Money Lessons from the Great Depression: Frugal Living Tips from the 1930’s

Money Lessons from the Great Depression: Frugal Living Tips from the 1930’s

The Great Depression of the 1930s was incredibly challenging for millions of American families. With widespread poverty, unemployment, and hardship, people had to get extremely creative to make ends meet and put food on the table. Although tragic, the era of the Great Depression also gave rise to many ingenious frugal living habits, money lessons, and values that we can still learn from today. This article will explore some of the top frugal living tips and money wisdom from the 1930s Depression that remains surprisingly relevant today.

Grow Your Food and Preserve It

With grocery money extremely tight, many families had to rely on growing their food at home. Backyard vegetable gardens, community gardens, and small homestead farms provided fresh produce that was then preserved to last all year long. Standard preservation methods included canning, pickling, root cellaring, drying, salting, smoking, and jarring fruits, vegetables, and meat. This allowed self-sufficient eaters to enjoy homegrown food all year round without spending money at the store.

For example, a family might grow tomatoes, green beans, carrots, and onions in their garden in the summer. The mother and daughters would spend days canning tomato sauce, pickled green beans, carrots, and caramelized onions to last through the winter months when the garden wasn’t producing.

Repurpose and Mend Hand-Me-Downs

With very limited clothing budgets, families had to be highly thrifty and resourceful when it came to clothing. It was common for kids’ clothing to be handed down multiple times to younger siblings. Clothing was skillfully patched, darned, re-hemmed, let out or taken in, and creatively remade as kids grew. Having sewing skills was invaluable. Women often repurpose old flour sacks and feed sacks into shirts, dresses, towels, and quilts.

The Jones family had five kids spanning from ages 1-12. The younger siblings constantly handed down and reused the three older kids’ clothes. Patches and creative mending allowed the family to get years of use out of each garment.

Entertain At Home

For entertainment and socializing, families relied on low-cost and free activities at home rather than going out and spending money. Having friends and neighbors over for potlucks, dances, game nights, pie socials, talent shows, play performances, singalongs, or card games allowed people to socialize and have fun close to home.

The Browns family loved having friends over on Friday nights for potluck dinners and charades. They would move the furniture aside, pull out homemade instruments, and have old-fashioned dance parties. The kids put on shows and performances as cost-effective entertainment for all ages.

Barter for Goods and Services

Bartering was a common practice during the Depression. People would trade goods and services they had to offer for other things they needed. This allowed people to get necessities without having to spend scarce cash. Backyard produce could be traded for sewing or repair services; milk could be traded for haircuts, etc. Bartering enhanced community connections.

Martha was an excellent seamstress. She would sew and mend clothing for neighbors in exchange for help in her garden and jars of homemade jams. This allowed both to get something they needed without spending limited money.

Preserve Food Without Electricity

Before the widespread use of refrigeration and freezers, people had to get creative with food storage. Root cellars, cold pantries, smokehouses, and spring houses allowed food preservation without electricity. Salting, smoking, pickling, drying, and cold storage kept food fresh for months. These old-fashioned methods are still applicable today.

The Smiths dug a root cellar to store potatoes, carrots, beets, onions and cabbages through the winter. Salt-curing and smoking preserved meat, pickling preserved summer vegetables. These traditional methods kept their pantry well-stocked.

Shop Local and Seasonal

Limited transportation and money meant families shopped locally and seasonally out of necessity. Most food and goods came from nearby towns, local farmers, and homegrown. Following the natural growing seasons and buying foods at their seasonal peak saved money and supported local economies.

Most of the Clark family’s diet consisted of foods available during the current season from local producers. They ate squash, apples, potatoes, turnips, and carrots in the fall. In summer, corn, peas, berries, greens, and melons. This seasonal eating saved them money.

Meal Plan Around Sales and What’s On Hand

Planning creative meals around what was available and affordable required clever resourcefulness in the kitchen. Cookbooks and magazines offered recipes for tasty meals using humble ingredients and substituting based on sales and repurposing leftovers stretcher budgets.

Mary routinely based her weekly meal plans on what was currently in the pantry and icebox combined with the week’s sale ads from the grocery store. This allowed her to minimize spending while serving her family nutritious and filling meals.

Make Do and Repurpose Items

The mantra of “use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without” meant people got creative repurposing items to meet their needs. Feed sacks became dresses and towels; scrap fabric became quilts; worn clothes became rag rugs; empty tins became toys and more. Seeking out used items and giving them new life saved money.

Old milk glass jars became drinking glasses. Tins became toy trucks. Dented pots found new life as planters. The Schultz family saw value in creatively repurposing items before throwing them away. This allowed them to acquire needed items for free.

Putting It All Into Practice: The Johnson Family

The Johnson family was hit hard by the Great Depression. Mr. Johnson lost his factory job, and their savings quickly dried up. Using the creative, frugal living strategies from that era, they were able to thrive on minimal money:

  • Mrs. Johnson sewed, mended, and altered hand-me-downs into “new” outfits for the kids.
  • The family grew a large garden and preserved its bounty by canning, pickling, and root cellaring. This provided free food year-round.
  • Clothing and household items were carefully patched and darned until unwearable, then recycled into quilts, rags, and toys.
  • The family entertained themselves at home with creative activities like talent shows, cooking competitions, and sing-a-longs.
  • Mr. Johnson bartered his carpentry skills with neighbors in exchange for other goods and services the family needed.
  • Food was purchased locally, in season, and according to weekly sales to minimize spending.
  • Leftover and imperfect produce from the grocery store was repurposed into soups, preserves, and baked goods. Nothing went to waste.

By adopting the frugal habits of the 1930s Depression era, the Johnson family spent very little money, made meaningful community connections, ate well, and still had fun. Their story demonstrates the value of many of these creative, frugal living practices.


Although a devastating period, the Great Depression gave rise to many frugal living habits, money lessons, and values we can still learn from today. Growing and preserving your food, mending and repurposing items, shopping locally and seasonally, entertaining at home, bartering, and making do by creatively reusing items can go a long way toward stretching a budget. Implementing these strategies today can help save money and live more sustainably. The timeless wisdom of past generations still has much to teach us.