I learned many lessons about frugality from my grandmother, who was as frugal as they come. She would wash and reuse plastic baggies and aluminum foil, save and reuse gift wrap, reuse empty plastic butter containers as Tupperware and make several different meals from leftovers. She traced her frugal ways back to the Great Depression, when her family of farmers struggled to make ends meet.

It's safe to say that frugality in the U.S. probably traces its roots back to the Great Depression. Before that, there was certainly no reason for Americans to be frugal. Credit was easy to obtain, investors purchased stocks on margin like there was no tomorrow and the richest 1 percent owned 40 percent of the country's wealth. Times were good...very good. There is a reason the decade was called "The Roaring '20s".

There were some warning signs before the bottom fell out of the economy. The stock market hit some serious bumps, but it always recovered. People were spending money they didn't have. Everyone forgot that the economy doesn't continue to expand with no end in sight. It had been nearly 100 years since "The Panic of 1837", when banks failed and unemployment in the U.S. soared to record highs. Americans had forgotten their history.

During The Great Depression, the money supply declined, unemployment hit double digits and interest rates fell. Those who had no money had to make do the best way they possibly could. My grandmother told me stories of farmers who baked bread using saw dust, fed weeds to their cattle because they could not afford feed and recycled cloth flour sacks into towels and sheets.

When something was used, it was not immediately thrown into the trash. Everything had a second use and was recycled until it literally could not be used anymore. Nearly every household had a "rag bin". Scraps of cloth would be saved to patch clothing and make quilts or hand towels. Coffee grounds were used at least twice, and then used as compost in a garden, where people grew their own fruits and vegetables because they could not afford to buy them from the market. Home appliances were never thrown away. They were repaired. The same goes for shoes. People would never toss out old shoes because the heels were worn. They would take them to shoe repair shops for new heels and soles, or people would place cardboard inside their shoes when the soles were worn through with holes. Buying something new was nearly unheard of. People either made their own, made what they had last longer or did without. Old clothes were never discarded. They were repaired, reused, exchanged for others and when they were finally unusable, they were cut up for the "rag bin." Bartering became the new currency in the U.S.

Today, many Americans are going through rough economic times, but it is nowhere near as bad as those Great Depression days, when people lived in tar paper shacks called "Hoovervilles" and got their bread from the soup kitchens. But, we can learn some valuable lessons from the Great Depression Generation. Do we really need to buy something new as often as we do? Do we need to live on credit as much as we do? Is it really wise to live beyond our means? Perhaps the Great Generation mantra of "use it more, wear it out, recycle it and don't throw it out" should be adopted more today. Not only would it help more people save money, but it would make them think twice about their spending habits.

I always gave my grandmother a hard time when she reused aluminum foil, but she would just reply "there is nothing wrong with it. It can be reused. People waste too much." Looking back on those times and her frugal habits, I think maybe grandma was on to something.


  1. Four Pillars // April 5, 2008 at 8:02 PM  

    Interesting post - it's good to hear this kind of thing from older relatives.


  2. Anonymous // April 6, 2008 at 12:55 AM  

    Gosh, I was raised to do this stuff! I'm a baby boomer but I have never thrown away cloth, it can always be used for rags -- I use them for cleaning. I do buy too much stuff, but I also reuse ziplock bags and cottage cheese containers, etc. Why not? I also use rags instead of paper towels -- paper towels only for the least, um, washable of messes or broken glass. A roll of paper towels lasts months in my house, and it would be longer if I didn't have mess-making cats.

    I don't really think I'm unusual, I know many people who are more "saving" than me. This has never really gone away, just been quieter in recent years, but those of us who love our planet need to think more this way!

  3. Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances // April 17, 2008 at 7:21 AM  

    I'd say that frugality goes much further back than the Great Depression. I don't really see the first colonists being spendthrifts. However, the Great Depression was certainly a wake-up call to those who could seemingly afford to enjoy the Roaring Twenties.

    I learned a lot of stuff from my mom. She did a remarkable job of raising me and my siblings on very little, and I never felt poor thanks to her sacrifices. I rediscovered frugality through fellow bloggers and the need to get a hold on the debt (I married a spender and didn't mind him spending his money on me). It's nice to be able to return the favor to my mom with a new tip or trick, but mostly I'm love seeing how proud she is of my new frugal mindset.

  4. SavvyFrugality // April 17, 2008 at 9:42 AM  

    I'm actually talking about the birth of modern frugality. By virtue of lifestyle, most Americans lived frugally during the 1700s and 1800s. As they entered the 1900s, modern conveniences became more widely available, and people spent more money, particularly during the time known as the Roaring '20s. The Great Depression was the resulting hangover, and most Americans were forced to adapt frugal lifestyles to survive. Only at the conclusion of World War II did production...and therefore consumerism...increase.

  5. Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances // April 17, 2008 at 9:06 PM  

    I got that, but the Devil's Advocate in me wonders if there's really much of a difference between the eras. There may well be. I only wonder out-loud because I think you've brought up an interesting topic.

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