History Can Help You Save with these Great Depression Money Hacks

In this vintage photo, two women work in a field.
Getty Images

Invention is the mother of necessity, as the old saying goes. Economic hardship often leads to new ways of doing things or new inventions entirely. The 2020 COVID lockdowns put companies such as Zoom and DoorDash into the spotlight. The gig economy rose to new heights. The 2008 recession brought a rise of streaming services such as Netflix and online shopping on Amazon. Money-saving methods throughout history even include Great Depression money hacks. People had to get creative during the most devastating economic downturn in American history, which lasted from 1929 to 1939.

Try These Great Depression Money Hacks

You may have heard a few of these stories from your parents or grandparents, but while we can’t tell you how to get a full steak dinner for a nickel or how it’s possible to walk uphill both ways in the snow to school, there are many time-tested methods people in the 1930s used to save money.

Recycle and Make Do: The Flour Bag Dresses

One of the most interesting Great Depression money hacks is the flour sack dresses. Families who regularly bought flour realized the bags it came in were made of sturdy cotton, which they could use to make clothes. The flour companies soon discovered what people used their bags for, so they began producing bags with colorful patterns.

Most flour bags now are made out of paper (not as useful for making clothes) but the lesson still stands. Several items we buy for single use can be reused in a variety of ways. For example, you can use shoeboxes, takeaway containers and egg cartons for storage. You also can use tea bags and coffee filters more than once.

However, if you want to follow the example of the resourceful tailors who created the flour bag dresses, learning some basic sewing skills can save you a lot of money. You can ensure your clothes last longer and you won’t have to buy new ones because of small tears.

Save Through Gardening

A small kitchen garden used to be commonplace. People saw it as a sign of American self-reliance and a necessity for homesteaders out West. But at the end of WWII, the pristine grass lawn became part of the package deal of the American Dream. With the rise of modern supermarkets, the convenience of simply buying vegetables whenever you needed them made many people abandon their kitchen gardens.

But that was all after kitchen gardens had one last flourish during the 30s and 40s. Sometimes called Thrift Gardens, backyards and community lots produced growing vegetables, spices and herbs for people to use in their homes. This practice was carried over into World War II, when the government encouraged Victory Gardens as a way for people to supplement their diets while they rationed food for the war effort.

The economic benefits of a small herb or vegetable garden are self-evident. You can grow your own food for a relatively cheap investment and earn long-term savings. However, if you have a particularly enterprising green thumb, you can even turn a profit from a modest garden. If you don’t live in the suburbs, you can also find community gardens in your area with a quick google search to get started, or even grow herbs in your apartment.

Cleaning Up On A Dime

While honey is better for catching flies, vinegar is useful for much more than cooking. Much like how people used flour bags for dresses, using household supplies to their fullest was one of the most valuable Great Depression money hacks. Vinegar was the main ingredient in a homemade all-purpose cleaner that became an essential tool for homemakers across the country.

Baking soda and orange rinds freshened up carpets and kept a house smelling fresh. Not only are many of these cleaning measures budget friendly, they’re also environmentally friendly and better for you. These avoid harmful or otherwise potent chemicals found in many mass-produced cleaners.

This frugal spirit is still very much alive. In the ninety or so years since the Great Depression, homemakers across America have come up with loads of modern day tricks and hacks to keep the home clean and healthy on a shoestring budget.

Homemade Gifts

Nothing can quite beat the sentiment of a homemade gift. Sure, your grandmother’s homemade sweater may not be as chic as something bought in a high-end store, but few of us are so heartless as to actually part with them. As you can probably guess from these other Great Depression money hacks, it was unlikely Santa was leaving the 1930 equivalent of a Playstation 5 under many peoples’ Christmas trees.

Most gifts people exchanged during holidays, birthdays or other special occasions were homemade, including quilts, clothes and toys. Several cost-effective gift ideas hold specific sentimental value, such as books of family recipes, scrapbooks and photo albums. Those speak to how the tough times of the 1930s could bring people together, which is how several of these seemingly humble gifts remain as treasured family heirlooms today.

Today, with the gig economy and sites like Etsy dedicated to helping creators of all stripes, it’s never been easier or cheaper to learn how to make homemade gifts. Many lists of modern day DIY gifts that cost almost nothing have a lot of similar or even identical ideas from the Great Depression.

Other Tips from the Depression

The 30s were some of the most difficult years to live through. The economic downturn touched every part of daily life. Habits that changed across the country included how people consumed their entertainment. Hollywood was in the middle of its first big boom, and movies became a part of American culture as a demand for escapism was sky high. Movie tickets dropped in price in the 30s because of the expansion of cinemas across the country. The movies represented a cheap, communal form of entertainment, with tickets costing a quarter.

How times change. Movie theaters today have notoriously expensive ticket prices, but local communities have free movie nights available in public parks and community centers. The closest one to you is only a Google search away.

Another easy habit to pick up is using cash. While credit cards didn’t exist, checks did, and people during the Great Depression dropped them like hot potatoes. While the Stock Market Crash is the most famous cause of the Depression, an equally big hit was the Banking Panic of 1930.

With people’s faith in their banks at an all time low, most people insisted on only using cash. There is a financial benefit to this, as the physical nature of handing over money can keep you from overspending.

While many of these Great Depression money hacks are old-fashioned, they are time-tested. The year 2024 has a very different set of problems from the 1930s, but learning from the past can help us lead healthier and wealthier lives.

William Fewox has worked as a freelance writer since 2017, and his work is featured in literary magazines such as The Aquarian, The Navigator and The Historian.