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Guest's picture

The one my parents always said was, "The pennies you get to keep, are the ones you don't spend!"

Very pertinent these days too.


Guest's picture

Tip number three made me smile. I have on of those stable jobs with the federal government. I get to work on issues involving international trade and international relations, so for me anyway my job also qualifies as exciting.

Although government pay is often lower than pay for comparable jobs in the private sector, there are many aspects - including the stability - that make it attractive. A colleague of mine believes that the stability of working for the federal government is worth roughly 10% of your salary. The freedom from worrying about losing your job, the ability to maintain lower emergency reserves and put that money to better use, and the near certainty that you will not spend a few months out of every decade or two not drawing a paycheck all add up.


Guest's picture

I agree with you. There are many things that we have recently lost but are actually really good ideas. I think in this age of consumerism and instant credit people have forgotten the basics of money management and the other things we can do to get by and get by better.

Guest's picture

I have been thinking about the food my mother used to cook in the 1950's. She and my father were depression kids also but they never made us feel deprived. I remember her adding water to a can of chili to make it stretch, and there's no good reason not to do that, as it's soup after all and crackers are cheaper than chili. If we had chili dogs (and food like that was rare), she would cut the weiners in half lengthwise and use only a half in the bun. No chips. For snacks, I remember having crackers and peanut butter (we must have gone through a lot of Saltines) and a slice of bread with mayonnaise or butter on top. No cokes except on special occasions--we drank Koolaid with our snacks. My mother usually made our bread and always made our desserts even though she worked outside the home also. There was no fast food but occasionally we went to a drugstore counter for a hamburger which was not automatically accompanied by fries. These are small differences but they are money-saving ones and the changes which made our lives more expensive have come on so gradually that we failed to notice them. I'm trying to go back to some of the old ways, because not only did we live more cheaply, none of us were fat.

Guest's picture

I did chuckle, though, when you said "if she wanted chicken she caught one and cooked it," because there were many steps in between the catching and the cooking. Chicken for dinner was a big deal because of the work that went into it.

Julie Rains's picture

You're right about the work with cooking chicken -- some of it might ruin appetites to discuss the details. By the time I was a kid, chickens weren't in the backyard but in the grocery store so I missed seeing all the prep work. I do hear about people in my town raising chickens now but mostly for the eggs.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Really awesome piece, and timely.

Guest's picture

Some random thoughts. One of the Wisebread bloggers mentioned a while back he'd reread "Possum Living" every so often. I borrowed it through interlibrary loan. Quite a mind bender. (It's also available free on line). The writer and her dad kept rabbits in the cellar for meat. (The family also made moonshine, but that's a bit over the top for me.)

Big gardens are still a good possibility most every where and the square foot gardening method works well in more limited space. We've been doing beans and tomatoes these past few years but plan to expand and freeze more.

Having skills and trading services is another time honored money saver. Older folks have mentioned eating wild things like strawberries and greens during the depression. This summer we tried purslane for the first time and it's quite nice.

There's a lot to think about given our current economic climate. Thanks for priming the pump.

Guest's picture

I'm not allowed to take in boarders.

Guest's picture

1. Make sure open space is maintained.
2. Support education.
3. Make sure the government job exists.
4. Make sure that the local laws allow raising chickens at home.
5. Make sure zoning laws are appropriate.
6. Make sure community college is funded, and cheap.
7. Make sure you have the right to squat.
8. Work to help reduce outsourcing.
9. Share.

Julie Rains's picture

and I'm glad you brought them up wildgift. #6 is being discussed in my community right now as the community college is asking for additional funds. One candidate says that now is not the time to ask for more money; another says that the community college is central to solving economic difficulties. I am pro-education but there also have to be jobs in which to place the graduates; of course, companies won't move or expand here if they don't have a pipeline of able workers.

Also, I remember hearing how one town outlawed raising chickens in the backyard b/c of sanitation concerns, so regulations, town planning, etc. all play a role in encouraging self-sufficiency.

Guest's picture

Very timely article. My parents were also children during the depression. They had some similar ideas they taught me as well:

1) Get out of debt as soon as possible if you have it.
2) Make as much money as possible and save as much as possible. I changed that to invest as much as possibe on a very regular basis. I have followed that advise since 1978 and I am very pleased with the results.
3) Share your prosperity with others. I changed that to contribute and participate in charity activites.
4) Don't forget to be grateful or give thanks.

I am afraid until Americans can change their idealism from "buy now and pay later" we will be discussing these topics for longer than I want to think about.

Guest's picture

Excellent article, Julie. Many of the lessons learned from the depression era were passed down as stories. Stories are a great way of conveying timeless messages. I think your readers will also enjoy visiting...

Guest's picture

I know you were only mentioning USPS as an example but to anyone considering them I'd recommend caution. They're probably not what you think they are.

First, they're private sector these days and have been since the 80s. At best they're quasi government and they receive zero tax dollars. Every dime they receive is a dime they earned. Which leads to ..

USPS is hurting income wise. Volume is down. Way down. Between the current economic slow down, the internet taking over and getting hammered with gas prices this summer they lost billions in revenue. While gas prices have been better lately no one knows when the economy will pick back up again. The internet is here to stay and email and websites have taken over for traditional letters and catalogs.

I am personally sprinting to get out of this job and hope to be out before the layoffs hit.

Guest's picture

It's very difficult to live frugally without some ironclad discipline. I think most people lack that but will have to learn it. People get into financial difficulties through illness, job loss, and the shenanigans of some corporate and political leaders. Sometimes they are at fault themselves. They simply don't say "no" to impulse buying. They don't stop to analyze if a purchase is a "I want" instead of an "I need."

My family's system (successful thus far) is to write down every single purchase no matter how small and adhere to a strict daily and monthly budget. If we overspend one day or one month we strive to make it up the next day or month. That may mean staying home to read a book instead of going out, and eating out only rarely; checking the newspapers for food bargains and stocking up with sale items, but only those we regularly use.

We don't have a regular cell phone, only one of those prepaid things that we carry for emergencies and top up every 90 days. I don't have DSL but use an slow dial-up. No extra cable channels for us, just basic because it's the only way we get reception here.

Trips to the local library for reading and video pleasure. Generic drugs if we can use them instead. Using the better mileage vehicle for most of our driving and maintaining our older model cars instead of replacing them, until that becomes less cost effective. I kept my last car (bought new) for 13 years by having the oil changed at Walmart as scheduled. I had very few repairs. Of course we replaced tires, batteries, etc. but we even had sort of a plan for that. If you do this, however, I recommend a motor club membership.

If you can cut tiny corners everywhere you look and make it your habit you will find you can get used to it. A big thing was my husband quit smoking, improving his health and we saving a little bit everyday. It all adds up.....a little here, a little there.