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8 Frugal And Forgotten Ways Your Great-Grandparents Made It Through Hard Times

8 Frugal And Forgotten Ways Your Great-Grandparents Saved Money


As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that life has gotten more expensive. I’m not talking about the almost-natural increase of inflation; that’s to be expected. No, what I’m talking about is the way that lifestyle choices make things more expensive. Things that are considered the “norm” today were considered luxury 20 years ago.

This has been brought home to me in a number of ways, mostly through my own, now grown, children. When my youngest graduated from college, she came home and bought a car a few months later. Now, that’s not unusual in and of itself, but she bought a Buick. When I was her age, we saw a Buick as being a rich man’s car, not one for someone working a low-paying job just out of college. Yet, that’s what she had to have, in order to get the luxury options that she wanted.

This same theme repeats itself over and over in everyday life. We carry around $600 cell phones as if they were nothing; and if it drops, breaking the screen, that’s OK. We wanted a new one anyway. We eat at fancier restaurants, and even fast food joints carry more elaborate selections than they once did.

I remember Dairy Queen being a treat, but today, it has to be one of the fancy frozen yogurt places. Everyone has big screen televisions and you have to have either satellite or cable to get the selection of programming you want. Yes, life has definitely gotten more expensive.

We’re so busy spending money on things that have become the norm in our society, not even realizing that we don’t need those things., or that we could get by just fine with much less. I mean, does anyone really need a $7 cup of coffee that much more than a dollar one?

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My parents’ generation couldn’t even think of paying for many of the things we think are normal today; for that matter, the younger version of me couldn’t. But as we go back in time, we find that our grandparents and great-grandparents were even more frugal. Why? Because they had to be. They didn’t have the disposable income that we have today and what income they did have, they didn’t consider disposable.

8 Frugal And Forgotten Ways Your Great-Grandparents Made It Through Hard TimesWe could learn a lot from our grandparents and great-grandparents; especially in how to live frugally and make our money go farther. Then, we might have more money to spend on the things that really matter, like giving our families some security.

Here’s how they saved money and made it through hard times:

1. Do you really need it?

Let me finish ranting about all the expensive stuff we buy today. The real question is; do you really need it? Do you need that $5 cup of coffee or will you be just as satisfied with the $1 one at the convenience store? Shoot, my convenience store even throws in the fancy, flavored creams, so you can have flavored coffee for a buck or a buck and a half.

It’s fun and special to go out someplace expensive or to eat fancy ice cream. I enjoy it just as much as anyone. But, I leave it to be something special. Rather than buying all of my ice cream from Marble Slab, I buy it at the grocery store. If I want it fancy, I throw some fruit, nuts and chocolate syrup on it at home. Then, I can save the trip to the fancy ice cream store for special times, making the trip special, rather than making the special ordinary.

2. Don’t be in a rush to replace it

Henry Ford’s Model T was probably one of the most boring cars in history. Compared to its contemporaries, it had little to attract attention to it … except for one all-important feature: the price. You could buy a Model T much cheaper than any other car out there.

But the T lacked in some things that might attract buyers today. There weren’t a long list of “standard options” that you could order. For that matter, there weren’t any options. When you bought a T, that’s what you got. If you wanted something different, you had to do it yourself. You could have any color you wanted, as long as it was black.

As cars became more commonplace, the automotive industry realized that they were going to have to do something to keep people buying their new cars. So, they came up with the idea of model years. Now, you can buy the exact same car, with a few insignificant but highly visible details that are different, and you’ll have the latest and greatest. You could snub all of your neighbors and friends who didn’t have the current model, like you do.

This is actually one of the greatest marketing victories in history. In fact, it’s been so great that everyone else is copying it. Everything from can openers to rocket ships now has model year changes. Electronics are the worst. Why do they do this? To entice you to buy the new model. That way, they get more of your money.

Let me ask you something. Does your old cell phone work? If it does, why would you need to replace it? I keep my cell phones for an average of seven years and then finally replace them when they break. But most of the people I know replace theirs every year or two. They just can’t wait to get the new model, with all the new whistles and bells.

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Break the habit of replacing things so quickly and you’ll find that you have more money. It’s amazing how that works.Think twice, buy once

3. Think twice, buy once

Impulse buying is another way that marketers have found to separate us from our hard-earned wages. If they can get us to buy it on the spur of the moment, we’ll probably buy it. But if we decide to think about it overnight, chances are that we’ll decide we don’t need it.

This is what our grandparents did, but it’s gotten lost in time somehow. I remember my parents telling me to always wait a day before making a major purchase. But you don’t see many people talking about that today. In our instant society, we want it now and we’re going to get it now, even if that ultimately hurts us. Let’s just say, that’s not the smartest thing we can do.

8 Frugal And Forgotten Ways Your Great-Grandparents Made It Through Hard TimesIf anything, the Internet has made this worse. I’ve been offered countless items on Facebook, which I just looked at on somebody’s website, especially Amazon. They want to make sure I buy it, before I lose my desire for the item. If they can get me to do that, they win and get my money. It’s not about good customer service; it’s about getting you and me to buy.

Taking your time to make buying decisions is one of the easiest ways there is to save money. Not only that, but your home won’t be filled up with stuff that you don’t use. You’ll actually have things that you want to have, instead of things that someone else wants you to have.Reuse, repurpose, recycle

4. Reuse, repurpose, recycle

Our grandparents and especially our great-grandparents were experts on reusing and repurposing things. They rarely threw anything away. Anything they had, including the packaging from things they bought, was reused for something else.

I can still remember my grandmother’s kitchen with its stacks of plastic storage containers. Only … those containers weren’t made by Rubbermaid or Tupperware; they were old margarine and Dream Whip containers. She’d clean them out and use them to store food in the refrigerator or any number of other things.

Back in the pioneering days, everything got reused. Burlap bags became towels (even though they are a bit scratchy), old clothes were either remade into clothes for children, cutting out the good parts of the fabric, or turned into rags. Barrels and casks were used for anything from storing grain for the horses to water tanks. If it would hold something, they’d find a way to use it.

We still see this in Third World and emerging countries. I’ve bought containers of candy to give to kids in Mexico, and had their mothers ask me for the container, once I passed out the candy. To them, that empty container was just as valuable as the candy that their children had eaten.

5. How much do you really need?

Here’s another subtle marketing trick that our grandparents didn’t fall for. Have you ever noticed how much of a product is typically used on a television commercial?

Take toothpaste, for example. There’s always a point in the commercial where they squeeze out the toothpaste onto a toothbrush. It’s a nice long line, covering the whole top of the brush, with a nice curl on the end. So, when we go to brush our teeth, we do the same. We don’t realize it, but we’ve unconsciously gotten the message that we need that much toothpaste.

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But how much do you really need? Can you get by with half of that and still get your teeth clean? I won’t tell you if you can, because I’m not a dentist. But I will tell you this; I do.

We use countless products every day, without thinking about how much of that product we really need. That ultimately causes us to use more of the product and sends more of our money into those companies’ coffers. Why not figure out the least you need and use that?

6. Be willing to wait

Another result of our instant society is that we expect everything now. We can’t even wait one minute, once we decide that we want it. After all, why should we wait? We’ll just charge it.

I think my grandparents would have fainted at the idea of buying things on credit, especially my mom’s parents. Back then, if you wanted something, you saved your money until you could afford it. If that meant you had to save for years, you did it. If that item was really that important to you, you’d make that sacrifice and save. You’d also be willing to wait.

Do you have any idea how much of an interest rate your credit card company charges you? If you’re like most people, you don’t. Credit card debt is one of the most crippling things for a family’s finances.

Believe it or not, there are actually forms of debt that are worse than credit cards. Those payday loan places where you can borrow $1,500 for six months are murder. Their interest rate is so high, they don’t even tell you. That’s not a problem, as the only number most people want to hear is the monthly payment. Hock shops are worse, but that’s because it is short-term, high-risk loans.

7. Do it yourself

We don’t even have to go back to our grandparents for this one, although I’m old enough to qualify as a grandpa. When I grew up, a man taught his son how to do things for himself. Therefore, the average boy would grow up learning how to change their car’s oil, do common mechanic’s work, be a fairly good carpenter, know a bit about plumbing and maybe even know how to shoe a horse (if they lived in horse country).

This training for self-reliance has somehow gone by the wayside. When I look at my children’s generation, so many of them don’t know how to change the oil on their own car, let alone swap out a bad alternator. The average person’s understanding of plumbing is to look down the drain and say, “Looks like it’s time to call the plumber.” Somehow those skills haven’t been passed on.

8 Frugal And Forgotten Ways Your Great-Grandparents Made It Through Hard TimesPaying someone else to do everything is expensive. They need to eat, too, so you’re covering their life expenses. Don’t get me wrong; that’s fair. If someone works for you, you should pay them, and pay them well. But let them work for someone else and learn how to do it yourself.

Through the years, I’ve amassed quite a collection of tools. Over half my garage is actually my workshop and I use the other half when I’m building large projects. But even with all the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on tools, they’ve saved me more than what they cost me. Buying tools becomes part of every project; and as I buy them, I guarantee myself savings in the future.

8. Repair it, don’t throw it away

Speaking of those tools, they also help with repairing things, rather than throwing them away. We’ve become a disposable society, but as I mentioned earlier, our grandparents weren’t that way. They would fix things and keep on using them as long as possible, not throwing them away.

This is another marketing ploy, which is taking money out of our pockets. By making things hard to repair and parts hard to find, manufacturers ensure that we’ll throw things away, rather than repairing them. But that old vacuum is really just as good as a new one, if you can find a new switch and put it in.

I get annoyed about this, especially when I’m trying to find parts for things that I own, which have broken down. Few manufacturers still offer replacement parts, except for things that are considered maintenance items. But if they can use the part in the factory, I can’t see why they can’t package some of them for sale as replacements. That’s usually one of the most profitable parts of any manufacturing business.

Fortunately for me, I’ve got an engineering background. So, I’m pretty good at repairing. If I can’t find the right switch for my belt sander, I’ll find one that will work (I did this). It may not be as pretty, but I’ll save myself a bunch of money.

By the way, don’t use the fact that you’re not an engineer as an excuse to not try and fix something. I’m a self-taught engineer, even though I worked at it professionally for 15 years. If I can teach myself, you can, too. After all, I didn’t have YouTube or the rest of the Internet to help me.

What frugal, money-saving tips would you add to this list? Share your ideas in the section below:

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  1. Good article with sage advice. I learned a lot from my parents and grandparents who remember the Great Depression and its aftermath. They taught me to be frugal and avoid wasting money. Tried to teach my kids the same thing. Works well for all of us. Most of the things hyped today are not really needed to survive. I was once offered a job at twice what I was making. I turned it down explaining that if I made that much, I’d just have to buy bigger toys and more expensive everything. You only need so much to put food on the table. I like being self sufficient. I like being off the grid.

  2. Great article, except I have to disagree on one point: manufacturers these days no not make items to last let alone be able to be repaired. They are causing the disposable society. My dad, brother, husband and sons work on their older vehicles. But newer autos are so complicated even changing the oil can be difficult, and changing the spark plugs require the engine to be dropped. My sons car requires 40 bolts and the front bumper to come off to replace a headlight bulb. Ridiculous.

    • Barb is correct. Everything made now is “Designed to Fail” within a certain amount of time period.! Everything. They preform exhaustive extensive tests to see how they can make an item for less money and then they plan accordingly so it will fail within a specified amount of time — so they can have you as a repeat customer. A washing machine used to last 30-40 years. Now your lucky if it runs 5-7 years. Cars used to work 30 years plus with minimal maintenance. Cars now are made to run 7-10 years and that’s with replacing expensive things like head lights, automatic window motors etc. added into it. I want a new car with the old fashioned turn knobs to roll down all 4 Windows. You can’t find a nice car with them as all new cars have electric Windows. You’d be lucky to find one (nice car) with knobs in the back Windows but they only go half way down. That’s a racket. Oh yeah it’s a child safety feature — not if I don’t have any kids it isn’t. What if I’m caught in a flood–no ones getting out of the back seat. So now I’m looking at a heavy duty built Jeep. Lol Yes I do agree it’s very important to know how and to do our own repairs on broken things at our house instead of getting new each time it breaks. But the parts one needs for doing this is getting harder and harder to find. The cartoon movie Robots comes to mind. I had to by a bolt to fix an old Sears table saw. Sears no longer carried theses bolts and they changed the serial number over the years on it before they discontinued that part. I only needed 4 and once I found it thru a manufacturer versus a parts center– I had to by a package of 50 just to do it. Lol now I have leftovers for the next 50 years. It’s a great table saw from the late 80’s. 🙂 Nuff said. Lol

    • I agree; the disposable society we live in is indeed fabricated by companies. It’s done on purpose, to make us reliant on purchasing a bunch of junk. Economically, it’s a stopgap, and we’re gonna have some issues with it in the future. It can’t be sustainable. But in the meantime, it’s “creating jobs.”

      Kind of like having guys dig holes with shovels when there’s a perfectly good piece of equipment that can do it in half a second.

      What irritates me is when I get something and start to rely on it because it does a good job, but then it fails, or the parts are no longer being made, all simply because it’s not supported anymore- even if it was only purchased recently- in order to encourage you to buy a newer thing.

      To some extent, upgrading is ideal. But being forced to upgrade just to keep on doing your NORMAL everyday tasks is infuriating.

    • While this may seem like its coming from left field the reason why we live in a disposable society is its cheaper. What has driven the goal of making things so much cheaper is inflation caused by fiat currency and the central banks.

  3. barb ,
    the author pointed out that we now have the advantage of the web to get valuable information . if you let me glean the web for an hour or so i can fix ANYTHING and find the parts and knowlege to fix it with .
    i once found a 1000 . 00 ignition module for a yamaha motorcycle being reproduced in checholslovakia for 250 . 00 but i got pissed and built an ignition point system on the bike instead .
    i can buy ford ignition point sets for 3 . 00 ea , in any town , and ill never have to worry about being stranded on the highway .

  4. My major savings was on my house. I bought a run-down house and fixed most of it myself. I couldn’t do plumbing or wiring (though my new husband has learned very successfully to handle those and is even putting in a whole bathroom with the help of YouTube), but I stripped paint, sanded, painted (walls and metal roof), put up wall board, replaced rotted wooden window sills with brick, made a brick patio and barbecue, make curtains and drapes, upholstered furniture, and took advantage of a barter with a good amateur cabinetmaker to have kitchen cabinets made out of the wainscoting in my kitchen and to cut down a $2 over-sized oak nine-light exterior door from a yard sale, one that lets all sorts of light into the kitchen, replacing a solid wood door, that made me feel like I was cooking in a closet.

    I also started saving my grocery store receipts when my four kids were little to find out just how much I spent on food, soaps, paper products, etc, and ended up saving them for several years. I spent, on average, $52 a week at a time when smaller families were spending twice as much. I did this by cooking from scratch, using mostly cheaper meats (chicken, ground beef instead of steak), making casseroles, buying store brands, and planning menus around what was on sale each week. We didn’t use box mixes, Velveeta or have Raman noodles. I not only spent less, but we got plenty of good food, I knew what was in our food because I bought things with one or few ingredients and mixed them myself, and my kids learned to cook by helping me.

    I clothed all of us from thrift shops and yard sales, only buying things in excellent condition, or that I could fix and make look good again. We bought CLEAN, used mattresses (no, they don’t all have cooties or whatever) and kept used cars. We earned over $25,000 a year only two or three years, and that was in the 1990s, and I have owned two houses, the last current one rising in value from $41,000 to 425,000 because of the work we, mostly I, did on it.

  5. As a little girl growing up in the early 2000’s during the Recession, I can remember my parents living a very frugal lifestyle and teaching these skills to me. I look around at society today and feel so out of place because I was taught such an old way of life, but I couldn’t dream of having been taught any other way. My generation lives in ignorance and I cherish how my parents raised me.

  6. Good article!

    As a result of a car accident about five years ago, I have not been able to return to work. It’s actually been a blessing! I share a single-wide 1972-era trailer with my best friend on his family’s farm. I had no money to keep a car, so I gave it to my son. No money means that I don’t have to even consider looking at catalogs, online stores, etc the way I used to. I’ve been frugal a long time, prefer to shop at Goodwill, yard sales, and thrift stores for what I need. I eat frugally, too, rarely eat out. Actually can’t recall the last time I was at a restaurant.

    The things we see as “the norm” today need to be viewed with a new perspective. We need to stop and think, really THINK, about the type of life we want to lead and how we want to live it. For me, television has not been an item for about 22 years, when my youngest was 2. I actually prefer silence. I’d rather read, work around the farm, and walk my dog. Simple, yes. Satisfying, yes. I firmly believe that as we grow closer to nature, remove those barricades like air conditioning, heating, transportation, etc. we grow closer to God. That is most important to me.

  7. The theory of this article is great, however, I have some thoughts to add if that’s alright.

    Our society is very different these days than back then. Certain things have been invented at a booming rate; as a result, some of the new things that we want “now” we want “now” because they’re more efficient and save us time (which is life and money and stamina and energy) and keep us up to date on the technology curve, which makes us more attractive and efficient as workers or employees.

    Back in our grandparents’ days, it was expected that a son would learn all sorts of things from his father. In this day and age, our fathers don’t know all that stuff and can’t, or don’t, teach us- assuming we’re lucky enough to have a dad who cares and sticks around. These days, we’re expected to learn and know a lot of things that simply didn’t exist in that day and age- and those things, like typing, searching for answers to things on the internet, knowing how to use smartphone apps, software applications, all that stuff… you need it these days. What used to be a privilege is now a necessity of life.

    Listen to the radio today, and ads for things won’t tell you information- they’ll tell you to look at their facebook page. Its a different world. If you don’t know this stuff, you’re socially considered inept.

    Yet socially, it’s acceptable to not know how to change your own oil or fix your own plumbing. Because those are skills you don’t need in order to survive these days; other people provide those services. But only if you have the current knowledge base on how to acquire those services; and for that, you need those fancy gimmicks.

    Not only that, but to project a “successful” look, you need to spend money that’s not at all frugal on things like expensive brands of clothes and fancy looking cars. Because who will believe you know anything or are successful if you arrive at your job with a beat up old truck? No one.

    The advertising company has had a brilliant success, but it’s because of human nature. If someone sees you are using expensive, new equipment and know how to use it? You’re in. If someone sees it takes you two seconds to type a single word on your outdated laptop computer? You’re clearly not educated enough to be of much value to that company.

    However, if you’re wanting to be well-rounded, it’s a great idea to use those newfangled skills to learn some good, “old-fashioned” ones. It’d be kind of nice to know when the mechanic is pulling your chain and charging you an arm and a leg for something you don’t need. Likewise, it’s good to know how to keep your food safe when your power goes out.

    I think the danger of our education right now is it simply hasn’t achieved a balance with your human needs as opposed to the current trends of what society expects of your skillset.

  8. Just watch free broadcast television. We got tired of watching talking heads interrupting one another on cable television, and got tired of paying about $85 monthly for extended basic cable just to get CNN. We cancelled our cable television service and found that free broadcast television offers more news programs direct from Japan and France than we ever got on cable. Also the PBS stations have three channels instead of one. For example, KQED in San Francisco offers 9 , 9+ and 9 World.

  9. Been there, done that

    Sage information in this article. I am 3 years retired now on my homestead that was developed over a 30 year period. I spent my career in a high tech profession.
    There is a clear difference between latter day skills and modern day skills. I would offer that having skill sets in both time frames provide the maximum benefit. You can use technology to increase your knowledge and network while using old school skills to keep your costs low and your creativity intact. However, keep in mind that information and products today are geared toward one thing, separate you from your wealth. Except, they can’t take knowledge away from you.

  10. I like making do. Sleeves on knit tops wore out? I cut them off at the outside of the shoulder seam–instant vests. Battered old winter-weight slacks, no good for wearing away from home, waistbands overstretched, and hems falling, and no sewing skills. Bought some safety pins to fix the hems and waistbands, and now I can at least wear them around the house and yard, sparing wear and tear on my good slacks. My good slacks are too lightweight for the winter, but I lost some weight, so I can now wear some shorter, beat up old slacks under them when I have to go out any place in the winter. Layering your clothes keeps you warmer, so that’s another simple fix. TV died a few years ago, so I upgraded from $5 a month dial-up internet to the lowest tier cable internet, and only internet service. I can watch all kinds of TV, movies, and videos online for just what I pay for the monthly internet fee, and I don’t pay for any of the paid video services, I just use the free sites. I don’t mind commercials and ads within reason, as that’s what I grew up with on regular broadcast TV. Unfortunately, there are few broadcast stations in my area, and the mountains block even those, so an antenna won’t help with that, but I watch all the TV, movies, and videos I want online, probably too much at that. And, I saved myself the cost of a new TV to replace the one that died. I did eventually have to replace the old PC monitor, and chose a bigger size, but since I can do so much with my internet service, this was a worthwhile expense. Also, the same mountains that block broadcast TV from me, also block most radio stations here, but thanks to the internet, I can listen to any station in the world that “broadcasts” online, so I am able to enjoy the shows I like this way. There are also old radio shows from yesteryear available to listen to online, and all kinds of music. I have found many different things to do online, besides watching videos, so the money I pay monthly for the internet service is money well spent. And remember, most people don’t need the highest, most expensive internet speed at home, unless they are into heavy gaming, and if you are trying to cut costs, stop with the heavy gaming, and go to a lower priced tier.

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