Depression Era Money Lessons (What I Learned From My Grandparents)

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Depression Era Money Lessons


My grandparents grew up in a completely different time.  They were only children during the great depression, but they learned a lot of lessons from their own parents by living through such a difficult time.

When they first were married, they had no money at all. They were very, very poor.  However, they were extremely happy.  For them, money was not something they needed.  They found a way to enjoy life despite being poor.

These two amazing people taught me many lessons in life.  They taught me how to be a good person.  My grandma showed me how to sew.  I remember watching my grandfather auction off cattle and pigs.

Thinking back, it really amazes me how much they taught me, without even sitting down to show me.  They led by example. Of all of the lessons I learned, some really stick out more than others. These are values I hold true to my heart, all these years later.


1. Waste nothing.  I remember going to my grandma’s house and opening the refrigerator (or what my cousins and I would often call “the ongoing science experiment”). If you looked around, you would find containers with one tiny scoop of potatoes in them. Or, there would be a stalk of corn which was completely dried out. When we tried to throw the food out, she would get upset and tell us that we could still eat it (which, we never let her do, by the way).

Even though she did have to throw bad food away, this was a lesson on not just throwing things out right away.  Save it and use it again, or have it for dinner the next night.

We live in a throw away society.  Things can often be used again, but you have to just look at how you can make it last longer. It might be reusing plastic food containers to store food instead of buying new ones. It could be washing out baggies and allowing them to dry to use again.  You could even find a way to save the left over screws and nails from the rotted out fence you took down.

Rather than just throw it all away, why not try to give it new life.  When it comes to food, make sure you purchase only what you will eat.  That way, you waste much less.


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2. Wants vs. Needs.  This is a big lesson that I think more people need to learn about.  The needs in your life include food, clothing, shelter and utilities (like, water and power).  Your wants are different.  You want a cell phone – you do not need one.  When it comes to your car, you might want a nicer one – but you do not need it.

When we can learn to identify the wants vs. the needs in our life, we become wiser about how we spend our money.  We hold onto it and get the things we need.  However, we also will allow ourselves the occasional want — but not until all of our needs have been met.  Learning how to identify your wants vs. your needs is a crucial step in your financial plan.


3. Pay for it with cash. Unfortunately, this is one of the lessons I forgot when I was younger.  As a result of using credit unwisely, I found myself overwhelmed with debt and turned to bankruptcy for a way out.  I then got married and my husband and I built up some debt (2 vehicles was the majority of what we owed) and had to dig ourselves out from under those financial burdens.

During the time when we were paying off our debt, we turned back to using cash for everything.  We gained better control of our money.  It made us really think about how we spent our money.  We didn’t just rush out and get things because we thought we should.

Looking back, I recalled my grandparents always using cash. In fact, my grandparents did not even own a credit card. It was not that they couldn’t get one, they made the decision not to.  They said that if they could not pay for it with cash, then they did not need it.

Even though they were not rich, when they retired, they lived comfortably.  They had been wise enough with their spending that they were able to enjoy retirement together. In fact, my grandmother was able to support herself for many years with the money they had saved (until she was too ill and had to go into a nursing home).

Cash. It just makes sense.


4. Find joy in the simple things.  When you ask people what makes them happy, some will say it is their house, their car or even some of the gadgets they own. For others it could be the expensive hand bag or the new watch that they purchased.

When you asked this of my grandparents, the answers always were things which were free.  Stories of playing games with the kids; campouts in the backyard; a walk in the garden just enjoying the beauty around them.

Joy doesn’t mean you need to own things or a big house. It means that you find happiness in the people and things around you.  Find your own joy, don’t rely upon a “thing” to bring it to you.

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5. Make your own food.  My grandma was an absolutely amazing cook!  She owned a small cafe in the same building where my grandpa was an auctioneer.  Every Saturday, the cafe would be filled with farmers from all around the area, all coming in for one of her absolutely amazing caramel rolls or cinnamon rolls.  When the auction ended they would stop in for a good home cooked meal followed up with a slice of her award winning pie.

After a long day of cooking for others, she went home and did it again.  There was always a home cooked meal on the table for her famil She planned her meals and any shopping trips wisely so that she always had what she needed on hand to cook a meal for her kids.

They did not eat meals out (very often).  There was a garden where they grew their own vegetables.  The chickens they raised provided eggs and meat.

While I don’t have a garden nor small farm with animals, I do still cook most of our meals at home.  I find that it not only tastes better, but it is also healthier as well.  The best perk of all is that I get to sit around the dinner table with my kids and have incredible conversations.  I often can picture my own grandparents and their kids sitting around the table doing the same thing.  It matters to have a home cooked meal together.


6. Save for a rainy day.  Now, I don’t call it a rainy day fund, I call it an emergency fund.  However, the idea is the same.  My grandparents always saved a bit of every dollar they made “just in case.”  This was money they never touched until they needed to.

For them, and even for our family, having money set back gives you the peace of mind that you will be OK, even if you have financial setbacks.


My grandparents are both now gone.  However, the values they taught me live on.  I am now taking the time to teach these to my own children and I hope that they too, will pass them along to their own kids some day.  It may not be the 1930s and the age of the depression, but the lessons taught during that time can still resonate and work today.


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  1. Kathy in Illinois says

    This post was so good. Your grandparents were wonderful people and I’m sure they would be so proud of you.
    God bless, Kathy in Illinois