20+ Extreme Frugal Living Tips From the Great Depression (That Still Work Today)

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In the late 1920s and well into the 1930s, the world experienced the worst economic downturn it had ever seen and the worst that many countries in the future would ever see.

Many people associate the great depression directly with the United States economy, and while the depression mostly originated in America, the entire world was hit extremely hard.

Especially those countries with economies still thriving thanks to the Industrial Revolution.

Those that lived through the Great Depression learned how to adapt to their situations.

They had no other option than to live frugally, because there wasn’t any extra money they could depend on.

While some of the things they did during the Great Depression may seem far-fetched now, there are still lessons that can be adapted to fit our current lifestyle nearly a century later.

The resiliency of those who survived through the Great Depression is something that all of us today can look up to and learn from, especially as we tackle the cost of living crisis.

Live Within Your Means

One of the first steps to live a frugal lifestyle is living well within your means.

If you don’t need those new clothes for work, then don’t buy them just because they look nice.

If you can’t afford to go out and have a nice meal paid for with cash, then cook at home instead of putting it on a credit card.

Back during the Great Depression, people made do with what they had.

As long as they could survive and be healthy, then they were fine.

Now, we aren’t saying that you shouldn’t treat yourself from time to time.

But we are saying that an important step to frugal living is to stay well below your means.

Try Being Fiscally Conservative (aka Cheap and kind of Greedy!)

While living frugally might mean cutting costs, there are also ways to improve your finances, increasing your overall net income while reducing your spending.

During the Great Depression, people had to find additional means of income wherever they could.

What’s great about our current day and age is that there are many different opportunities to access additional money and ways to make smarter financial choices toward a frugal lifestyle.

Budget for your lifestyle

This goes hand in hand with living within your means. If you’re trying to manage your spending, you need to first measure it.

Creating a budget involves determining how much money is coming in and then properly dictating how it should be spent.

Thankfully, these days, we have technology on our side, so apps like EveryBudget or YNAB can help us track our spending and ensure we stay on track with our budget.

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Increase debt repayments

If you have debt, the faster you can pay it off, the faster you can start living a more frugal lifestyle.

While making bigger payments towards your debt seems counterproductive to saving money, the quicker you pay it off, the less interest you will pay, which results in more money you can save.

Even if you increase your debt payments each month by a few dollars, your overall savings from interest rates will equal a nice amount of money you can save.

 These are our best tips for starting a plan to get out of debt 

Make (or find) extra money:

The more money you make the higher your potential is for savings and retirement contributions.

Which is why finding ways to make extra money can benefit your savings goals.

Additional income can also help take the pressure off when money starts to become tight.

Side Hustle

Many people are finding a second income by performing work on the side.

Any of these could use their own guides, but you may find some success in selling on Etsy, dropshipping with Oberlo, selling pictures of your feet,  starting a blog, or performing digital tasks and jobs for people on Upwork or Fiverr.

Cash-Back Shopping

Larger shopping stores and online outlets will pay referral commissions whenever sales are referred to them.

Cash-back shopping apps will share this commission with you. Our top picks are Ibotta (US), Rakuten (US),  Cashrewards (AU), Kiwiwallet (NZ).

Get Paid To Complete Tasks

Complete paid surveys online, take part in online focus groups with Respondent.io, or watch video ads online with Swagbucks.

Make Extra Money With Your Home

During the Great Depression, many homeowners found extra money by renting out their spare bedrooms.

Sometimes, families would all sleep in the same master bedroom so the other bedrooms could be rented out.

Back then, every little bit helped.

If you’ve got a spare bedroom, consider listing it on Airbnb.

If you have an unused pool house, mother-in-law suite, finished basement, or garage apartment, even better.

Don’t want to bring strangers into your home? How about boarding some dogs?

Sites like Rover and Care.com will help put you in touch with pet owners who need to go away for a while but don’t want to go through the typical boarding options.

Haggle and Barter

During the Great Depression, a big part of getting what you needed was centered around bartering.

While you’re not going to be able to walk into your local supermarket and haggle down the price of bananas, the age-old practice of bartering and haggling still works today in many other instances and situations.

Haggling Monthly Bills Down:

When it comes to your bills and your monthly payment obligations, it might be worthwhile to negotiate with companies to get your bills down.

So many of the companies you pay monthly are part of extremely competitive industries.

Calling and asking for a lower bill, or to match the price of a competitor will result in success.

Calling and speaking to a person in the Customer Retention department and threatening to cancel your service may result in even more success.

The worst thing they can do is apologize and tell you no. Just try not to go full Karen on them because it is a human being on the other end of the phone line.

This tactic can be used for your everyday bills like cable TV & internet, and your mobile phone service if you’re not under contact or if your contract is almost up.

Some people have success doing so with their credit card bills – especially annual fees, which can usually be negotiated down significantly.

Haggling these recurring monthly bills works surprisingly well.

Because many of these companies face such high competition, they have entire departments staffed with people whose sole job is to keep you from leaving and going to a competitor.

They would much rather give you a discounted rate than lose you altogether.

Bartering For Products & Services:

Do you have something that you’re good at? A service that can be valuable?

Or, is there a product that you can provide? Your products and services can be used to get other products and services.

Maybe you’re an amazing math tutor, a great Yoga teacher, or maybe you just make some killer Salsa.

You can contact other people and offer your products or services in lieu of cash for whatever you’re looking for.

A friend piqued my interest in web design well over a decade ago because I saw him find a small business owner selling a truck on Craigslist.

He reached out to this guy and successfully negotiated a trade in which he would build a website for his business in exchange for having the truck’s title signed over to him. That blew my mind!

Facebook Marketplace is also a great place to find some people who are likely to barter over products and services.

You may also want to consider sites like Gumtree or Postanote. Depending on your product or service, many people will likely turn you down.

But it takes just one person to say ‘Yes’ for you to save money.

Save Money By Fixing Your Stuff and Being A DIY-er

The Great Depression era was a time of teaching yourself how to fix things on your own.

There was no option to take your torn jeans to a seamstress.

Almost nobody had money to take their car to a mechanic, regardless of how necessary that car was.

In fact, fixing your own stuff is arguably much easier these days.

It doesn’t matter if you need to replace the tiles on your bathroom floor, install a ceiling fan, or change the air filter on a 1994 Ford Mustang; there will be a YouTube video explaining how to do so.

In fact, your biggest challenge will be figuring out which YouTube video to follow along with.

On top of that, there are so many specialty shops and online stores for you to easily order whatever you deem necessary for whatever repairs you’re trying to make.

DIY-ing is another great way to save money and create whatever you need.

You probably have materials around your house that can be turned into something new, you just might have to get a little creative.

Pinterest is a great place to get ideas for DIY projects, and, as with the repairs, tons of YouTube videos are available to walk you through any process.

Put that junk drawer to use and make or fix things you need in your home.

Related post: 9 Benefits of Frugality That Are More Important Than Money

Eliminate Unnecessary Waste

Regardless of what it was, there was nothing wasted back then.

This is a good mentality to have when trying to live frugally.

If there was food, it was all eaten, even if it took a few days.

Fruit with bad spots was simply cut around and still eaten. Overripe bananas were used for baking.

Get creative and think of some ways you can stretch your leftovers and scrap foods to ensure you get as much use out of what you have already bought as possible.

One of my favourite things is looking up recipes and creative ways to turn leftovers into entirely new meals.

This same thought process can be applied to more than just food.

In fact, you may find our DIY suggestions above work very well with eliminating unnecessary waste.

We aren’t saying to become a hoarder, but give a second thought to anything you may be about to throw away.

Become Resource-Lite in the Home

Using less is also applied to the home. 

Making your home warmer by blocking draughts with old towels, running your washing machine on a cold cycle, line-drying clothes and ensuring you open up all the windows daily to ventilate correctly can hugely reduce your energy bill and reduce mold.

Change How, When, Where, and What You Eat

Replace meals with cheaper options

When grocery shopping during the Great Depression, people limited their menus to meals without meat or using small amounts of meat since that was one of the more expensive items to purchase.

A lot of meals were centred around starch and carb-heavy foods like pasta, potatoes, beans etc.

They also simplified their meals and had a solitary item for one meal, like pancakes for dinner, which was the entire meal.

We aren’t suggesting everyone needs to become a vegetarian to save money, but you can use this same line of thinking while deciding what meals you’re going to cook throughout the week.

“Will bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs be okay in this meal instead of the expensive, boneless, skinless chicken breasts?”

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Grow your own food

A trend that is rising is the act of growing your own food.

During times of limited food, having a backyard garden allowed people to get the necessary nutrients through food they could grow themselves.

This same mentality can be used now because the more food you can produce in your own yard, the more food is available for mealtime.

Gardening doesn’t require a lot of supplies and can be achieved for a fairly low cost.

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Meal Prepping

Buying food in bulk and cooking it all at once is a great way to save money.

With proper food storage your meal that was cooked 6 days ago can still be as good today.

Good Housekeeping has some great meal prep tips.

The Great Depression Forced People To Get Creative

If there’s one thing we learned about frugal living during the Great Depression, it’s that people were forced to get creative when it came to how money was spent and how money was saved.

Obviously, times were much different then than they are now, but the idea behind frugal living still remains the same.

Whether you follow each piece of advice in the article or merely use it as inspiration to find ways to cut corners in your own budget, we will count it as a win.

Just because the Great Depression was nearly a century ago doesn’t mean we can’t all still learn from it!

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About Emma Healey

Emma is a recognised family finance and budgeting expert and founder of Mum's Money. Her advice has been featured in Readers Digest, Yahoo Finance, Lifehacker, The Simple Dollar, MSN Money and more.