Frugal Lessons from People Who Survived the Great Depression

by on January 17, 2011 · 66 comments

Have you ever met someone who was alive during the Great Depression? They are changed people. The Great Depression left a great impression on their thoughts, their styles, and their habits. Many of them hoard money, become pack rats, and in general have trouble parting with anything that may possibly be of use down the road. And who can blame them? Many people ask how did people survive the Great Depression; I wonder how many times saving the ends of a loaf of bread or scraping the mold off of a brick of cheese meant the difference between eating and going hungry.

My grandfather was born in 1928 and grew into a young boy in the aftermath of the US economic collapse. Pop-pop remembers his parents opening up our hay barn for random people to sleep in on cold winter nights. He also remembers that he and his family were “not so bad off”; they were farmers so they had the land and the knowledge to grow most of the food they consumed. In fact, Pop-pop told me that anyone who spent the night in their barn was also given a plate of food for the night, which shows how valuable their garden truly was. His impressionable years during a time of great financial ruin impacted the rest of his life dramatically, from his hoarding of cash and mistrust of companies and banks, to his refusal to use air conditioners and instead spend his summers in sweat-drenched muscle shirts. When he died he left an inheritance for each of his children from a measly family dairy farmer’s income.

The Great Depression to frugal people holds the same intrigue as Sedona to New Age people, which is why I have chosen this time period as a small research project for myself. I have read of the bank failures, the stock market crash, the suicides, and the dust bowl, all of which have been written about extensively. But a few burning questions of mine about this time period have never fully been answered: How did people actually survive the Great Depression? What sort of frugal habits came about? I want to learn how people made do with less and how people actually survived the day-to-day with little money.

Before I list some of the examples I found during my research, let’s put everyone into the mindset of the Depression era. Imagine this: the stock market has crashed and your money in it is gone. The value on your home has plummeted (that may not be difficult for some to imagine). You see a line forming outside of several banks and begin to wonder if you should get your own money out of them and stuff it into a mattress. Your job cuts your wage by 25%, but you feel fortunate to still have one. Except that six months later consumer demand is a speckle of what it used to be, so your job enforces furloughs. Unfortunately the money you had set aside in your bank is not liquid at the moment due to bank issues. What do you do?

Please note: As this article is meant to be useful to everyone as both an eye-opener to how comfortable people of today actually are (even those who call themselves “frugal”, which includes myself), as well as an inspiration to maintain our frugal habits, I left out the heart-breaking and destitute acts committed by families to survive. I don’t wish to sugar coat this time period and the suffering of others, so I’d like to mention that these include eating from the garbage, eating every other day, abandoning families, living in Hoovervilles, etc.

How Did People Survive the Great Depression?

  • Sell Apples on the Street Corner: Pacific Northwest apple growers had a surplus of apples, and decided to sell a crate to unemployed people at $1.75 per crate. Selling the 60-72 apples on the street corner would yield $3.00, and after paying Pacific, a person could reap around $1.25.
  • Roll Your Own Cigarettes
  • Eat Food from the Wild: Such delicacies as blackberries, dandelions, and game were for the taking in the country but not in the city. Other people gathered corn kernels from fields and roasted them over fires, or picked fruit from people’s trees (I am not suggesting you do this).
  • Substitute Other Things for Meat: Families ate more of beans, macaroni and cheese, pancakes, and other gut-filling foods that were less expensive than meats. One type of meat that became popular was sardines: introducing the mashed sardine and mayonnaise sandwich.
  • Family Members Work to Supplement Income: This included mowing lawns, shoveling snow, delivering newspapers, baby-sitting, shoe-shining, passing out ads, selling door-to-door, mining, etc.
  • Repair Your Clothes with Objects around the House: Shoes were often repaired with cardboard, scotch tape became popular, and coats were lined with blankets.
  • Give up Your Telephone: Telephone service declined from 20 million in 1930 to less than 17 million in 1933. Long Distance phone calls dramatically decreased.
  • Postpone Life Decisions: Divorce rates dropped because people could not afford the cost, and they needed one another to survive. People postponed weddings and having children.
  • Practice Out of Your Home: Doctors, dentists, and other professionals who previously rented offices instead moved their practices to their homes.
  • Leave the City: A chunk of people fled the cities and went into farming instead; at least they knew they would eat.
  • Give up Your Car: The bicycle becomes a popular choice for transportation.
  • Make Use of your Neighbor and Vice Versa: After many people’s water was shut off, they looked to neighbors to give them buckets or pails of water for cooking, washing up, etc. People also traded clothes with neighbors.
  • Live/Sleep Elsewhere: People who found themselves without a home, apartment, or bed travelled the streets, slept on other people’s couches, in other people’s garages, in barns, lived in caves, and generally slept wherever they could.
  • Pawn Your Belongings
  • Use Socks as Gloves
  • Trade Work for Food: Can you clean houses, babysit, cook, cut hair, etc.? People would trade their services for food instead of pay.
  • Join a Food Co-Op: A group would purchase bulk food at a discount and split it up.
  • Move in With Other Families

Did you survive the Great Depression, or know others who have? I’d love to hear stories and tidbits of how you/friend/relative survived, and what frugal habits you used. Also, check back on Wednesday where I will talk about products and services that became popular during the Great Depression.

Resources:

The Great Depression: A Diary, Benjamin Roth, 2009
Hard Times, Studs Terkel, 1970
American Popular Culture Through the 1930s, William H. Young with Nancy K. Young, 2002
Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940, David E. Kyvig, 2002

Other Articles You May Enjoy:

Bahumbug, or Rather ‘Throw it Over the Fence’: My Grandfather Scroodge
Personal Finance Lessons from the Great Depression
Lessons from the Recession
My Grandma was Truly Frugal

This was featured as the winning post in the Best of Money Blog Carnival # 87.

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{ 63 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindy Mint

It’s interesting to see how much people relied on each other and helped each other. Now if someone got their water shut off and tried to borrow from a neighbor, it probably wouldn’t go so smoothly.
Lindy Mint recently posted..The Devil and The Simple Pleasures In Life

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FruGal

Hello Lindy Mint!

Definitely–it would seem odd to go to our neighbors to borrow something…even a cup of sugar:).

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krantcents

My mother came to this country in 1928 to marry my father who cam here much earlier. My dad had a women’s coat factory. She opened a store in 1929 and had my older brother the same year. My parents built a house in 1929 and had a mortgage of $85 per month. Despite the successes of my parents, they were exceptionally frugal. Except for the mortgage, they never had any debt. They paid cash for their cars. In fact my mother never had a credit card until she was in her sixties.
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FruGal

krantcents: That is wonderful to have such fiscally responsible parents! Thank you for sharing.

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BluSky

If you haven’t read The Grapes of Wrath, do so. Wonderful book.

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FruGal

Hello BluSky! That is actually one of my favorite books. While others in high school were bored to tears from reading it, I thought it was quite fascinating. Thank you for the recommendation!

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Melissa

I love The Grapes of Wrath. Another good one is Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.

My grandpa was born in 1910, my grandma in 1913. My grandma ALWAYS washed sandwich baggies and foil to reuse. They retired, sold their house and lived in a small travel trailer next to our house. They had enough money invested to provide for both of them until their deaths at 88 and 90, respectively. There was even money leftover for a small inheritance for each of their 9 children. My mom says they shopped the loss leaders every week at the grocery store, and my grandma made everything from scratch. They NEVER went out to eat.

I wish they were still alive so I could ask them more questions. . .
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Amanda L Grossman

Hello Melissa!

Thank you for sharing that. Inspiring grandparents!

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shala shamen

i am really sorry that they died

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shala shamen

and thank you for the great story

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Tim @ growrichsimply.com

Very good post. It reminds me of the stories that my grandmother told me about eating the leftover parts of fruit that other, wealthier kids didn’t want. She would eat apple cores, orange peels, etc… while growing up in the panhandle of Texas. I just can’t imagine what that would have been like given our relative comfort in today’s society.

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FruGal

Hello Tim!

Wow–I cannot imagine being in the position where eating an apple core or orange peel would cross my mind. Thank you for sharing.

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petal

My father remembers having to eat field corn during the great depression (field corn is different from sweet corn). His family lived in Kansas, and my grandfather visited other relatives in Minnesota. Kansas was part of the dust bowl and it was difficult to even grow a garden. When my grandfather returned from the trip, my grandparents decided to move to Minnesota because at least they could have garden and would be able to eat. My dad’s cousin joined 2 meals a day (2, not 3). My maternal grandmother, when pregnant, used to walk to an older neighbor’s house every other day (about 3 miles) because the woman would give her tea and tea sandwiches (the tiny ones associated with English afternoon tea). On those days, she got two meals, otherwise only one. My maternal grandmother used to go to church every day to light a candle in the neighbor’s memory.

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FruGal

Hello petal,

Thank you so much for sharing these stories from your relatives. Anyone having to live through that would surely have changed because of it.

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shala shamen

yah, thank you sooooooooooooooooooooooooo much.

THAT WAS GREAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :)

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petal

Sorry – the cousin joined THE ARMY for the 2 meals a day

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Eric

Farmers had it good. On top of the cheap food, they also had extra gas rations to run the farm. My in-laws used the extra gas so that grandma could hold down a job that required the car. It’s inspirational to listen to the stories from back then. How much has changed and how much has not changed.

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FruGal

Hello Eric!

I was not aware that farmers received extra gas rations (though it makes sense). Thank you for the information!

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duckyinfo

My mom was born in 1929 in rural Kansas. She always spoke about how stupid the government was during this time. They would get food stamps from the government, but they didn’t need them. As it was mentioned in this article they grew a lot of their own food. Her dad kept bees, ran a farm and was a carpenter. For a period bartering was big, but then again there was always cash at hand too. But still, they were forced to except food stamps. My mom and her family felt it was a sin that their stamps couldn’t go to someone less fortunate.

From the way she spoke The Great Depression affected her community but not the individual families. They pulled together. There was work to be done. And the community was self sufficient in that they raised their own livestock, produce, grains, and they used their own hands for labor. Her town was about 200 or 300 people strong with a strong sense of community.

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FruGal

Wow–I cannot believe they were forced to accept the food stamps! That must have been wonderful to feel such a great sense of community.

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get an editor, please!

I would have loved to read this article. It’s a topic that I’m very interested in, but when I ran into two egregious errors in the first paragraph, I just gave up. If you don’t care enough to proofread and edit your own text, why should I care enough to read it? (FYI, “pack rates” are not the same as “pack rats” and objects do not have inklings, people have inklings.)

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Amanda L Grossman

Thank you for pointing out the mistakes. I do not have an editor, nor could I afford one, and I do read through my writing several times before publishing (I usually write my articles one week out). Obviously I try to keep errors out of it, but I am not perfect.

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Debbie

One of my college professors was on a textbook editing committee. There were many people involved in the editing process that took a great deal of time to ensure there were no errors. Even after all that energy and time, when the books went to print, they would still find some mistakes. They would wonder how they missed them. It happens. Even spell-check would not have changed “rate” to “rat.”

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Amanda L Grossman

Thank you for the encouragement.
Amanda L Grossman recently posted..Our Credit Card Numbers were Stolen

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Amanda

Wow, I bet the person who wrote that nasty and uncalled for comment kept rereading and editing what they wrote like a million times to make sure they didn’t look stupid after they posted it! Ppl are so petty!! Really? I mean, come on!! Get a life! By the way, great article Amanda, very interesting!

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Mary Kitt-Neel

Having gone from being a fairly well-off housewife to being a low-income single mother, I can say that the biggest money savers in my life are cooking from scratch and buying secondhand clothing. Also, a change in mindset is important. It’s amazing how many things I thought were “essential” five years ago that don’t even cross my mind today. In a way, it’s very freeing.

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SteveSomebody

My Grandfather built houses in Detroit before the depression. When everything crashed they had almost nothing. They imported booze from Canada, as it was prohibition, by driving across the ice of the Detroit River, considered unsafe today. They only drove the old cars at night as they couldn’t afford license plates for them. They moved north to their roots and became farmers. They lived in a run down house for free from a family member and used some of the family farm. They did everything. Cut wood for the stove. Hand pumped water for the cows. As vegetables and potatoes would freeze at night in the house they were buried three feet under ground so they would not freeze, this was the storage of the day. Food was supplemented by fishing and hunting, both in season and out of. You want chicken tonight; go get it, which is a lot of work to prepare a live chicken. One chicken lasted several days, which ended in soup for two days. They grew lots of potatoes as they grow in poor soil and one potato is cut up and produces several plants when planted. They were able to sell some produce and were able to buy a farm in 1940 for about $1200. My mother sold the same farm in 1980 for $80,000. Electric and an inside toilet arrived in 1941 a phone in 1956. Everything was patched, repaired, reused. All day was spent doing something, baking, cooking, mending, fixing fence, feeding animals, repairing machinery. Items were shared with the neighbors as they were in the same place. Good day fishing, give some to the neighbors. Neighbor had a productive apple tree, apples for the neighbor hood.
My grandparents felt fortunate to have lived so well during these times because there were so many others less fortunate. This is a reminder to me to try to be grateful for what I have.

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The Financialite

This article is great and really shows what people had to give up during the Great Depression! Could you even imagine now if people tried to give up their cell phones?? No way!
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Sharon

I had an uncle that was born in 1924. He was a very frugal man to say the least. He never married, never owned a car and did not get a telephone until a short time before my grandmother died in 1976. He paid cash for everything and he would walk all the way across town rather than pay $.05 to ride the bus. He was beyond parsimonious! I guess he never got over the effects of the Great Depression and when he died, several old stock certificates that belonged to his grandfather (who died in 1929 before the crash) emerged. Some were worth over $1,000.00 and another dated 1906 was for $500.00 which was more that the average worker made all year. None of these stock certificates are worth anything but their paper value. That right there was lesson enough for him. He never had a dime invested in the stock market, I know that much.

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Mrs. Accountability

Thanks for including the link about My Frugal Grandmother. It has been interesting reading all the comments from your readers about their family members that lived through the Great Depression.

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FruGal

You are welcome! My readers are very interested in this topic; you might want to write more on it!

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Basrbara Crowley

My paternal grandmother lived through the depression. She was lucky, in that her husband had a good job with the telephone company. She still had to cut corners! She used to turn the collars and cuffs of her husband’s work shirts when they frayed to get another six months or more wear from them. She made “mock apple pie” with Ritz crackers (I have the recipe!) because fresh fruit was expensive in the city (Boston).

My maternal grandmother also lived through the depression. They lived in a rural area outside Boston and she raised and canned a huge garden, and raised chickens for meat and eggs. Her husband was an engraver, but there were few who could afford that luxury, so he taught his skill at a local high school. Both of these families raised nine children!!

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Amanda L Grossman

Raising 9 children during the Depression–what a feat! Thank you for sharing your stories.
Amanda L Grossman recently posted..Frugal Confessions – Frugal Living

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Kathryn

My father was born in 1921 to a 42 year old mother and a father nearly 60 who was very ill with asthma. His mother went to the bank to pay off the mortgage on their farm and the banker talked her out of it. It seems the banker saw the writing on the wall that my grandparents did not and shortly after the depression hit and the bank foreclosed on my grandparents’ fine farm. They still had a cow and some chickens and my father, who was only eight, sold milk and eggs door to door and this is what kept his elderly parents alive.
My mother’s family was better off as they had two farms although one was lost for lack of $500 – an amount her father had lent to a friend who could not repay this amount. She talks of re-making her one dress every year so that it would be more stylish and also of using flour bags to make clothes. They always had food and like others have mentioned they never sent any beggar away hungry. With six children they also never were lacking in fun. They would let a ‘soup’ of old vegetables ‘cook’ in the sun until it smelled terrible! And the whole farm was their playground. They rode a pony a mile to the nearest town to go to school in the 1920s. A few years ago I drove my mother and her sister to this town and the old school had been torn down, but the shack where they tied the pony was still standing!!! There are many more stories that my mother at 90 is now writing down.

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Elaine

How did they survive? Do you want a modern example? Look at Zimbabwe in Southern Africa. When it rains the people plant the seeds they have saved in any open space they can find…a bare patch alonside the road or rainway line…a local park…etc. People with pools share their water. Runoff from the roof is piped to the pool, garden or rainwater tank. Those that can, keep chickens. In one area a water pipe has just burst. People are having fist fights over who can collect the water….and so it goes on and on…my parents and grand parents lived thru the depression. My gran made soup every day. To her death she would take off and keep buttons from old worn out clothes before she tore these up to use as rags. Cooking oil was reused. Everything was bought for cash. A pair of laddered stockings were kept. When the next pair laddered she would cut the laddered legs off and wear both pairs at the same time. Each with a good leg…the laddered leg were used to keep shards of soap tobether..this was then used like a soapy sponge…sox were darned..cloths were mended, food was bought in bulk when on sale…excess fruit and veg were bottled…you will make a plan if your life depends on it…

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FruGal

Hello Elaine!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and the experience of your parents and grandparents.

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Laura

I, like you, am a voracious researcher of the frugal habits of those who survived the Great Depression. During the Depression, my father walked the streets of Chicago for three days with his three year old sister, with nothing to eat until someone gave him a quarter. My mother lived on a truck farm and poor does not begin to describe her life. When I was young, we also were poor by the 1960s standards. When my mother didn’t have enough material to make my sister and I pants for the winter, she used four different fabrics, a different fabric for each of the front leg pieces and each of the back leg pieces. I hated these “clown” pants, but my mother was desperate to keep us warm. To this day, my favorite meal is one they often ate in the Depression years…fried macaroni and sauerkraut. It sounds disgusting, but is actually good with a little brown sugar thrown in and fried in butter. Believe it or not, some of my kids like it. Yes, the Depression was awful; this world can be just as hard…I know because I survived it. The thought to hold onto is that you can survive if you are willing to work at it. Just don’t forget to help the other guy too.

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FruGal

Thank you for sharing the stories of your parents! I am sorry it was so tough for them. The dish sounds interesting:). Most of the “cuisine” we all love today used to be peasant food anyway!

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Laura

You know, it is sad that things were so tough, but it made them who they are (and me as well). This was a blessing in itself (and I know they agree). None of us would wish for it to be tough on our loved ones or ourselves, but these experiences have prepared us for our lives and we have learned that we can survive and make it. They made a success out of their lives (as did my grandparents) by never giving up and learning to use whatever resources (within and outside themselves) they had to the utmost.

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Laura

Oh, and one more thought…this one in regards to the person who had trouble with the “editing”. It is so sad that they let a few “errors” keep them from reading the great content you had in your article. I have read thousands of books and, even though they have come from the greatest publishing houses, they have all had errors. Such a shame that the mind filled with trivialities and criticisms couldn’t expand itself past the minutiae and reach for the wisdom of the article. Keep writing…. I will be checking back.

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Penny Stock Blog

I have met many older people that went though the great depression. I can surly say that this ghost haunts them till the present day. While a distance memory in their minds. The feelings and emotions from it are still very vivid in their minds It has played a massive role in their way of thinking sometimes for the better sometimes for worse

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Kari

My grandma lived through the Great Depression and was very poor. They even slept on dirt floors. Oddly enough, she says the thing she remembers and misses most was spices to flavor the food. I have a huge cupboard full of them and thats not something we even think about or appreciate. Now, I do. Thanks Grandma for helping me appreciate the small things that bring us joy!

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Tara

Personally I find bartering helpful. You get rid of unused stuff and get new things in exchange. I love barterquest.com because you can also swap services or real estate.

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Bryan

Got touched by your expression about your grandfather! Yes, I’ve faced a depressed person closely as he is my father! I know how the living is with the accounts of single stuff but I think it also gives a different experience of life which is required in fact. Thanks.
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best cooking book

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Melody

I have listened to my Grandmother tell of the Great Depression. We are now in an age of excess and wealth once again. The world is slowly making it’s way back to serious economic recessions with dramatic unemployment, food prices rising significantly, dependance on government, etc. It appears that Americans will have a very difficult time during this due to the lack of fortitude and significant skills to get by. Perhaps during the hard times ahead our once great country will learn sacrifice once again, because unless a person has to do without they will never learn to appreciate what they have.

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Brenda

Thank you for the great article! We are struggling to keep food on the table, and your article gave me some ideas on how to stretch even farther.
I “barter” on Listia.com and have traded old movies for new underwear LOL Every little bit helps

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Amanda L Grossman

Hi Brenda,

I am sorry to hear about your current financial struggles. Thank you for taking the time to comment, and let me know if you have any questions. May 2013 be good to you and your family!
Amanda L Grossman recently posted..My Favorite Ways We Saved Money in 2012

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Nee

Hey Amanda,

My daughter is learning about the Great Depression in school. She is going to do a powerpoint presentation using answers to 5 key interview questions but she needs to interview someone who lived during that time. Unfortunately, we do not have anyone in our family who lived during that era that she can talk to. If you know of anyone (or your readers) that would be interested in answering her 5 questions so she can learn more first-hand what it was like, please let us know!

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FruGal

Hi Nee!

What a great project. Unfortunately, the only person I knew who lived through the Great Depression was my grandfather (when he was a boy), and he passed away several years ago. Hopefully one of my readers can help!

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Nee

Thanks Amanda, I hope so to. It is just five questions. We could even post them here for someone to post back answers to if that is more convenient!

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Amanda L Grossman

You are more than welcome to.
Amanda L Grossman recently posted..Interest-Bearing Checking Accounts: Can they Compete with High-Yield Savings Accounts?

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Nee

If any of your readers lived through the Great Depression and would like to post their name and answers, here are the interview questions she would like to ask you to learn more about that era. THANK YOU!
1. What was it like to live during the Great Depression?
2. What kinds of meals were eaten during the Great Depression?
3. Were there times you didn’t think you’d make it through the Great Depression?
4. What kinds of work did you do during the Great Depression?
5. How did the Great Depression affect you?

gina

Growing up in rural TN this is some of the things my grandmother ate and did.
Lard sandwiches
Butter and sugar sandwiches
Potato soup and cornbread
Cornbread stuffed in a glass poured buttermilk on top, eat with a spoon.
Beans and cornbread.
Dresses made with cloth flour sacks.
They kept chickens and gathered eggs.
Bartering with neighbors.
Chopped wood all year for the wood stove.
Saved buttons from clothes, reuse old clothes for quilts.
Went to town once every two weeks to save gas.
A wagon would come by to sell necessities every week, kept you from driving into town.
Everything was from scratch, garden produce canned, and a hog was killed in the fall, and cows bartered for in fall.
They had a farm so they made it through the depression.
A lot of my grandmothe’rs sisters, she had 7, married early to get out of the house and not be a burden to their parents.

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FruGal

Hi Gina!

Thank you so much for taking the time to share all of this with us. I have heard about lard sandwiches as well, but not butter and sugar sandwiches (I would think butter and sugar would be expensive? Though I guess not as expensive as meat).

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STEVEN J. FROMM, ATTORNEY, LL.M. (TAXATION)

My mom came out of the depression and she is quite the frugal person. She lives on coupons and deals. Amanda, you would love her and she could be a guest host on your blog show. She has managed to carve out a way for her and my father to live comfortably since their retirement in 1979. She owes it all from living through the depression and having parents with that mindset.
STEVEN J. FROMM, ATTORNEY, LL.M. (TAXATION) recently posted..Estate Planning 2013: Now What? A Must Read For Everyone

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FruGal

She sounds wonderful! Did your parents save for retirement?

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Nancy

My Mom remembers getting an apple for Christmas. Her Mom baked bread twice a week in a wood stove. They ate a lot of soup. If you left a glass of water out on the nightstand at night, it would be frozen solid by morning.

My father didn’t talk about it much. I know that they would have bread, milk and brown sugar as a dessert. Hot cereal every morning.

Both my parents were extremely frugal all their lives.

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FruGal

Hi Nancy,

Thank you so much for sharing your parents’ experience in the Great Depression. Experiences like theirs and others shows us how incredibly blessed we are.

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Emily Cowart

My grandmother kept my sisters and I while my father share-cropped and my mother taught school. Grandmother also
raised 300 chickens at the time and sold the eggs and the
chickens to the local groceries. My sisters and I helped her.
She also had pecan trees and picked up thousands of lbs.
of nuts yearly.

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