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8 Money-Saving Frugality Tips From the Great Depression Era

We can learn a lot from our grandparents and great-grandparents.

These older generations lived a very different life from what most of us live today. They were frugal, resourceful, and forced to adapt to some truly challenging circumstances. They lived by the adage “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” on a daily basis.

While we can’t control what happens in the world, we can control how we respond to whatever situations we find ourselves in. Part of this means learning how to be more self-sufficient and live more frugally, just like our ancestors did.

Money-Saving Tips From the Past That Are

Still Relevant Today

1. Use What You Have

Kitchen Pantry Dry Foods Canned Coffee Maker Rice Cooker Toaster

During World War II, many foods were rationed, which meant you could only purchase them if you had a government-issued coupon. Some of the most sought-after foods were meat, cheese, sugar, coffee, canned fish, and canned milk.

Today, it’s easy to run out to the store to pick up ingredients for a recipe we want to make for dinner. But those unnecessary trips can be costly, especially if you wind up making impulse buys while you’re out. Get creative with your recipes and learn how to use food substitutions to save a trip to the store.

For example, you can use the following substitutions from The Gardening Cook in recipes when you’re missing one ingredient:

  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice = 1/2 teaspoon vinegar
  • 1 cup sour cream = 1 cup milk + 1 1/3 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1 cup butter = 1/2 cup buttermilk + 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce = 4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce + 1 tablespoon water
  • White wine = equal amount of apple juice or chicken broth
  • Red wine = equal amount of grape juice or beef broth
  • 1 cup mayonnaise = 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon fresh herbs = 1 teaspoon dried herbs
  • 1 cup sugar = 2/3 cup agave nectar
  • 1 egg = 1/2 banana or 1/4 cup applesauce
  • 1 cup buttermilk = 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning = 3/4 teaspoon sage + 1/4 teaspoon thyme

Using what you have on hand instead of running to the store for one or two items will help you save money on groceries, as well as saving time and gas.

Pro tip: When you head to the grocery store, make sure you have the Fetch Rewards app on your phone. With Fetch Rewards, you can scan your grocery receipt and earn points you can redeem for gift cards to your favorite stores.

2. Avoid Food Waste

Vegetable Scraps Carrots Cutting Board Knives

Another perk of using what you have means is that it helps you avoid food waste.

You can throw wilting vegetables or no-longer-fresh herbs into soup or meatloaf rather than tossing them in the garbage. You can freeze unused meat before it expires. You can turn stale bread into breadcrumbs.

There are endless ways to use up your leftovers or food that’s passed its prime, and learning how to do this saves you money over time. Professional organizer and productivity specialist Andrea Dekker offers additional tips to salvage food that’s on its way out.

You can also use vegetable scraps like roots, tops, ends, skins, and peelings to make outstanding homemade stock for soups. According to The Kitchn, vegetable scraps that work well to make stock include:

  • Celery
  • Onion
  • Carrot
  • Parsnips
  • Green beans
  • Corn cobs
  • Garlic
  • Scallions
  • Bell peppers
  • Mushrooms
  • Eggplant
  • Squash
  • Asparagus
  • Beet greens
  • Fresh herb stalks from parsley, basil, and cilantro

Store these scraps in a zip-close bag in the freezer. When you have 4 cups of scraps, toss them into 2 quarts of water and put them on to boil. Keep in mind that not all vegetables make good stock. Some veggies have a flavor that’s too overpowering. Vegetables to avoid include:

  • Cabbage
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Turnips
  • Rutabagas
  • Artichokes

Many vegetables can be regrown from their scraps. For example, vegetables like onions, celery, lemongrass, cabbage, potatoes, and garlic are just a few vegetables that can be sprouted and then grown in the garden or in a bowl of water. The website DIY & Crafts has a comprehensive post on how to do this.

You can also save and reuse oil and grease, especially bacon grease, which Bon Appétit calls “liquid gold” because it’s so flavorful and will last forever if you render it and store it correctly. Bon Appétit has instructions on how to do this.

3. Research Depression-Era Recipes

Fresh Baked Loaf Of Carrot Bread Cake

Another way to save money is to look up the types of recipes people relied on when money and food were in short supply. For example, families often made bean soup because you could throw a wide variety of different foods in the pot and still come out with a nutritionally dense meal that lasted for several days. Meat was scarce, so they relied on beans and potatoes instead.

Many people came up with creative recipes they could make without costly or hard-to-find ingredients like milk, butter, or eggs. For example, my great-grandmother Mama Wise raised a family of seven during the Great Depression in rural Missouri. Many of her recipes have been passed down in my family because they’re delicious and very frugal. Below are two of her signature dishes straight from the 1930s.

Mama Wise’s Depression Cake

Requires no eggs or milk


  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons shortening or oil
  • 3/4 cup honey
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • Nuts, grated sweet potato, or grated carrot to taste (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda


  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
  2. In a small saucepan, cook the raisins in 1 cup of water until tender. Drain off any excess water once the raisins are cooked.
  3. Stir in the shortening or oil while it’s hot. Then, stir in the honey, flour, cinnamon, salt, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice, and the remaining 1/4 cup of water. If you’re using them, add the nuts, sweet potato, or carrot, Add the baking soda last.
  4. Bake for 45 minutes or until done. To test for doneness, insert a toothpick into the center; if it comes out clean it’s ready.

Mama Wise’s Hard Times Pie


  • 1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 medium bell pepper (any color), chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 (16-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
  • 1 (16-ounce) can creamed corn (or 16 ounces freshly made creamed corn)
  • 2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2  teaspoon paprika
  • Parmesan cheese (to taste)


  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. In a large saucepan over medium heat, saute the onion and bell pepper until the onions are translucent and the peppers are soft.
  3. Add the beef, breaking it up into smaller pieces, and cook until it’s browned through and no longer pink, around 10 minutes. During the last 90 seconds, add the garlic to the beef and saute, stirring frequently.
  4. Pour off the grease and add the tomatoes, corn, and cornmeal. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. The mixture will thicken.
  5. Add the salt, chili powder, and paprika. Add pepper and additional salt to taste.
  6. Place the mixture in a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
  7. Bake for 40 minutes or until the pie is hot in the center and lightly browned.

Taste of Home has a wonderful collection of Depression-era recipes, including classics like vinegar pie, bread pudding, and potato soup.

You can also watch the charming and informative YouTube Channel “Great Depression Cooking.” On this channel, 93-year-old Clara Cannucciari shares her Depression-era recipes, tips for frugal living, and recounts what it was like growing up during this time. Clara has since passed away, but her recipes, stories, and wisdom live on through these videos. She also has her own cookbook.

Finally, right now is a great time to drag out your slow cooker and dust it off. Soups, meatloaf, and casseroles make affordable meals, and cooking them in a slow cooker makes these dinners even easier.

4. Learn to Forage

Yellow Dandelions In Field Grass

Another way to get creative with mealtime and use what you have is to learn the art of urban foraging. The world around us is full of delicious and nutritionally-dense edibles like dandelion, plantain, sheep sorrel, chickweed, and wood sorrel. These “weeds” grow in rural and urban areas alike and are free for the taking.

During the Great Depression, wild edibles helped keep food on the table and made scarce store-bought food go a little farther. They also added a boost of vitamins and minerals that helped many families survive.

Learning how to identify and cook wild edibles offers many benefits. The biggest is these wild greens, berries, and vegetables can help you save money on groceries. You’ll also get more exercise as you wander through streets and fields looking for plants. And foraging is also a great survival skill for kids to learn.

If you do start foraging, it’s best to go out with a guidebook to help you identify which plants are safe to eat and which are poisonous. I rely on the Regional Foraging Guides, which are available on Amazon. This series devotes one book to each different region of the country, such as the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, Mountain States, Pacific Northwest, and California. The photos are excellent, and the descriptions are very clear.

5. Grow Your Own Food

Organic Red Green Cherry Tomatoes Growing On Vines Farm

During WWI and WWII, families here in the States were encouraged to grow a “victory garden.” The goal was to encourage families to grow their own food so more fresh foods were available to send to troops overseas. In a short amount of time, victory gardens popped up in front yards, public parks, and abandoned city lots. Families saved money on food, helped with the war effort, and got plenty of exercise.

Today, you can use the idea of the victory garden to start your own home garden or create a container garden on a back deck or patio. You can also start a community garden with your neighbors. Home gardening is the most frugal way to put high-quality fresh food on the table, it’s great exercise, and it’s something your entire family can help with.

6. Make Your Own

Handmade Diy Organic Soap Shampoo Cleaner Scrubber

A century ago, people made a lot of the things they needed simply because they had to. Today, we buy most of the things we need. But making instead of buying is an important life skill, especially when money is tight. Homemade cleaners, food, drinks, and other necessities are usually cheaper than store-bought versions. They’re also often better for you, and better for the environment.

Here are some of the many ways you can DIY to save money:

  • Make your own laundry detergent
  • Clean your home with baking soda, vinegar, or apple cider vinegar
  • Make your own kombucha
  • Make your own beauty treatments
  • Bake your own bread  
  • Make your own shampoo
  • Can your own food

You’ll also save money, and create less waste, by limiting your use of disposable products. Keep a basket of rags in the kitchen to use instead of paper towels. Instead of disposable sponges, dish rags can be washed and reused.

You can also try making your own furniture instead of buying something new. The website Ana-White has some outstanding free DIY plans that use basic tools and supplies. Here, you can learn how to build items for your home including chicken coops, TV credenzas, sofas, greenhouses, and much more.

7. Use Less Electricity

Lightbulbs Flourescent Bulbs Novel

Our ancestors used only a minimal amount of electricity, if they used it at all. They kept lights turned off during the day or used oil lamps at night. Plus, they didn’t have televisions, e-readers, cell phones, tablets, laptops, and other luxuries to plug in.

Today, we use an enormous amount of electricity. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the average American used an average of 914 kWh per month in 2018. The monthly bill for this electricity varies by state, but on average, it’s $95 to $150 or higher.

U.S. energy use makes up 17% of the world’s total, according to the EIA, which is significant considering we make up less than 5% of the world’s population. So cutting back our energy use is not only a smart choice for our finances, but for the environment as well.

Being aware of how much electricity you use will help reduce your utility bills throughout the year. And there are plenty of simple steps you can take to do this.

  • Unplug devices, like laptops, overnight and unplug them once the battery is full.
  • Find alternative ways to keep cool in hot weather and alternative ways to keep warm in cold weather.
  • Don’t keep the television on if no one is watching. Better yet, reduce or stop watching TV entirely.
  • Only wash clothes when the washer is full. Instead of throwing them in the dryer, put up a clothesline and dry them outdoors. Also, don’t wear your clothes once and throw them in the wash. If they’re not obviously stained or smelly, wear them another time to make them last.

8. Focus on One Main Task Every Day

Errands Listed On Post Its And Steering Wheel Unorganized Busy

If you’ve ever read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods,” you know that when Laura was growing up, her Ma had a specific task for each day, and they were set in stone:

  • Wash on Monday
  • Iron on Tuesday
  • Mend on Wednesday
  • Churn on Thursday
  • Clean on Friday
  • Bake on Saturday
  • Rest on Sunday

The advantage of using a schedule like this is it provides a framework for getting bigger tasks done on top of all the other daily chores you must accomplish.

It’s also more efficient. For example, if you set aside Saturday to bake bread and cook several freezer meals for the week ahead, you get into a rhythm. You can prep ingredients in large batches instead of five or six times over the next week. And you only have to clean up a big mess one time instead of several.

Pro tip: How would you like to make your meal prep much easier? Once a Month Meals gives you all the tools you need. They help you plan your meals, create a shopping list, and prepare enough freezer meals to last for weeks. Right now, they’re even giving you a free meal plan to try them out.

Final Word

Many of us are looking for ways to slow down, save money, and live a simpler life. For some, it’s out of financial necessity, while others simply want to reduce stress and spend more time with their family.

Many of the lessons our grandparents and great-grandparents learned living in more challenging times can help us live a richer, fuller life today. Not only can they save you money, but they just might make you happier and healthier too.

Did your grandparents or great-grandparents pass on any frugality tips to you?

Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.