One of my treasured heirlooms is my Gram's vintage Good Housekeeping cookbook. Its tattered and stained pages include a "Wartime Supplement" that describes how to cope with WWII food rationing, especially staples such as sugar and meat. The cookbook's money-saving tips are still surprisingly relevant. While our grandparents may have been frugal from necessity, there's a lot we can learn from their thriftiness on many different fronts. Here's how to "waste not, want not" and save money like our grandparents did.
Cutting out the middle man saves money. Shop at farmers' markets or consider joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm. For a small annual fee, you'll get a box of produce every week during the growing season. It's fresh, local, and generally costs less than you'd spend at the grocery store. Bonus: Some farms are certified organic.
If you get a hole in your sock or tear a seam, don’t toss the garment. Fix it. Picking up a few basic sewing techniques, such as how to hem pants or sew on a button, saves money in the long run. Teach yourself with YouTube tutorials, or convince a friend to take classes with you at a local crafts store.
Bought too many berries at the farmers' market? Don’t want those cucumbers your neighbor gave you getting soggy? Learn different ways to preserve food just like our grandparents did so that nothing spoils. And don’t be scared: If you can read a recipe, you can learn to can. Find tips for freezing, dehydrating, fermenting and canning at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Meat shortages meant our grandparents had to stretch their rations to get more out of every portion. The cookbook suggests making meat a supporting player, not the focus of meals. Try dishes such as French lentils with sausage, pasta e fagioli soup, or a savory stew that's heavy on the veggies, light on the animal proteins.
Our grandparents didn't have a cabinet full of expensive products to clean house. They used tried-but-true basics you always have on hand, such as: bleach for disinfecting, baking soda for light scrubbing, and vinegar and water with a dash of dishwashing liquid for windows. For most cleaning, that's all it takes alongside a dose of elbow grease.
Keep it simple with a pile in the backyard, as my grandparents did. You can get a closed bin if it’s located somewhere more visible. Collect “green” waste such as kitchen scraps, and “brown” waste such as dry leaves and twigs. Avoid adding food scraps, which will attract pests, and pet waste or diseased plants, which could contaminate your compost. Keep adding layers, stir occasionally, and let Mother Nature do the work.
Soup is filling and cheap. And it’s perfect for your slow cooker so you don’t even have to think about dinner. Plus, leftovers freeze well.
It’s never too late. Don’t throw up your hands and give up because you didn’t start sooner. Something is always better than nothing. Set up a direct deposit so you’ll save automatically. We promise you won’t even miss what you didn’t have in your hands in the first place.
An old-fashioned barn-raising or a quilting bee was nothing more than friends helping each other out. If you love to paint, and she’s great at cutting hair, you both can save a bundle by trading your abilities and not having to hire someone.
Don’t toss raggedy sheets, towels, and t-shirts. Use them for drop cloths when you’re painting, or cut them up into manageable squares for cleaning rags. Cotton and flannel fabrics tend to work best. They’re soft, washable, and almost infinitely reusable.
Our grandparents didn't rely on takeout to feed their families. "You don't have to make everything from scratch, but getting into the habit of not eating out all the time is a huge money-saver," says Kristen Cross, the blogger behind The Frugal Girl. "I'm a big fan of keeping meals simple. For example, we do a soup night, taco night, and pizza night regularly so I don't have to think too much about it."
I have many fond memories of Gram’s can of sequins and buttons that she hoarded for the craft projects we made together. Save all those fun little scraps: bits of ribbon, cute little glass jam jars, broken costume jewelry, little cardboard berry containers, etc. Toss everything in a plastic container, and you’ll be surprised at how many creative uses you’ll find for these treasures.
It's far cheaper and better for you than buying prepared or prepackaged foods that are loaded with sodium and preservatives. "Start small," says Kristen, aka The Frugal Girl. "Pick something your family eats all the time, then add new recipes to your scratch repertoire as you feel more confident." Kristen learned to make granola and yogurt because those are foods her family eats frequently, so the savings add up in the long run.
Our grandparents did not buy on credit. Period. If you’re shopping for holidays or birthdays (or even to splurge on yourself), go to the ATM first and get cash. Paying with actual money makes it feel more “real,” so you’ll likely spend less, too.
If you’re going on a day trip or family outing, pack up some sandwiches, pasta salad, or even soup for chilly days. It’s cheaper than having to feed everyone at a restaurant, the view is more scenic!
"It's a chore, but if I don't have a menu and grocery list, I buy food I don't need or forget to buy what I do need," The Frugal Girl's Kristen says. Write up a menu for a few days to a week ahead, then make your shopping list so you can resist impulse buys. Inventory your fridge and pantry regularly, too, so you don't forget what's hiding in there. Wasted and spoiled food accounts for as much as $2,275 in losses annually for a family of four!
Long before it was environmentally smart, my grandparents collected rain as it ran off the garage roof into a barrel. Make or buy your own to collect free water for your garden.
Sure, it’s fine to go out occasionally. But that adds up. Bringing your own lunch also helps you control portion size and calories. Do it the night before if you’re always running late in the morning.
My grandmother was talented with needle arts and loved creating afghans, handmade kitchen towels, and lace tablecloths for people she loved. Homemade gifts are more memorable anyhow, and everybody has a special talent: Bake a plate of brownies. Give a coupon for a weekend of pet sitting. Create a memory book of old photos, or enlarge and frame one.
Your grandma probably had a favorite butcher and a single grocery store where she shopped. It's fine to do the same and shop one or two stores with the best prices on the kinds of foods your family consumes regularly.
"I don't drive all over town to follow sale prices every week because I don't find it cost-effective," The Frugal Girl tells us. Instead, she knows certain items such as baking supplies, nuts, and frozen fruits are cheapest at the warehouse club, while she finds the best prices on dairy and produce at a local discount grocery store.
Running errands? Throw a few granola bars, an apple, or little bags of nuts in your car or purse so you won’t have to deal with whining kids or your own "hangry" state because you skipped lunch. You’ll always have something nutritious to tide you over, and you won’t be tempted by the drive-thru.
My grandma's cookbook says that they're cheap, filling, and nutritious, containing good stuff like fiber, B vitamins and plant-based protein. Try subbing black beans for ground beef in burgers, tacos, and burritos. Toss beans over salads, or puree for dip or a sandwich spread. Save even more cash by using dry beans, which are less expensive than canned; just remember you'll have to soak them for several hours to overnight before cooking. If you're in a hurry, lentils don't require soaking before cooking.
While it's super-easy to pick up pre-cubed butternut squash or ready-to-cook fresh green beans, they may cost three times as much as the whole foods. Learn to cut up the squash yourself, and be real: Snapping off the ends of green beans doesn't take that much time. Check prices next time you're in the store to see how much pre-cut produce is marked up.
My grandpa taught me this: Performing proper maintenance on big-ticket items, such as your car, helps them last longer. So, wash it once a week. Get the oil changed regularly. Make sure the tires are properly inflated and rotated.
Your grandparents probably had a backyard or "victory" garden during the war to supplement their rations. Even if it's just a few pots on a deck or a small plot next to the patio, try your hand at easy-to-grow veggies such as lettuce, kale, and beans, or herbs such as basil, parsley, and thyme, which is so much cheaper than buying those $5 bundles at the grocery store. Plus, there's something fun and satisfying about growing your own food.
Saving seeds is not just about being thrifty; it also ensures that heirloom plants are preserved and passed on for future generations to enjoy. Super-easy seeds for beginners to save: Marigolds, beans, and many herbs such as cilantro, dill, and chives.
While you probably don't need to save bits of fat for frying foods like my gram's wartime cookbook suggests, freeze leftovers or food tidbits you don't need for a later use. For example, save chicken wings or turkey necks for making soup stock. Toss bits of bacon, ham, or cheese on salads, or freeze until you have enough for a frittata or quiche. Veggies that are past their prime can be sautéed into omelets or scrambles or baked into muffins or quick breads. Just think how proud Grandma would be of your thrifty ways!
Make this your mantra, then don't get swayed when the bank tells you it’s fine to buy a bigger house or a nicer car. Focus on needs versus wants because you never know when a rainy day is coming.
Instead of always going out with friends, get everyone together for a potluck or fondue night. Then enjoy their company instead of fretting over presenting a perfect-but-pricey Instagram-worthy event.
Bargaining was a way of life in the old days. And it's still totally acceptable today in many different places—flea markets, estate sales, independent shops. Don't be afraid to ask for a discount if you love something. The key is to make a reasonable offer and to do it respectfully. You may surprise yourself about how well it works.