8 Frugal Tricks our Grandmothers Knew

I’m delighted to share a guest post with you today by the lovely Sarah of The Orthodox Mama. Teachers, Christian moms, and book lovers, we have enjoyed getting to know one another these past months online. I hope you will enjoy her perspective today, too. I know I certainly did! 

Many of our grandmothers are or were part of “The Greatest Generation”: a generation that lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II. Through these difficult times, they developed resilience of character and learned how to care for a household on very little.

As a little girl, I would sit and listen to my grandmothers talk and share stories of that time. I also saw the way that the Depression impacted the way that they ran their homes—even decades later. Now that I am grown with a family of my own, I have come to realize that these lessons in thrift and economy still have a place in today’s world. With that in mind, here are 8 frugal tricks our Grandmothers knew.

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1. Use It All

Depression era homes were zero waste long before it was trendy! Every scrap of food was used, every piece of wrapping paper reused, and every cleaning product emptied to the last drop. My grandmother would dump the food scraps from people’s plates into a bucket that went to feed the chickens. She also rinsed out shampoo, dish soap, and laundry detergent bottles to get every last bit of use from it.

Ideas for Modern Life: We can wash and reuse plastic bags. Save gift bags for another use. Take leftovers to work for lunch the next day. Make chicken stock from the bones and carcass of a whole chicken. Make homemade vegetable stock from vegetable peels and scraps. There are so many ways to use and reuse all that we have!

2. Wear It Out

My grandfather once told me, “I never knew that I was poor because everyone else’s overalls were just as worn as mine.” Wearing clothing until it was completely worn out was the norm back in those days. Clothes were handed down from child to child until they couldn’t be worn again. Shoes, coats, sheets, curtains, and blankets were treated similarly. Why buy new when you could patch an old shirt so it could be worn for another season?

Ideas for Modern Life: Save your children’s outgrown clothing to pass on to their younger siblings, cousins, or families at church. We have been the recipients of great generosity of hand me downs, and I am so thankful! You can also learn how to do some basic mending: sew a button, mend a tear in a sheet, or put a patch on a toddler’s worn out jeans. Often a quick mend that takes no more than five minutes can save you some serious money!

3. Make Your Own

I don’t remember my grandmother ever buying a cake. Why would you buy when you can make your own? Cooking from scratch was the norm for her generation. My other grandmother even made some clothing for herself and her six children. By making their own food and clothes, they were able to save money on daily expenses.

Ideas for Modern Life: Cooking from scratch can be more time consuming, but it is also more frugal and generally healthier. If you are a busy mom (and what mom isn’t?!), try making meals ahead of time and putting them in your freezer. Or, you can learn some great recipes for your slow cooker. A couple of years ago I learned how to make Homemade Refried Beans in the crock pot, and I have saved a lot of money that way. Plus, they are just plain tasty!

4. Grow Your Own

My grandmothers had enormous gardens that they carefully tended every spring and summer. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, carrots, corn, green beans, lettuce, zucchini, squash, pumpkins, watermelons, and more overflowed from those gardens. Plus they had apple trees, plum trees, grape vines, and other fruit trees. And, to top that all off, they raised their own chickens! The amount of money they saved by growing their own food for decades is mind-boggling.

Ideas for Modern Life: Start an herb garden with the herbs that your family really enjoys. It could be in a small corner of land by the house or even in pots on the porch. If you’re feeling more ambitious, try a container garden with tomatoes and zucchini. Your family (and your grocery budget) will thank you this summer!

5. Buy Quality

When my grandfather died a few years ago, he still had a toaster that was given to him and my grandmother as a wedding present. Seriously. That toaster lasted 56 years, and for all I know it is still happily popping out toast somewhere right now. Talk about a quality item! While it would be hard (if not impossible) to find a toaster like that nowadays, the principle still applies. Buying quality items saves money in the long run.

Ideas for Modern Life: When searching for your next winter coat, a dress for work, or a pair of shoes, remember to consider the quality of the item. While many of us frugally-minded people often hesitate to spend very much money, buying a quality item that will last us for years can actually be the most frugal thing to do.

6. Preserve For Later

I used to love going into my grandmother’s cellar. She had rows upon rows of canned vegetables, jellies, fruits, and more. At the end of the summer her entire kitchen was filled with produce from her garden that she preserved for use during the winter. It was a TON of work. (Believe me, I was often enlisted to help her!) However, she and my grandfather never had to worry about going hungry during the winter months. And, she saved countless hundreds of dollars on her grocery bill.

Ideas for Modern Life: There are many online tutorials on canning and preserving. Start small and learn how to preserve one type of vegetable or fruit that your family really enjoys. Next year add another. If the thought of canning intimidates you, learn how to use your freezer efficiently to store up food. Making freezer jam, homemade stocks, freezer biscuits, and more can save time and money. For more ideas, see my list of 15 Things That Frugal People Freeze.

7. If You Can’t Afford It, Don’t Buy It

This may be the hardest lesson to learn. My grandmother always said that you should never go into debt except to finance a house. And, even then, you should try to pay off your mortgage as soon as possible. People who lived during the Depression had a more realistic view of their finances. They had seen first-hand what happened when people speculated and lived on loans—a crash inevitably followed. So, if they couldn’t afford something, they did without or saved until they could purchase it.

Ideas for Modern Life: Designate money in savings accounts for different purposes. Start a Christmas fund to cover the cost of holiday expenses. Keep a savings account for car repairs and future car purchases. By setting financial goals, you can help motivate yourself to save money for larger purchases.

8. Find Ways to Make Extra Money

My grandfather paid for his college by trapping and hunting. True story! Through working incredibly hard each summer on his trap lines (definitely a Depression era Midwestern thing!), he was able to become the first person in his family to attend and graduate from college. I’ve always been inspired by his motivation and hard work. The lesson is still applicable to us today. Finding a creative way to earn extra money can help save for a goal, pay off debt, or cover weekly expenses.

Ideas for Modern Life: Are you a crafty person? Set up an Etsy account and sell your wares. Are you or have you been a teacher? Try starting a Teachers Pay Teachers store to sell lesson plans, units, worksheets, and projects you have already made. Tutor, teach music lessons, clean houses, deliver newspapers—the possibilities are endless!

Our grandmothers knew a thing or two about frugal living, and we would be wise to learn their frugal tricks!

Sarah Wright is an Orthodox Christian, wife to her husband Dan, and mother to three young children.  She also is a full-time middle school teacher and has just written her first children’s book.  Sarah writes at The Orthodox Mama, a blog about faith, family, and frugal living.  Some of her most popular posts include Top 10 Most Frugal Things I Do and 5 Meals for $5 or Less

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  1. I agree with all of these! I admired my grandmother growing up for cooking from scratch, growing and canning her own vegetables, and for being able to mend and sew a lot of the things for her home. I’m always striving to set the same example for my own kids. I’ve got the scratch cooking and sewing down, next summer I aim to tackle gardening and canning! Thank you for sharing these and keeping these ideas alive.

    1. Ditto, Tiffany. I’m working on tackling more of these “old fashioned” frugal skills, too. I’ve discovered the gardening is not my favorite but I do enjoy canning. If we keep working at it, we’ll bring these frugal skills back yet! 🙂

  2. I think the best concept is that u r not what u own. U r far more than what u own. Many people r into looking” like they have a lot but in that same concept they tend to owe alot

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