How People Saved And Earned Money During The Great Depression

On October 29, 1929, otherwise known as Black Tuesday, the United States experienced a devastating stock market crash. This signaled the beginning of the Great Depression, a severe worldwide economic depression that began in 1929 and lasted through most of the 1930s. This incident greatly affected both rich and poor countries, with the United States experiencing unemployment of up to 23% at its peak. During this time, many people’s lives were turned upside down and they had to scrape by just to stay alive. Learn how people made the most of the little money they had and the creative ways they made it through this difficult period in history.

They Didn’t Pay For What They Could Do Themselves

Man washing using a bucket
Three Lions/Getty Images
Three Lions/Getty Images

Today, many people are willing to pay some extra money for services instead of doing things themselves. This is either because they’re unwilling to learn or they don’t think they have enough time. Whether it’s getting their oil changed, hiring a maid, or paying someone to maintain their property, during the Great Depression, these were luxuries that few people could afford.

In order to save every penny, you can bet that they did any tasks they could do themselves. Luckily, in the modern era, people have the benefit of the Internet to learn how to do tasks that they might otherwise feel are out of their skillset.

They Grew Their Own Food

Planting a garden
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

During the Great Depression, when unemployment rates reached an astounding 23%, many people couldn’t afford to go to the supermarket to buy food. Buying cheap seeds and starting their own gardens was an obvious and natural solution.

Many women then began growing kitchen gardens made up of mostly vegetables and herbs that they would pick each day for whatever meal they were going to make. You don’t need much space either, as some vegetables and fruit can be grown in small buckets.

They Knew The Importance Of Leftovers

Man cutting vegetables
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In a time when few people had two pennies to rub together, not a scrap of food would go to waste. Although many people today might find themselves scraping off the rest of their dinner plate into the trash, that would have been heresy during the Great Depression.

Other than just reheating the last night’s meal, many people would make stews, roasts, meatloaf, and other dishes that could be repurposed into something new. Not only did this save food, but it also provided some variety in their diets.

They Layered Their Clothes

Boy putting on clothes
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

During the Great Depression, not only was electricity incredibly expensive, but many people didn’t even have access to it. To save their money, people would layer their clothes, which also helped prevent people from needing to buy expensive thick coats.

People would wear layers of clothes both inside and outside because, during the colder months of the year, there was no way of escaping the cold. Besides, it meant that you were putting as much of your clothing to use as possible, so nothing was sitting unused in a dresser.

Every Last Drop Was Used

Family eating on the side of the road
Three Lions/Getty Images
Three Lions/Getty Images

Back in the Great Depression, when people had almost nothing, it was imperative that they made the most out of everything they had and that there was zero waste.

Every last drop of ketchup was emptied out of the bottle and bars of soap were used until there was literally nothing left to wash your hands with. People also came up with clever ways to extend the life of products such as watering down the milk or saving fat to use for cooking oil.

Many With Jobs Worked From Home

Doctor inside of a house
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Although countless people were out of work entirely or had to leave their house to go find daily employment if possible, many lucky enough to have a practice, such as doctors, lawyers, and dentists, worked from home.

This is because they didn’t have to rent a space, which drastically cut down on the costs of running their business. This also isn’t unusual to see today among people who work for themselves or freelance, as most of them set up a home office to save as much money as possible.

People Put Their Talents Or Extra Goods To Good Use

Man selling ice
GHI/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
GHI/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Whether somebody had steady work or no work at all, a lot of people came up with ways to make money using what they had. If someone knew how to sew, they could make products to sell, or if someone was a carpenter, they could be hired by people to help fix something.

On top of that, people would also sell anything that they may not need or have extra of such as cooked food, clothes, extra produce — anything to make an extra buck.

Many Learned How To Entertain Themselves For Free

Kids playing
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After the stock market crashed, the entertainment industry suffered a massive decline considering that people were more concerned with what they were going to eat that night than what movie they wanted to see. In addition to paid entertainment, a lot of people had to give up some of their hobbies that may have cost money to fund.

Instead, people came up with creative ways to entertain themselves, like reading and board games which cost little to no money at all. Kids were forced to rely on their imaginations with what was lying around, whereas adults would host community events to socialize.

They Made A Lot Of Things Themselves

Man making chairs
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Just as people began to grow their own food, they also started making their own products such as soap, stain removers, and more. More often than not, it was cheaper to buy the ingredients to make something like soap. That way, you could make multiple batches rather than buying several bars.

Others were also known to make their own clothes, furniture, or just about anything that they could to avoid spending money on unless it was an absolute necessity.

No One Was Better Than An Odd Job

Men working
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

When money was so tight that countless people couldn’t feed themselves, let alone their families, nobody was above an odd job, including people who already had employment.

At times, factory docks or farms may have needed a few extra hands for the day and people would line up in hopes of bringing home a little bit of money. Of course, most of these odd jobs were dangerous, physically demanding, and paid very little for the work that was performed.

Grocery Trips Were Well-Planned

Woman serving food
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

When families did need to make a trip to the store, every cent that they spent went toward something they needed. For the most part, people knew exactly how much things cost, what they needed, and how much of it they needed.

Going to the store was a well-planned errand with rarely any surprises and very few impulse purchases. Money needed to be spent wisely because there wasn’t much of it going around.

Keeping A Budget Log Was Key

Man with empty pockets
by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Much like making every penny count at the grocery store, it was crucial for those lucky enough to have any money at all to keep a close log of their finances.

Most would know exactly how much money they were spending or had at all times because not knowing for sure could get you into serious financial trouble. People didn’t want to spend too much on something only to learn that they were going to be short on their upcoming gas bill.

Washing Clothes Wasn’t A High Priority

Man putting on his shoes
Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images

When most people were down on their luck and just scraping by, keeping their clothes clean to the standard that most people have today was out of the question. Not only did washing clothes take time and energy, but also cost money.

Water wasn’t always free, and using soap to clean clothes wasn’t always as economically responsible as using it to wash your body to keep from getting sick. Clothes were washed only when it was absolutely necessary, which is why a lot of people looked unkempt at times.

People Kissed Their Cars Goodbye

Man selling car
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

In the 1920s, the automobile business was absolutely booming. However, as soon as the stock market crashed in 1929, automobiles began to become obsolete. Not only did people have nowhere to go, but the cost of purchasing, maintaining, or fueling up was too much to even imagine.

Because of this, people began selling their cars for however much they could get for them to just get some cash in their pockets. Walking became the new norm, or those lucky enough had bicycles to ride.

Borrowing Was How Many People Survived

Men sitting in a circle
Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images
Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

During the difficult era of the Great Depression, many people relied on other members of their community to get by. If someone needed a few eggs for a recipe, there was no reason to go buy some at the store if your neighbors could spare a few or had a chicken.

The person doing the borrowing may be of help sometime down the road if they had something to give in return. Many families lived in small communities where folks looked after one another because they were all in the same situation.

Meat Wasn’t A Standard Ingredient

Man eating
PhotoQuest/Getty Images
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Just as it is today, meat back during the 1930s was one of the more expensive grocery items that people could purchase. During the Great Depression, beef would rarely be found on a family’s table with pork and chicken being uncommon as well.

To compensate for the lack of protein from meat, people would substitute it with cheaper foods that were still high in protein, such as beans and eggs. Also, meat wasn’t always the best option because it would spoil quickly.

There Was No Shame In Taking A Handout

Men standing in line for food
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Unfortunately, not everyone was able to feed themselves, so soup kitchens and bread lines were not uncommon to see. However, you wanted to get there early as possible before they ran out of food.

While some people might feel some level of shame standing in line for free food that they can’t afford on their own, that was far from the case during the Great Depression. Most people were as bad off as the next, so any kind of help was more than welcome.

There Were No Picky Eaters

People in a food line
New York Times Co./Hulton Archive/Getty Images
New York Times Co./Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although today a lot of kids refuse to live on anything except kitchen nuggets and string cheese, or adults turn their heads at certain foods, that was mostly unheard of during the Great Depression.

Many people ate just about anything edible that others might even throw away, such as semi-rotten produce or parts that some people might cut off and discard. In addition, cheap animal parts such as animal organs were commonplace ingredients in many meals.

There Were Few Things That Couldn’t Be Fixed

People in a shanty town
American Stock/Getty Images
American Stock/Getty Images

In a time when even buying a new pair of shoes or a shirt was completely out of the question for many, people were crafty about fixing things rather than buying something new. While almost everyone mended their own clothes, when it came to things broken around the house, people would try to get as much life out of something as possible, even if it was just a temporary fix.

People would fix holes in their roof by nailing spare boards over it, or put cardboard in their shoes if the sole was wearing out. Comfort was rarely a priority.

Shopping Late Was The Cheapest Time Of The Day

Woman buying groceries
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

When those with little money needed to go to the store, chances are that they went later on, toward closing time rather than earlier in the day. This is because fresh products lost their value and were cheaper to buy.

They may not have received the freshest bread, vegetables, or proteins, but it was surely better than nothing. This is still a common practice today, with many food products significantly losing their value after a certain time of the day.