Lessons From The Great Depression [My Parents]

11/21/2008 01:49:00 AM

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1sn99hitBoth of my parents lived through the Great Depression, although my father was only 4 years old when the stock market crashed.  But the lessons he and my mother, along with my grandparents learned from the “great crash” continued on with them throughout their lives, with some until the day they died.  Although I never remember any of them suffering for anything, in fact them paying cash for new cars and cash for homes, they were all extremely “tight” when it came to money.

And I think it’s time to share a personal side of my life with you, and share with you what I learned from my parents and my grandparents and how they lived through the Great Depression, and how it affected their way of life for the rest of their lives.  They taught me many of the “old” ways, and here I share some of them with you in hopes that you take away something that will help you in the long run, if things go bad along with 17 tips to make your life easier.

I have memories of huge gardens started every spring with long hours of summer spent tending to that garden.  Meals towards the end of summer of nothing but vegetables; corn on the cob, green beans,  red tomatoes sliced thick, cucumbers, and collard greens, all fresh from the garden that morning. 

When there was an excess crop, which was nearly every year as planned, the canning rush would be on.   I remember shelves lined with canned tomatoes, tomato juice, green beans, corn and carrots.  Onions would he pulled, washed, hung and dried in the basement.  Also in the basement, which had a dirt floor, was a potato “shed” that had been filled with dirt.  The potatoes would be stored in this dirt for winter use.  And of course were the jars of zucchini, pickles and relish with onions, cauliflower and peppers.   Peas were also a yearly crop however, those would be blanched, and then frozen.

We were also lucky enough to have a huge apple tree, a huge mulberry tree and a small vineyard of concord grapes.  Since we lived near the woods, there were always wild strawberries and blackberries for the picking in the summer.  We were also lucky enough to have a wild walnut tree in the woods.

As for meat, every so often my parents would go out and purchase a half side of beef, a couple whole hogs, a couple lambs, and a dozen chickens or so.  The beef, hogs and lamb of course were already slaughtered however, my father would spend hours using a saw and knives cutting it all up, where mom would be waiting to wrap it in butcher paper, write on the tape of the contents, and place it in the freezer.  Then the Kitchenaid mixer would come out, the meat grinder attachment went on, and hamburger and sausage would be next.  I have memories of pork shoulders “curing” in closets and memories of my father beheading a dozen chickens, my mother dipping them in boiling water, and she and I plucking the feathers.  By the end of the night, the chickens were cut up, in the butcher paper, and in the freezer.

And then there was “huntin’” season.  I bagged my first deer at the age of 13 and ended up on my butt.  But hunting season was for deer, squirrel, pheasant and rabbit.  Turtles were awesome for soup.  And summers were spent many times fishing for crappie, bluegill, and walleye.  All of it ended up on the table or in the freezer with nothing going to waste.  And no, I never ate raccoon, possum, rats or groundhog… that’s just…. ew.  But I’ve had rattlesnake, alligator, moose, buffalo (farm) and bear and would eat it all again in a heartbeat.

Everything eaten was pretty much made from scratch, even bread made by my father every Sunday afternoon, from scratch from the large cakes of yeast he would purchase.  At the time bread machines didn’t exist.  They even made their own spaghetti and noodles.  The only thing that they did not “make” as I remember were milk (if you will), cheese, ice cream and butter, although they did try for a time to make butter, but decided that the cost of buying it outweighed the time to make it.  It seems the only things that were bought on a regular basis were milk products and eggs, although if I was lucky enough to get a box of cereal, it was eaten with powdered milk.  Breakfast was toast with homemade jam and oranges.

For me while growing up, grocery stores were of the “verboten” goods of cereal like Corn Pops and Fruit Loops, Snickers, cupcakes, chips, buttery crackers, and exotic fruit.  The aisles of Pop Tarts, chips and such weren’t even gone down when my mother went to the store.  For my mother, grocery stores were for flour, sugar, eggs, baking soda, oranges and bananas.  Even pineapple was a treat and generally only served around holidays.  Coconut wasn’t bought pre-shredded in plastic bags, it was bought on sale, and then hacked open and shredded by hand.

At my home, at the time Pepsi was sold in 8-packs of glass bottles.  And that 8-pack would last at least two weeks.  Pepsi was only allowed  on Friday night when mom would make popcorn, or on Saturdays at lunch, when a home made pizza was made from scratch, crust and all.  Milk and mostly powdered milk was the drink at breakfast, and water for other meals and snacks.  There were no prepackaged foods like Stouffer's lasagna, as it was made from scratch.

Which leads us to eating out.  We never, ever ate out.  The few times we did were when my parents would drive 60-75 miles to go shopping out of town in larger cities for groceries.  Generally eating out consisted of Burger King back when they made real hamburgers.  There wasn’t any delivered pizza.  No Chinese food.  Nothing delivered at all. And no “quick trips” to McDonalds.  No Subway.  No TGI Fridays.

As for clothes, well, that was a little different.  My mother did make my father’s work shirts which one could hardly tell the difference between it and a store bought Arrow shirt.  She also made his ties.  She would sit at night crocheting or knitting a blanket, afghan or scarf.  Sometimes she would sit at the sewing machine making quilts from my old jeans, or old shirts.  She even made sheets and towels.  But clothes were store bought, and I could never go without my Levis.

Then there was the issue of electric.  One would never EVER leave a room and leave the TV, stereo, or lights on.  If you weren’t in the room, nothing was to be on.  And winters would find oneself under quilts she had made, with the furnace temperature turned down to below 50F, while there was a wind chill of –10F outside.  Summers were not inside with air conditioning, they were in front of fans with windows open, or sitting on the porch.  In the summers, clothes were line dried, and nearly always washed in cold water.  Showers lasted at most 10 minutes or I’d get a knock on the bathroom door and then a shock of hot water in the shower when they turned on the cold water in the kitchen.

But I didn’t live by candlelight.  I mean my parents did have oil lanterns, candles, flashlights and batteries for when the lights went out.  But I didn’t grow up with only a radio and books.  I had my own room, with a double bed, my own TV and my own stereo.  This of course was about the time when VCRs came out and I was in High School.  This was before the days of video games on TVs and computers.  If you wanted to play a video game, you went down to the local hangout with a pocket full of quarters.   I remember hearing that my cousin had gotten a ColecoVision and I was mad because my parents wouldn’t get me one.

This was around the beginning of the days of cable but we didn’t have it, as it wasn’t run out our way and many people still didn’t have it.  And there wasn’t an internet.  If you wanted to talk to your friends, you used a phone.  There were no cell phones and I didn’t have a phone in my room.  If you wanted to talk to your friends and you weren’t home, you used a pay phone.  If you wanted to see a movie, you went to the theater.  And I got an “allowance” in return for helping around the house, taking out trash, doing my own laundry, doing the dishes and helping in the garden.  It wasn’t much, and of course my parents encouraged me to save it, but that was my “fun” money for Pepsi, Lay’s chips, Snickers and the movies.

Which brings me to the point and lessons of this post.  Although my parents could have afforded to eat out everyday, could have afforded to buy everything new, could have afforded to to leave lights on, could have afforded to buy a new car, in cash, every year, and could have afforded to give me everything I wanted, they didn’t.  Instead it ended up in the bank in CDs so when they did buy a new home, which in 20 years I remember two of them being purchased with cash, they had it, and no debt.  And when my father was laid off permanently in the mid 80s after working for the same company 19 years and eight months.  He was only four months away from retirement, and he lost his pension (Yep they “f***ed” him.) and having that money in the bank was how they made it until he found another job since unemployment was really a joke, and still is.  Especially when the unemployment office told him he would have to take a job that was offered to him through the unemployment office at 25% of his previous pay, for the exact same job he had been doing, until at a later time he found a job that was closer to his previous rate of pay.  He was never the same after what the company did to him, and after what the unemployment office did to him.  He became a very, VERY, VERY bitter and mean man.  Especially after mom found a job, and worked for the first time since the late 60s, and covered the bills until things became “normal” again so they wouldn’t have to depend on that money in the bank… but they never were normal for him again especially when mom wanted to keep her job after he got the job that was closer to his previous pay.  It was a good thing that I was nearly 18 and ready to leave and I never went back.  Those are the things that hard times can do to people and it can affect you for the rest of your life.

My parents never had a credit card, and they never took out a loan, even when they bought a new house, and even though my father was eligible for VA loans.  If the freezer died, they went out the next day and bought one with cash.  If the car broke down, it was paid for in cash.  If they bought new furniture, even if a living room suite cost $5K, it was paid for in cash.  If they couldn’t afford to pay for it in cash, then they figured they didn’t need it and didn’t get it.

And they did all this while my father was the only one who worked most of the time, but we suffered for nothing.  So how did they do it?  By following a certain set of “unwritten” and “unsaid” rules which they carried with them from the Depression years.

1.  Live below your income.  If you can’t afford it, and you can’t pay for it in cash, then you don’t need it.  Do not spend more than you earn, do not go into debt.

2.  Needs, not wants.  You may think you “need” it, but in reality you only “want it” because you think you “deserve” it.  And I don’t mean to insult anyone, but those who are 15-30 will have the hardest time with this because you just don’t know what it’s like without.  You’re use to having it all, you’re use to getting it all, because you think you deserve it all.  You are going to have to learn to prioritize what you need over what you want.  You may think you “need” a new cell phone, when in reality you don’t even “need” a cell phone at all when you have a home phone.  If its something important, they can leave a message.  And which is important, having money for gas and food, or paying a cellphone bill you don’t need?

3.  Stay home.  My father had two-weeks of vacation a year.  That vacation was one week at home, and one week at my grandparents, 800 miles away.  Other than that, there was no travel.

4.  Eat in.  Like I have said, we hardly ever ate out.  Even my father took his lunch with him to work, which was generally the prior nights leftovers.  Mom always seemed to make just enough for us, and then enough for the next day for his lunch.  He even took a thermos of coffee with him to work.  Now lunches for me at school, were of course school lunches, for at the time full price lunches were $0.90 - $1.10, so it made more sense for them to give me a dollar instead of packing lunch.  There was no, “lets stop at McDs for a snack” on the way home.

5.  Skip the alcohol.  Now my father was from a mountain top in West Virginia, and he had a degree in Chemical Engineering, so I’m pretty sure you can figure what he did from time to time.  But even still, he always had a bottle of either 151 or Irish Whisky in the cupboard.  But those bottles, fifths, would last over a year.  My parents didn’t  really drink.

6.  Keep Your Car.  The first car I remember was a 1967 Comet and that was their only car until we moved about 30 miles out in the middle of nowhere.  Then they purchased a 1972 Monte Carlo.  My father drove the Comet to work everyday, and mom used the Monte Carlo.  That Comet lasted until 1981 when it was hauled to the junk yard, and they bought a 1981 VW Rabbit.  The 1972 Monte Carlo lasted until 1987 at which point they got a 1987 GMC truck.  The 1981 VW Rabbit lasted until 2001 when mom got a used Mazda RX7.  A car is for transportation, not a fashion statement.  During the Great D, many people didn’t have vehicles and literally walked for miles.  Today, our society doesn’t quite work as well with that, but if you are in a city, use the bus.  If you live somewhat outside of city limits, use a bike if you can.  Only use your car if it is absolutely necessary.

7.  Entertainment.  During the Great Depression the only entertainment was a radio,or books, or magazines, if you could afford them.  Everyone had a radio.  Going to the movies was a treat from time to time.  Now I’m not saying forget the TV and stick to radio.  What I am saying is drop the $100 a month cable and go to bunny ears.  Also forget buying movies.  Which leads me to online.  Now I am a full believer in the Internet.  I get my news, weather, just about everything from online, even TV shows and movies (and I’m talking legally.  If you wish to break the law, that’s your choice.)  I am a firm believer in paying the $20 - $50 a month for the Internet.  It really can be your “home entertainment center” if you use it as such.  And I’m not talking about sitting in front of the computer surfing for 8 hours a day, or chatting and such.  You can even find many many books, legally, online, if you search for them.

8.  What is old, is new.  Now my parents didn’t have to buy things used, or fix things back up if they broke, but they did.  And they took care of what they had so it would last.  My mother was the queen of garage sales, flea markets and auctions.  My father would fix the lawnmower (a push one, not a riding one) and rebuild the engine himself.  If its broke, fix it first instead of just throwing it out. 

9.  Use it up, don’t waste it, don’t throw it out, wear it out.  This statement may bring images of pack rats, but that is not what it is about.  It about simple things like adding water to the last bit of shampoo in the bottom of the bottle.  Its about not throwing any food away, even scraps.  And just because a platter or bowl you need doesn’t match the rest of your dishes, doesn’t mean that it’s not useful or needed.  Its about if there is a black spot in a potato, don’t throw the whole potato away, cut out the dark spot, and use the rest.  When I have leftover veggies, I throw them in the freezer, even if its only a spoonful.  When I get enough, I thaw them out, cook them down, grind them to make vegetable stock.  And just because there is a small hole in your shirt, doesn’t mean it goes in the trash.  Pick up a needle and thread and fix it.

10.  Make Do.  This one I’m putting in a category all by itself.   Make do is about just that, make do with what you have, work with what you have.  It is a mentality.  For example, I’m a woman so I learn to make do without a mixer, since the last one died and I haven’t found one on sale or at a decent price to replace it.  Recently I made a Key Lime pie from scratch.  Now the “filling” if you will. which is nothing more than key lime juice (hand squeezed), sweetened condensed milk, and egg whites, has to be “whipped”.  Well I don’t have a mixer, and I don’t have an egg beater. My “make do” was to take a whisk, place the handle between my hands, and rub my hands together.  Believe it or not, it worked.  It was a little bit of work, but I “made do” with what I had on hand.  That is an example of making do.  Instead of using paper towels, use regular hand towels.  Save plastic Ziploc baggies and reuse them after washing them out.  Now I don’t have a huge ball of tin foil under my sink, and I don’t save it, as I don’t use it that often.

11. Turn It OFF.  If you are not in a room, turn out the lights.  If you aren’t playing your XBox, UNPLUG IT.  Many electronics continue to use electric even if they are turned off, and still plugged in.  Digital TVs and monitors are notorious for this.  I’m not saying unplug everything when you leave a room, but try to use strip plugs where you can turn the entire strip off.  If you’re not using it, don’t leave it on.  And for winter heating, lower the thermostat to no higher than between 65F – 68F.  If you are cold, put on a sweater or sweatshirt.  Cover yourself with a blanket, or better yet, knit yourself one.  If its hot, open the window and use a fan, forget the AC.  Although in environments where daily temps are 90F+, AC/Central Air is a requirement but you can raise the temperature to 75F – 80F and use a fan.  Also, unless needed, wash your clothes in cold water and line dry them if possible if weather allows.  Remember, during the Great D, many homes did not have electric as it had not been run yet, and in fact nearly all outside of town didn’t even have running water much less a water heater.  Clothes were washed by hand.  Baths were taken by gathering water in buckets, and warming them on a stove.  Everyone shared the water.

12.  Learn to cook and stockpile.  This is not as hard as it seems.  It may seem more expensive to buy items to make things from scratch in the beginning, but in the long run, it is much much more inexpensive to stockpile, and cook from scratch.  There are many many good places on the web to find easy recipes to start with, and work your way up.  I buy lemons, limes and oranges on sale, juice them myself, and freeze the juice in ice cube trays.  This is much cheaper and healthier than buying the concentrate.  When I can get fresh veggies on sale, like green beans for $0.50 - $0.99 a pound, I buy five – ten pounds, blanch them, and freeze them in freezer bags.  Tomatoes are the same.  Cook them, grind them, and freeze.  I even make my own bread, however I cheat with a bread machine that I bought at a second-hand store, never opened, for $13.00.  I buy pasta and cheese and make my own mac and cheese.  I make my own rice mixes with rice, bouillon and spices.  I have an awesome knife (since my cutter broke) to cut thin thin potatoes for homemade french fries.  I use dried beans to make soup and baked beans.  I dry my own onions, celery and garlic to make onion, celery and garlic powder.  If you don’t have the pots and pans, I’m pretty sure you have a Goodwill, Salvation Army or second-hand store nearby.  Or check garage sales.  A little soap and elbow grease can go a long way.

13.  Get the most for your money.  Use coupons, sales and price matching.  I know many people hate using coupons and many people think that coupons are only for processed food.  And if you use coupons, then you are poor.  This is somewhat true, yet it’s not.  I use them religiously and combined with sales, on the average, every grocery bill always has a savings of 50 –70% between coupon use, sales and price matching.   This allows me to buy the higher price goods such as meat.  And we don’t eat SPAM, or processed food.  I buy roasts, strip steaks, hamburger, pork chops,  whole chickens and occasionally fish (but generally canned tuna and salmon).  If I can get all my pantry and dry box items at 75% off, then I can afford beef when it is on sale and still save between 50-70% off full price.  And I unlike many people, don’t make a list.  I shop for what is on sale, and I “stock up” on them.  If ketchup is on sale (since I haven’t mastered the perfect ketchup) and its a good price, I’ll buy 4-6 of them, if I’m running low on my stockpile shelf.  If whole chickens are on sale for $0.99 or less, I’ll buy four of them, take them home, cut them up, and then make chicken stock from the remainder and bones.  It took time to get to this point with the stockpile, but it can be done, and it can be done in about a two months time.  Recently I didn’t go grocery shopping at all for four weeks, and put a serious dent in my stockpile and freezer.  The following week, I spent $150 and got nearly $400 in grocery items, and just about replaced everything that had gotten low in my stockpile and freezer.  There are many good sites on the web to learn to how power coupon and shop for sales and learn what the corporate policies are for using those coupons.  It can be done, and it takes a bit of work, but the savings are worth it.

14.  Garden.  If you live in the country, you are blessed with land.  If you are in the city, in an apartment, you are cursed with concrete however, you can still grow herbs.  These take minimal space, and if things go bad, are a good thing to barter with.  And if you have the space, make a compost pile for free fertilizer.

15.  And another important thing.  Be flexible.  If things go bad, you are going to learn how to do everything you know differently.  You may have to take a job that you feel is beneath you, but at least it’s income.  Be open to suggestions and criticism, respectfully.  The person who is telling you something might be 20 or 40 years older than you, and just might know something that will help you through the hard times.  You may not be eating the quality or quantity of food you like or wish.  You may be wearing clothes that are two years out of style.  You may have to learn how to darn your socks.  I know these things seem silly now, but what if things go bad?  And you are going to hate it having to live in a way that seems foreign to you.  I have sort of lived the way my parents did, but not quite to their extreme.  I am falling back now on everything they taught me, and happy that I know what I do.  But I too do not look forward to really really having to scrape, do without, and make do.  It will be a bit easier for me in the beginning, if everything goes bad, but it won’t make it any happier for me.

16.  But the most important thing to remember, is no one is going to help you. You are on your own.  Don’t expect any handouts from the government, because if you get one, it’s not going to be too much.  Seriously.  Last year’s stimulus was $600.  Exactly how far did that money go?  And don’t expect food stamps.  States are running out of money.  And there probably won’t be soup kitchens like there were in the 1930s, and you really wouldn’t want that soup anyway as it was basically water.  Do not count on help from anyone but yourself.  That is the bottom line.  Only you can look after yourself.  And that is going to be the hardest thing for most people to accept.  And a lot of people are going to be angry, and that is expected and understood.  But remember, it’s not going to be forever.  It’s not going to be that way for the rest of your life.  It may only be two months, or two years, or it may be 10 years, but it won’t be forever.  And you won’t be alone in it all, as just about everyone else will be going through it with you.  It’s just getting through it.

17.  The biggest lines and suggestions I can give you overall is lower your expenses while trying to increase your income.  Ask yourself, do I “need” this or can I “make do” without it? 

Good Luck.

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