great depression survival stories

Great Depression survival stories my grandfather shared with me. His miserly ways were deeply shaped by the childhood he lived. Talk about extreme frugality!

My grandfather was a simple man—simple, not unintelligent. He grew up on the same farm we did in Pennsylvania. Even though he was just a toddler during the Great Depression, those years had a huge impact on his life, and he often warned me—while washing his dishes using dish soap (he deemed this wasteful), or throwing away cheese because it was moldy (that can be scraped off, he'd huff at me)—that the next Great Depression was coming. If only he had lived to see a few more years to realize his vision.

Pop-pop was a miser.

For most of my childhood at the farm, my family lived on the downstairs portion of the farmhouse, and Pop-pop lived in the apartment upstairs, which was cut-off from our home. He got his own trash can outside for the trash man, and we got our own, both of which we managed to fill each week. One day we got a letter from the township saying that we would have to pay for the second trashcan. Somehow, Pop-pop managed to produce just one bloated grocery store bag full of trash each week thereafter (was he storing the rest? We never did figure this out). Each week he would do his one load of laundry using a washing machine that you had to pry open with a screwdriver, and a dryer that only slicked the wetness off of his clothes. But there would be no second-drying for him; he would take the clothes, wet and all, back up to his apartment to wear for the next week.

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Each week he would give us his list to take to the local Mennonite-run grocery store, as well as $16. His weekly groceries consisted of: canned peaches, ½ loose pork sausage, sweet dough only from the discount rack the store was about to throw away, apple butter, occasional pork chops (when on sale), two bananas, plums, a pint of beet salad, and cottage cheese. Somehow he managed to still be overweight most of his adult life, and his extra weight was supported by a feebly, splintered cane that must have been left over from his own father. Pop-pop would never buy new.

You can imagine, after reading about the way he chose to live his own life, how critical he was of ours. Even though both sets of my parents declared bankruptcy during my childhood and we lived the stereotypical penny-less farmer’s life, Pop-pop was mainly appalled by our extravagances. Anything that he deemed wasteful—and that included most things—he shouted at us to “throw over the fence”, specifically the fence that separated our yard from the barnyard and meadow. This included our Nintendo system, bicycles, horse saddle, grill, and ponytail holders. One year, we put a new, shiny white fence post up where the rickety, splinter-ridden one used to stand. That must have rocked his world, but he never uttered the word “fence” again.

So what can we learn from a man like this? Here’s what I took away:

• A lifetime of being a miser does end in a heap of money. Pop-pop left his sons and daughter with an inheritance. However…
• Being crazy miserly can turn your children away from you, and you may age lonely.
• A kitchen full of hidden bacteria, and cutting your heart medication into thirds because you don’t want to pay such a high co-pay each month ($25) may not kill you…but then again you may only live until 76.
• You can, infact, use the same stove pan for 30+ years, even if it is stained, even if it is burnt, even if it is warped.
• Life ends, and it is sad to see people go when they hardly seemed to have enjoyed themselves at all.
• We could all use some more miserliness and saving up for rainy days (because they do happen).
• Even if you make stupid purchases, it would be even more stupid to throw them over your fence…as then you would have completely wasted your money.


Great depression survival stories – how my grandfather turned into a miser after the childhood he lived during the Great Depression. Talk about self sufficient living + extreme frugality. #savemoney #survival #skills

15 replies
  1. BluSky
    BluSky says:

    My grandmother was a little girl during the depression and it affected her greatly as well. Though she was very frugal and very nose to the grindstone, she never once uttered a word anything like that “throw it over the fence” business. Old men find themselves with a lot of time on their hands and unfortunately some of them pick grouchiness as their new hobby 🙂

  2. NullPoint
    NullPoint says:

    “Even though both sets of my parents declared bankruptcy during my childhood and we lived the stereotypical penny-less farmer’s life, Pop-pop was mainly appalled by our extravagances. … This included our Nintendo system, bicycles, horse saddle, grill, and ponytail holders.”

    You were obviously living beyond your means if your family had to declare bankruptcy twice yet still thought you were entitled to a nintendo etc.

    Seriously people… you are not born entitled to anything. Stop buying things you can’t afford and acting like it isn’t your fault when you go broke.

  3. FruGal
    FruGal says:

    NullPoint: Thanks for the comment. I am sure we were living beyond our means, but I was a child, so that was out of my control. Unfortunately, I just got to live in what resulted!

  4. Mariane Holbrook
    Mariane Holbrook says:

    Of the 6 children in our family who lived through the Depression, it affected the two oldest the most. They became miserly, never- sharing hoarders who never learned to enjoy life. Money was their god and they could barely bring themselves to part with any of it. The other children in the family were generous like our parents, reaching out to help the needy and the ill, and the two sets of children as they grew older could not have been more unalike.

  5. kathryn
    kathryn says:

    I find The Depression years very interesting. My mother and father were born during these years, but I don’t know if it outwardly affected them.I remember my mother saying they moved a lot. I am probably more frugal then either if them ever were. Back then people were more resourceful. I think our generation has lost the knowledge to do so many things. I think we are headed for a major depression in a few years. I plan on being ready for it. My grown children should fine, but if they need help, we will get thru it as a family.

    • FruGal
      FruGal says:

      I think you are correct in your “resourcefulness” assessment. I want to do more things for myself moving forward, and love the vast knowledge found on the internet for doing so.

      Let’s hope it’s not a major Great Depression like the first one. Either way, we should all save our money and learn to be frugal with our resources.

  6. kathryn
    kathryn says:

    There is also a great book called Ten Lost Years, which give personal accounts of how people managed during this time.

  7. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    my grandfather is 73 and is a complete miser and you must have heard people uselessly spending money but he uselessly saves money he sacrifices on his needs his family’s needs and does not leave any chance to grasp something free i am 14 and this is driving me nuts i can’t really understand what to do about it as my parents cant speak out of respect but i want to its not only drifting him away from us it is also making him i guess (psychologically ) ill
    please help me

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