5 Depression Era Tricks for Saving on Groceries


Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division : LC-DIG-fsac-1a34273

I consider myself a frugal shopper. I clip coupons, compare prices, shop the sales. But my accumulative savings are nothing – NOTHING – compared to the housewives of the Great Depression.

While researching for the Pearl Spence Novels, I learned how the women of the 1930s managed their shopping budgets during those tough economic times.

Those ladies put me to shame!

They knew every trick to skimp and save. They pinched every penny as if their lives depended on it. Why? Because, quite literally, their lives (and the lives of their families) did depend on every penny saved.

So, how did they do it? How did they make the most of their grocery budget?

Here are 5 Depression Era Tricks for lowering that grocery bill.

  1. Buy the whole chicken: Our grandmothers never, ever would have bought chicken breasts. She would have been disgusted to pay nearly $4 per pound for boneless/skinless chicken breasts when she could get a whole chicken (skin, bones, and all) for $1.05 per pound (by today’s prices. In the 1930s she would have paid 22¢ a pound). Oh, the meals she could get out of that chicken. Chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, chicken soup, chicken sandwiches…you get the point. Chicken for DAYS!
  2. Less meat. More filler: With ground beef about 10¢ a pound, our grandmothers would have thought of the very best way to make it stretch. She would have used filler to make a little meat seem like a whole lot more. Oatmeal, lentils, bread crumbs – all perfectly good things to add to meat to make it stretch. It’s also a great way to get more veggies into your diet! Add some diced onions and green peppers!
  3. Buy the cheap coffee: My grandma swore by cheap coffee. She was an instant crystals kind of girl. The bad thing about cheap coffee? The flavor. It can be overly bitter and just plain old skunky. So, what did grandma do? She’d add a pinch of salt to the grounds before brewing. The salt takes the bitterness out and makes for a smoother cup of mud. (Still, there’s no way…I’m too snobby about my coffee)
  4. Work the system: The Depression Era housewife knew how to play the system. She knew to get her fresh foods (produce, baked goods, meats) on Saturday evenings when they’d be steeply discounted for the end of the week (grocers were never open on Sundays). They knew to ask for soup bones because they could get them for next to nothing if not free. You can work the system, too! Sign up for the rewards programs at your grocery store, figure out when items are most likely to go on clearance, stock up on nonperishables that are on sale (bonus points if you have a coupon!). But be sure to only work the system for things you need/would usually buy. It’s not a good deal if it sits on your shelf collecting dust for a year.
  5. STICK TO YOUR LIST: When my grandma got older she wasn’t able to shop for herself anymore. She’d send my sister and me to the grocery store with a list and a stack of coupons. If we deviated from the list – oh, doggy – were we in for it. Why? Because the off-the-list items were almost never on sale, weren’t needed, and usually ended up being potato chips/ice cream/chocolate. If you take the time to plan your list and stick to it, you’ll save money in the end. No kidding.

How about you? Any tips for saving the big bucks at the grocery store? Any bits of wisdom you learned from a grandma/aunt/grandpa/parent? I’d love to hear them!

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Learn more about the Great Depression! Read the Pearl Spence Series. The final book in the set, A Song of Home: A Novel of the Swing Era releases soon! Preorder it today!

5 Comments on “5 Depression Era Tricks for Saving on Groceries

  1. Though it is opposite to my parental counseling, I believe it is frugal to use credit cards as much as possible. That is IF YOU STAY WITHIN YOUR BUDGET while doing so. Almost every card offers some form of “kick back.” I use my Kroger shoppers card for coupons which gives me “fuel points” with purchases INCLUDING “gift cards.” I buy those cards with a charge card that pays me back 2%. Then I use the gift cards to purchase item I would purchase for “needs and wants” (not impulse!)


  2. My fraternal grandmother had 7 children, was married to a tenant farmer (who kept losing farms to rent) and eventually became a single parent during the great depression. I know her struggles went beyond being frugal. Like almost everyone, they grew what they could themselves and sold produce to neighbors. I do remember my dad saying they often ate popcorn for meals, especially for breakfast. We have popcorn for supper every Sunday, more as a night off for the cook, but it is also economical. Now that we are empty nesters, I try to freeze those last bits of leftovers before we are tired of seeing them. A few weeks later, that bit of casserole, roast, or soup makes a much appreciated lunch.


  3. We use a delivery system, which yes, has an annual fee. But you know what? What I save in gas, time, and not going down the aisles saying, “ooo-I want/need this!” makes it worthwhile. Also, it’s been great right now for sure!


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