Seven Good Lessons from the Great Depression


December 4, 2008   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

We may not be getting ready for bread lines or seeing hobos selling apples for five cents on the corner, but all this talk of another Great Depression should have us looking back in history for lessons that we can take with us into the future of this wild and woolly economic mess.

Here are some ideas that we can learn from the grandparents and great grandparents who lived through the lean times.

  1. Patch it, sew it, fix it yourself
    Gone are the days of disposability. If you have a shirt with a tear or a pipe that’s sprung a leak or a tire with a hole, don’t toss it. Fix it. If you don’t know how to, learn it. Back in the old days, everyone did their own basic home repairs and calling in a specialist was something reserved for those with a fat wallet. These days, with do-it-yourself videos and sites all over the web, finding out how to do something should be snap.
  2. Don’t use credit
    Here’s a concept: If you can’t afford something don’t buy it. You ancestors weren’t very keen on credit. Buying something on installment was a rare occurrence, if it ever happened at all. What would someone from that time think of us when we are whipping out the plastic for an Extra Value Meal? Which leads to …
  3. Saving up
    Time to break out the piggy bank. Since you aren’t using credit, it’s time to start saving for big purchases (or emergencies). Maybe that’s throwing all your change in a jar or cutting out that overpriced coffee each morning. Help yourself by keeping track in a savings book, just like grandma used to. Or throw it all into an online bank saving account and make that scratch earn a little extra.
  4. Forget the Joneses
    We’re all in this economic drain-circling boat together, right? If so, if your neighbor is trying to impress someone, they’re only sinking themselves. So don’t worry about if they have a bigger boat or a fancier car. That just put them a lot closer to the edge than you want to be. Want to strike up a conversation with them over the hedge? Ask them about their 401k.
  5. Can it (or at least brown-bag it)
    One of the best skills developed by folks in the Depression was learning to stretch their food supply as far as it would go. No leftovers for the microwave in 1939. Instead garden veggies were canned for the winter, meat bones went into making soup and even grease was saved in a jar under the sink. Follow their lead by brown-bagging your lunch or seeing just how far you can make that rotisserie chicken last this week. Here’s another hint – smaller portions!
  6. Any job will do
    When you are looking for extra cash, check your ego at the door. During the Depression, men would do odd jobs, paint a fence, chop wood or work a farm. Anything for an extra nickel (like selling those apples). If you are in a bind, don’t let your impression resume stand between you and a steady paycheck. The money from Arby’s or tips from being a pizza delivery guy all spend the same as your graduate student stipend.
  7. Help a brother out
    Finally, one of the great lessons of the lean times is that people often were able to give some help, even if it was hard. A man would be hired to pick the crop for a day and get a good meal when he was finished. People took in boarders or picked up someone who needed a ride. Those were more trusting times to be sure, but if you’ve got an opportunity, no reason not to pay it forward. Brother, it’s tough out here for everybody.
Written on 12/04/2008 by Mike Koehler. Mike Koehler is a multimedia journalist in Oklahoma City working full-time to save the newspaper business while helping his wife raise three kids under age 8. In his spare time he sleeps. E-mail Mike at [email protected]. Photo Credit:



Getting Started with Money

Learn More About Money

More on Money

Money Individual Reviews