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7 Things Your Grandparents Lived Without & Why You Should Too

When our grandparents (or in some people’s cases, great- or great-great-grandparents) were young and raising families of their own, frugality was a fine art. They “used it up, wore it out, made it do, or did without,” as they like to say.

There were no such things as two-day Amazon Prime shipping, a bathroom for every family member, or disposable plates. They didn’t have Netflix or Hulu, smartphones, microwaves, or Facebook.

Our grandparents managed to survive and thrive without most of the conveniences and “necessities” we rely on today. And while these conveniences are often advantageous, there are some you might be happier living without — especially since doing so can also save you a great deal of money throughout the year.

Then vs. Now

My grandmother grew up in rural Missouri during the Great Depression, and she told me countless stories of what life was like for her and her family during those hard times.

Her father was a sharecropper, and their tiny wooden home had no running water, no refrigerator, and no central heat. Once she was old enough to manage their wood-burning kitchen stove (around age 6 or 7), she would rise before dawn to build a fire and start the coffee percolating. That gave her mother a few extra minutes to get dressed and care for her baby sisters. My grandmother would then begin making biscuits so they’d be ready when her father left for the fields.

I often think of how difficult her life was back then, especially when I look around my own home full of conveniences and time-saving appliances. I have a furnace that kicks on when the house gets chilly, a refrigerator to keep my food cold, a microwave to speed cooking times, and — the biggest luxury of all — indoor plumbing.

Like many of you, I often take these things for granted. They’re so ingrained in our modern life the only time we really think about them is when they’re gone. And while I wouldn’t choose to give some of these luxuries up, there are some conveniences it might be better to go without. Sometimes, our time-saving appliances can end up costing us more money and contributing to an unhealthy lifestyle.


Modern Conveniences You Might Be Better Off Without

Companies love to sell the idea that easier is always better. If a product saves time or eliminates discomfort, we should have it — right now.

However, sometimes the opposite is true. Occasionally, the slower, harder way leads to a better outcome or result. As such, there are some modern conveniences you might be happier doing without.

1. Electric Coffee Makers

The coffee our grandparents drank decades ago took longer and tasted better than the coffee most of us drink today. That’s because they made coffee using a stovetop percolator.

A percolator works by continuously cycling boiling water up through a stem over the coffee grounds, giving you a delicious and robust brew after 10 minutes. A drip coffee maker works by dripping hot water over the grounds one time. Drip coffee makers are faster and more convenient, but the flavor and depth of the coffee pale in comparison to the coffee brewed in a percolator.

Coffee made in a percolator is richer, bolder, and more delicious than coffee made in an electric drip pot or Keurig. Yes, it takes longer and is a bit more work. You can’t just push a button or set a timer and get coffee. But, it’s worth the wait.

Drip coffee makers range from $40 to $200 or more, and you often have to replace them within a couple of years.

But stovetop percolators are reasonably inexpensive, selling for around $25 to $60 on Amazon. You can also find used percolators at thrift stores, flea markets, and even antique stores for a few dollars. You might be able to find a percolator by asking around. There’s a good chance your grandparents or other seniors in your family or community would happily give you the percolator they have stashed in a back cabinet. And because they’re stainless steel and have no electric parts, they typically last a very long time.

You can also opt for an electric percolator, which offers the same benefits as the stovetop percolator but provides a bit more convenience. You don’t have to worry about leaving the stove on, and a small light turns on when the coffee is ready. Electric percolators sell for around $40 to $70.

Another option is to use a French press coffee pot. With a French press, you pour the loose coffee grounds into the pot and fill it with boiling water. After letting the grounds soak for a couple of minutes, you press the filter down slowly, trapping the grounds at the bottom of the pot. The Secura French press sells for around $40 on Amazon.


2. Television & Other Electronic Entertainment

Many of our grandparents grew up without a lot of “external” entertainment, and History channel’s website reports that radios were a popular form of entertainment for families by the mid-1930s. My grandmother didn’t have a radio until she was married and raising a family of her own. Instead, families played games, talked, played outside, or read books.

Today, many homes don’t have a radio at all. Instead, we have televisions, tablets, laptops, and smartphones. And we spend a lot of time watching these devices. According to Nielsen’s 2020 Total Audience Report, the average American spent over 12 hours per day consuming media on a device. This time breaks down as follows:

  • Live Television: 3 hours, 43 minutes
  • Time Shifted (Delayed) Television: 33 minutes
  • Smartphone: 3 hours, 46 minutes
  • Radio: 1 hour, 39 minutes
  • Computer: 36 minutes
  • Tablet: 58 minutes
  • Other Internet-Connected Device: 48 minutes
  • Gaming Console: 14 minutes
  • DVD/Blu-Ray Device: 4 minutes

Stop and think about what you could do with an extra 11 hours in your day if you stopped your media consumption for a while. I ditched my TV years ago and haven’t regretted it once. Living without a television is also one way to limit your children’s screen time.

One of the most significant benefits of a TV-free life is that it gives you a lot more time to do things you’d like to do. You can spend more time with your family, start a new hobby, or get more exercise.

Canceling your cable service could also save you a significant amount of money every year. USA Today reports that cable bills climbed 53% between 2007 to 2017, with most customers paying around $100 per month in 2017 for television. Annual rate hikes are expected now, with many companies regularly raising rates by 2% to 8% each year. Consumer Reports also states that many companies now charge for extras like regional sports coverage or broadcast television.

Want to give TV-free life a try? It’s best to start slowly, especially if you have kids. Make a goal to keep the TV off for one day, then three days, then a week. Before you begin, create a list of activities you can do instead of watching something. For example, you could have a family game night, go for an evening walk, have a date night at home with your partner, or read stories to your kids.

Coming up with fun ideas beforehand will make this transition time easier.


3. Gas-Powered Lawn Mowers

Our grandparents didn’t have gas-powered lawn mowers. They used push reel mowers to cut the grass.

The advantage of a reel mower is that you have to push the rotating blades through the grass manually. There’s no engine to do it for you. That forces you to exercise every time you cut your lawn. Reel mowers are also less expensive than gas-powered mowers. They cost less upfront and save you money every month since you don’t have to buy gas and oil.

Reel mowers are also much better for the environment. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in 2015, lawn equipment discharged almost 23 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — up 12% from 2011. It also accounts for 35% of all volatile organic compound emissions.

Inhaling the pollutants from small two-stroke engines can be harmful to your health. The EPA states that “gas-powered lawn and garden equipment (GLGE) is known to emit high levels of toxic and carcinogenic pollutants.”

Push reel mowers take longer, and using them is more work. But it’s a healthier, cheaper alternative. They’re also blissfully quiet.

If you’d like to try using a push reel mower to cut your grass, scour Craigslist, thrift stores, or garage sales to see if you can find one used. You can purchase reel mowers at Lowe’s or Home Depot as well as on Amazon, but be prepared to pay $70 to $100 or more for a new one.


4. Extensive Wardrobes

When my grandmother was growing up, she had one change of clothes and one pair of shoes to call her own until she married my grandfather.

When my children were born, I switched over to using a capsule wardrobe. It has a few handpicked pieces I really love that all work well together. While it’s minimal compared to today’s standards, it’s still extensive and luxurious compared to what my grandmother had.

There are many benefits to switching to a capsule wardrobe or even just limiting your clothing choices. First, you save money on clothing by buying a few high-quality pieces you love rather than dozens of cheaply made pieces you’ll end up pitching or donating in a year. Over time, it’s a better investment for your money.

Having fewer clothing choices also saves time. You can get dressed and out the door far faster than you can with an endless number of pieces to choose from. It’s also liberating to look into a clean, clutter-free closet and see only pieces you want to wear.

If you’d like to try living with a minimal wardrobe, start by sorting your clothing into three piles: clothes you love and wear all the time, clothes you definitely don’t love and don’t wear, and the in-betweens. These might be expensive pieces you can’t bear to get rid of, clothes that don’t fit or that you’re not sure about, or gifts you can’t part with yet.

Leave the clothes you love in place. Bag up all the clothing you don’t wear and set it aside for donation. Take all the in-betweens to another closet and hang them up. For the next week, your goal is to wear only the clothes you love. If you need to add a piece of clothing or accessory to the mix, revisit your “in-between” clothes or buy a timeless piece that everyone should have in their closet.

Over time, you’ll probably need to adjust your choices a bit, picking and choosing from your “in-between” clothes, but for the most part, a capsule wardrobe should stand the test of time. If you need ideas for pieces to include in your new minimal wardrobe, head over to Pinterest or Instagram and search for “#capsulewardrobe.” You’ll find plenty of inspiration to get you started.

Once you feel your wardrobe is complete and you haven’t visited your “in-between” closet for several months, donate or sell those clothes.


5. Fast Food

In our grandparents’ day, fast food didn’t exist. Almost everything was made at home from scratch and was free of preservatives and other harmful additives.

However, modern society has a real problem with fast food. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 36.6% of American adults eat fast food every day. And The New York Times reports that we consume 31% more packaged food than fresh food.

These unhealthy eating habits are slowly killing us. The CDC reports that in 2018, 42.4% of American adults were obese. Obesity leads to other health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, some forms of cancer, and dementia. It’s also putting an enormous strain on our health care system. In 2017, the Journal of General Internal Medicine published a study based on data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. Researchers found that between 2005 and 2010, U.S. national obesity costs rose from $212.4 billion to $315.8 billion (both in 2010 dollars), an increase of 48.7%. (In today’s dollars, the 2010 number would be $375.3 billion.)

Cooking from scratch, also called slow food, is much healthier than eating out, especially when eating out means fast food. Yes, it takes time to plan and cook meals, but you’ll save money and live a healthier lifestyle. Cooking more at home is also rewarding, especially if you can get your family involved in the routine.

It’s also much more affordable, allowing you to eat for $4 per day if you plan your meals around sales and coupons.

But start slow. If you and your family rely on fast food several times per week, make it a goal to cook at least one more meal at home this week. The transition will go smoother if you cut back slowly.

Make a list of recipes everyone in your family likes to eat. Try to come up with two weeks’ worth of meals, and make the same meals on the same nights. For example, Monday might be veggie lasagna night, and Tuesday could be taco night. It can help you avoid the nagging question of “What’s for dinner?” and build a healthy routine.

You can also use apps to help you plan meals and shop for ingredients. Check out Forks Over Knives (for iOS and Android) for plant-based recipes, Mealime (for iOS and Android) to plan a week’s worth of meals around your preferences and food allergies, or Allrecipes Dinner Spinner (for iOS and Android), which gives you instant access to Allrecipes’ 50,000-plus recipes.


6. Disposable Diapers

When our grandmothers were raising their babies, disposable diapers weren’t an option. They used cloth diapers, which they washed by hand and then dried in the sun. Today, we have disposable diapers — which are wonderfully convenient and easy, but also expensive and wasteful.

Stop and think about how many diapers an average child will go through before they’re potty trained. The amount varies, but most children will go through several thousand. Each of these diapers takes around 500 years to decompose in a landfill. According to the National Diaper Bank Network, the average family spends $70 to $80 per month per baby on disposable diapers.

Cloth diapers eliminate all this financial and environmental waste. For what you get, they’re surprisingly affordable. For example, a six-pack of Alvababy cloth diapers costs $38, while a six-pack of Mama Koala cloth diapers costs around $40. The number of cloth diapers you’ll need depends on the age of your child. Newborns usually go through 10 to 12 diapers per day, so you need at least a two-day supply (or 20 to 24 cloth diapers) to have plenty of time to wash and dry them between use. Older children will need fewer than this.

Yes, you’ll be doing more laundry. But if you use cloth diapers consistently, you can save $900 or more each year on disposable diapers. That’s a lot of money.

When it comes to cloth diapering, you really have to want to do it, and the temptation is always there to throw a disposable on your child and be done with it, especially when you’re exhausted. I failed so many times at cloth diapering. I used cloth diapers, but not nearly as often as I could have. However, there are plenty of parents who use cloth diapers religiously. For them, it’s just part of their routine. It all depends on your mindset, your situation, and your family dynamics.

If you want to make the switch, compare cloth diapers to disposables to see if it’s the right move for you. BabyTooshy has a great guide to help you figure out how many cloth diapers you need for your situation.

That said, it’s best to have some disposable diapers on hand, especially for traveling or if you use day care services, most of which require parents to supply a day’s worth of disposables.

Another option is to potty train your kids early and be done with diapers entirely. I used the book “Oh Crap! Potty Training” by Jamie Glowacki, and it was a huge help in potty training my boys.


7. Endless Food Choices

The markets our grandparents shopped at looked vastly different from the supermarkets we shop at today.

For example, our grandparents often had to visit the butcher for fresh meat, a dry goods shop for necessities like flour and sugar, and a produce market for fresh fruit and vegetables. According to Auburn University, “combination” grocery stores, where you can buy everything under one roof, were only beginning to come into existence during the Great Depression. And these combination stores were incredibly small by today’s standards, averaging only 1,200 square feet. According to the Food Industry Association, as of August 2020, the median supermarket size is almost 42,000 square feet.

Another big difference was the level of service you received. In 1929, the vast majority of grocery stores were full-service. That means you went to the counter, told the clerk or owner what you needed, and they went and got those items for you.

Today, we roam the aisles choosing our own groceries. Stores are set up to encourage impulse buys. These purchases add to our ballooning grocery bill and are often unhealthy. After all, when was the last time you succumbed to temptation and bought an apple or orange that wasn’t on your shopping list? Our impulse buys are usually a box of freshly baked cookies from the bakery or that sugar-laden smoothie in the refrigerated section.

Our grandparents also visited the store less often. They grew their own food, baked their own bread, and cooked everything from scratch. They would probably get dizzy looking at all the options we have today.

Of course, there are some advantages to our vast array of choices. We can indulge in strawberries and corn in December. We can buy guava and dragon fruit that have been shipped from across the world. We can find white rice, brown rice, wild rice, black rice, Arborio rice, jasmine rice, or basmati rice. Options are amazing. That said, it still might be nice if things were a bit simpler.

One way to simplify your food shopping routine is to start a home garden or container garden. When you grow your own fruits and vegetables, you have a market right in your yard, and you can plan healthy meals around what’s available in your garden. You’ll also save on groceries. The National Gardening Association estimates that the average family could save $600 per year with a home garden.

Homegrown produce is less expensive than the produce you purchase in the grocery store. According to Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Medical School’s health blog, homegrown produce is also more nutritious. Produce in the grocery store has to be picked early, which lessens its nutritional value. At home, you can harvest food at its peak ripeness, when it contains the maximum amount of vitamins and minerals.

If you have excess produce (which is a handy problem to have), you can preserve food from your garden to eat all winter long. Practices such as canning, freezing, and fermenting food from the garden were another way our grandparents stretched out their finances and avoided the store.

You can also try baking your own bread. Home-baked bread costs a fraction of what you pay at the grocery store. It’s also healthy, preservative-free, and tastes much better than commercially made bread.

Some people feel nervous about baking bread. While there is a learning curve, home baking isn’t as tricky as many people think, especially if you rely on quality recipes and don’t give up. Books like “Flour Water Salt Yeast” by Ken Forkish provide a thorough explanation of recipes perfect for beginning bakers. You could also take a baking class through Udemy or browse recipes from respected baking experts, including the blog Brown Eyed Baker and King Arthur Baking Company.

Investing in a bread machine can also take some of the fear out of home baking. Today’s bread machines do it all, from kneading the dough to adding nuts at just the right stage, and bake each loaf to perfection. Amazon has quality bread machines for $100 to $150.

All of these tips should lead to fewer trips to the store, a healthier diet, and more money you can spend on other things.


Final Word

Our grandparents lived simpler lives in many ways. There were fewer distractions, less chaos and stress, and more quiet time to spend with family and friends. However, I’m not suggesting life back then was always better. In many cases, it wasn’t. Life was incredibly hard, and even in cities, people struggled to survive.

Today, we have vaccines that protect our children from horrible diseases, Medicaid and CHIP to make sure low-income individuals and families get the medical care they need, and refrigerators that ensure our food doesn’t spoil. We have hot showers, Instant Pots, antibiotics, high-quality dental care, and washing machines.

There are thousands of modern conveniences that make our lives better and easier. But sometimes, taking the slow way leads to a better experience. It’s often less expensive, and it can be a healthier choice for you and your family.

What modern conveniences are you willing to give up to live a simpler, healthier life? What are some conveniences you can’t live without?

Heather Levin
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.

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