The Rules of the Great Depression: Use It Up. Wear It Out.


There were four rules to surviving the Great Depression:

  1. Use it up
  2. Wear it out
  3. Make do
  4. Do without

Folks in my soon-to-release novel A Trail of Crumbs: A Novel of the Great Depression (coming March 27…wink, wink) had to follow these rules in order to hold onto their hard earned (and often hard to come by) pennies and dimes.

With some economists predicting a recession in 2017 (sorry for the happy bubble bust), it might be good for us to look to our grandparents for ideas of how to make ends meet in tough financial times.

Here’s the first in a three part series. Hope it’s helpful (and a little fun)!

Use it up. Wear it out.

You’ve heard it probably a million times. Your mom or grandparents may have said it. Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself (then marveled at how like your mother you’re becoming).

Waste not, want not.

It’s a phrase that goes back as far as the 1700’s and essentially means that if you don’t waste it, you won’t be without it. Makes sense, right?

In the Depression era waste was seen as a shameful sin. They used what they had, every single drop or crumb or fiber. And they used it until it was threadbare and no longer usable.

See if you can use any of these ideas to take full advantage of what you have and, so doing, save some cash-o-la!

  1. Cook from your pantry: If you’re running short on grocery money, try cooking at least one full meal from the contents of your pantry. With only what I have in my house right now I could make soup, a few casseroles, and more mac ‘n cheese than any family should ever eat. Be sure that you’re aware of what’s in there before you run to the store. (NOTE: I’m horrible at this. I sometimes go to the grocery store three or four times a week for ingredients, spending far more than I need to and sometimes even coming home to find that I already have six cans of refried beans in my pantry. At one time I had five containers of cinnamon…oopsy.)
  2. Learn to love leftovers: Take them for work lunches or pack them for your kids to take to school, reimagine them into new meals (a roast can be shredded for tacos or cubed for soup). You’ll save so much if you think ahead when you cook to all of the options for what you have left. (NOTE: This is probably the only one I’m good at. Well, that is if my hungry kiddos leave any leftovers…)
  3. Compost it: Don’t toss food waste in the trash can when you can put it in a bin outside to decompose and turn into FREE fertilizer! (NOTE: If only I were organized enough to actually get a bin, learn how to make it so the compost doesn’t attract R.O.U.S., and were brave enough to try it. Maybe I’ll make my genius daughter figure it out.)
  4. Can and freeze it: Because your compost is SO AMAZING your garden will yield more veggies than you can eat in one season (either that or you hit a good sale at the farm market). Instead of letting it go to waste, preserve it! Google how to freeze (some things need to be blanched or sliced a certain way) or ask your mom to teach you how to can. You’ll be glad for that freezer full of zucchini and the pantry laden with stewed tomatoes in February. (NOTE: Yeah, I don’t really do this. My mom is my tomato lady and when I freeze things I tend to forget about them. Sigh.)
  5. Don’t throw it out if it can be used: Half used sheet of paper? Cut it up into scrap paper. Ziplock bags? Wash them out and hang them to dry for another use. Stale bread? Make stuffing or toast it to use for breadcrumbs. Grungy t-shirt? Cut them into rags. If it can be used for something then, by all means, repurpose it! (NOTE: I have a small home with limited storage. Saving every little thing for future use is just not practical. I’m more inclined to toss something into the recycle bin or the trash can. Sorry, Grandma!)
  6. Learn to mend: Oh, how many times I’ve thrown out a shirt because it had a tear or a pair of socks because there was a hole in the toe. The ladies of the Great Depression would have thought we were mad for doing such a thing. Most of them had what they called a “mending basket” full of to-fix clothing items. They darned socks, patched up jeans, and even stitched up their nylons. (NOTE: I need to up my mending game. I’m horrible. Even sewing a button on a shirt overwhelms me. My kids have learned that if they want something mended they need to wait for Nana {my mom} to come over. Sigh.)
    Mended Stockings (1934), photo by Dorothea Lange


So, you’re ready to get every little inch of value out of your purchases? Great! Have any of your own tips (or ones you learned) for using up what you already have? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

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Catch more Depression Era tips and tricks here on the blog. Subscribe so you don’t miss a post!

Also, don’t forget A Trail of Crumbs releases next week. If you’ve never read A Cup of Dust (the first book in the Pearl Spence series) now would be a good time to get your hands on it!

3 Comments on “The Rules of the Great Depression: Use It Up. Wear It Out.

  1. My stepmother would put used dryer sheets in an empty tissue box and use them to wipe down faucets, sinks, and countertops. She also saved candles…we found boxes filled with new or partially burned candles when we went through her stuff.

    My dad was the expert at making do. He was a mechanic and would save nuts, bolts, and other parts that were still useful. If someone couldn’t afford new parts for their car, he often had used parts that would make do. He also had mom save coffee cans and soup cans and use them to patch exhaust pipes for college kids and others who had no money for new parts.


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