The Old Days Weren’t Frugal by Choice

by Kay Lynn

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CaliforniaA blog post I read last week was lavishing praise on frugal habits during the depression with the point being that we could save money doing some of the same things today.  A nice sentiment and I don’t disagree entirely.  But we’re overlooking the elephant in the room.

People were not being frugal by choice. They did not have much, if any, money or options.

Depression Frugality

Depression-era folks did not have the choices for products, both in variety and resellers, that we have today. Our ancestors had to make homemade cleaning and beauty products as they didn’t have aisles full of products to select the best buy.

My time is worth money and the minimal amount saved by making homemade toothpaste and other products is not worth doing.  With couponing I normally get toothpaste for free or less than one dollar a tube.  I believe they would have loved the effectiveness, convenience and efficiency of dishwashers.

Today’s Frugality

Being frugal today takes much more effort and thought because it is by choice for most.  Does it mean not eating out or cooking from scratch?  Is it making your own clothes or shopping at Wal-mart?

An areas I agree we should emulate is reusing and recycling.  Waste is inexcusable no matter what generation.  It’s also up to us to be good stewards of all resources.

So, let’s remember our ancestors lifestyles without the rose-colored glasses.  Many Americans didn’t have indoor bathrooms during the depression and we wouldn’t want to go back to that!

photo credit: George Eastman House

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everyday tips June 30, 2010 at 6:08 am

I completely agree with the fact that people in the depression had no choice but to be frugal. So many people were scared out of their mind because they not only had no money, but they went from being well-off to being broke. I cannot imagine how disheartening that must have been. Plus, they didn’t (I don’t think) rely on the government to bail them out. They watched their pennies and worked themselves to death. From what my grandma has told me, the work ethic was much different back then.

Bucksome July 1, 2010 at 5:56 am

Everyday tips, you are correct that they had no (or very little) help from the government. I think social programs in the U.S. started after the depression in an effort to keep people from starving.

I actually think people still have a good work ethic (although it varies from person to person). A lot of people I know are very hard workers.

Debt Hater June 30, 2010 at 7:47 am

Thanks for keeping it real and honest!

Some of the things are grandparents had to do to make ends meet then would actually cost us more today (try knitting all your sweaters and scarves). You said it best: “let’s remember our ancestors lifestyles without the rose-colored glasses.” There are many things I’d love to turn the clock back on, and twice as many that I wouldn’t!

Bucksome July 1, 2010 at 5:58 am

Debt Hater, good point about how some of their frugal habits (borne of necessity) would actually cost us more. My mom used to make clothes for us kids when we were small. She quit when it became more expensive to make a dress than buy it from Sears.

kt June 30, 2010 at 10:23 am

i find that blog post image very depressing. I wanted to use it earlier to prove a point but i realised that using it would be going too far. Makes me soo sad. That period must have been very hard for those that did not have the means to survive.

Bucksome July 1, 2010 at 5:59 am

KT, yes that picture is sad but so powerful. The woman’s face communicates so much about the hardship endured.

I know from my grandparents’ actions that living through the depression impacted them for the rest of their lives. Let’s hope we don’t have the same scenario ever again.

Jersey Mom June 30, 2010 at 1:42 pm

I completely agree. Most people “had” to be frugal to survive; most would never want to go back to living that way once they had the option of something more comfortable.

Bucksome July 1, 2010 at 6:02 am

Jersey Mom, I think Americans from that generation actions were motivated by povery instead of frugality or simple living. As you noted, lifestyles did change once there was more money.

LC July 1, 2010 at 8:42 am

Habits of reusing and repurposing practiced during the Depression have stayed with my mother and father all their lives, and my Mother at 91 and living in a retirement home apartment, still cannot tolerate waste. Job loss due to illness led my maternal grandfather into subsistence farming. Times were difficult, but Mother, her parents and her seven siblings survived with exuberant faith, abundant love, humor that included wildly creative practical jokes, Friday fishing trips to the creek with a festive fish fry afterwards and hard, backbreaking work by parents as well as offspring from oldest to youngest.

Bucksome July 4, 2010 at 10:01 pm

LC, your mom’s family sounds amazing. Although my husband and I try to avoid wastefulness we are nowhere as good as I’d like. I’d be embarassed to post food waste every week like Frugal Girl.

Money Reasons July 1, 2010 at 10:07 pm

It always kill me that way people look back into the past and either criticize or praise the people for what they did. When in reality, that modern people that are judging have no idea of the reality of the time… Silly people 🙂

Bucksome July 4, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Money Reasons, it’s hard for us to imagine what it was like just like they couldn’t imagine life as we live it today.

Donna Freedman July 2, 2010 at 9:22 pm

I wrote an essay for the Smart Spending blog called “This isn’t your grandparents’ recession.” In it, I noted that some of the things our elders did simply aren’t possible today. I also noted that:
“Underneath all those collective, sepia-toned Great Depression memories lie some pretty unpleasant realities: malnutrition, poor sanitation, a lack of medical care, institutionalized oppression. Homes were foreclosed upon back then, too. Some men deserted their families because they couldn’t provide for them; some committed suicide for the same reason.
“There’s plenty to be learned by reading about the Great Depression, especially oral histories of the folks who lived through it. But please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that (a) we’ve become soft and lazy and can’t take a little adversity or (b) that things were ‘better’ back then because people pitched in and made do.
“There’s some truth in both statements. Some people today consider it a sacrifice just to give up going to restaurants, and some folks back then were desperately poor but still fairly happy. But the fact remains that today some people are in big trouble not because they’re lazy, but because of complex personal, national and global economic issues.”
OK, enough excerpting. Somebody pull me down off this soapbox! But if it’s kosher to post the URL, here it is:

Bucksome July 4, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Thanks for linking to that article. I agree with your points wholeheartedly. It reminded me of family stories as well (my mom grew up with weekly baths… it was an event!)

I wonder if our generation is less enamored because we heard these stories from our parents and grandparents while it’s farther removed for later generations and sounds “romantic”.

Funny about Money July 3, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Well said! My mother used to say the “good old days” weren’t so good. She and my father spent ten days during the Depression with nothing to eat but pancakes and a bag of oranges. She cheerfully engaged every labor-saving device and grocery-store convenience that came along.

One thing to remember, too, is that many of today’s amenities simply didn’t exist during the Depression or even after WW II. There were, for example, no dishwashers, and most people used wringer washers (if they had a washing machine at all). When I was a kid in the 50s, no one had an electric dryer. A vacuum cleaner was a heavy monster of a thing that didn’t leave your carpets especially clean after you spent an hour or two of back-breaking work with it. Toilets were scrubbed with scouring powder. And when my mother was a little kid, she lived in a house with no indoor plumbing; one of her daily chores was to wash the soot off the kerosene lanterns the family used to light their way around the house at night.

People did what they could with what they had.

Bucksome July 4, 2010 at 10:14 pm

I remember my grandma having a wringer washer in the early 60’s still. What a pain! Life, and every chore, was a lot harder during the depression and we are so lucky to not have to live that way.

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