Money Stash
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images CC

Money-Saving Lessons From a Depression-Era Dad

View Slideshow
Money Stash
H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images CC

Lessons in Frugality

There was a time when being frugal meant you were smart. You weren't cheap, you were savvy. That attitude and approach to life was a natural side effect of living through the Great Depression and World War II, says Jeanette Pavini, author of the new book,"The Joy of Saving," which aims to teach us the money-saving approach to life practiced by the Greatest Generation, Americans who learned to live with food shortages and rationing, record job losses, and a devastated economy. Pavini's book is based in part on the values and timeless skills of her Italian-American father, Galdo Pavini, who survived the Depression, but also wisdom gleaned from her two decades as a consumer reporter, covering everything from budget grocery shopping to home decorating for less. Here are Pavini's tips for being Depression-era frugal, with a modern spin.

Related: 12 Things We Can Learn From the Great Depression

Follow the 50-30-20 Rule
focal point/shutterstock

Saving Will Save You

"In my day you would earn a quarter, spend 20 cents and save a nickel. Your generation spends the quarter and then borrows another quarter at 25% interest." One of the book's opening quotes from Galdo Pavini, this observation couldn't be more true of life in America today. The takeaway: Galdo and many in his generation used credit cards only if they were prepared to pay the balance in full when the bill came due. "To say he (Galdo) did not believe in paying someone else interest and fees is an understatement," writes Jeanette Pavini. "He didn't want his money to end up in anyone else's pocket for no reason, and neither should you." Key message: Saving was a top priority for Galdo and his peers, not an afterthought once all the spending had been done. 

Related: 32 Credit Card Mistakes You're Probably Making

Groceries on Sale

How to Slash Your Grocery Bill

In Pavini's family, it was considered a crime to buy groceries that weren't on sale or to shop without coupons. These days, the average family of four spends between $1,111 and $1301 a month on groceries. That equates to about $15,600 annually. But you can dramatically reduce food costs with four simple steps, says Pavini: Build your weekly menu around what's on sale at your grocery store; join the grocery store's loyalty programs; use coupons to add to your savings; and make it a point to ask for rain checks if sale items you want are out of stock. Following these rules will cut your grocery bill by 35 to 40 percent a month, promises Pavini.

Related: 52 Smart Ways to Slash Your Food Budget

Bananas on Sale

How to Find Produce-Aisle Savings

Yet another way to save on your grocery bill is to stick with in-season items, says Pavini. "Thanks to modern technology and speedy shipping, grocers can stock just about anything, any time of year. But it's going to cost you to eat asparagus in the fall or berries in the winter. Know your produce seasons and shop accordingly," writes Pavini.

Related: Eat Seasonal and Save: When to Buy Fresh Produce Year-Round

Discount Code

Find Discounts When Shopping Online

Who isn't spending a lot of time shopping online these days? Amid COVID-19, online shopping has become a way of life. Pavini's modern spin on her family's tried-and-true couponing habit? "Do not make any online purchases without checking for a coupon or promo code," she writes. "It only takes a minute to do, and the potential savings will be well worth your time." Pavini says you can find thousands of coupon codes on everything from travel and wine to clothing and sports gear by simply conducting a quick Google search.

Related: 16 Insider Tips and Secrets for Frugal Online Shopping

Family Hike

Plan Cheap Family Fun

Growing up in the Pavini household, there wasn't a lot of pricey family entertainment. Life was focused on the simple pleasures — kids played outdoors in the neighborhood and used their imagination to come up with fun activities. Pavini suggests the same approach is possible today. But if you need inspiration, try developing a dedicated calendar that you fill with cheap entertainment options in the same way you would fill a professional business calendar with activities. To help with this, check-out local community event listings, which typically list low-cost options. You might also look to the calendars of local colleges and universities that often host free concerts, talks, and hands-on activities for kids. "Just pencil in the possibilities and soon you'll have many days' worth of activities at your fingertips," she writes.


Related: 20 Fun Ways to Get Outdoors as a Family for Cheap

Furniture Flea Market

Decorating on a Dime

Those who lived through the Depression knew how to stretch a dollar, even when it came to home furnishings. One of the best ways to save money on your decorating budget, and also help save the environment, is to seek out salvage stores that sell objects from homes that have been remodeled. "There are a wide variety of salvage stores these days. Some take anything, others are focused on different times like the Victorian or Colonial eras," writes Pavini. "Search online for reuse or recycling centers to find stores like this near you."

Related: 20 Cheap Home Decorating Ideas for Tight Budgets

Secondhand Furniture

Skip the Big Department Stores

Want to shave even more expense from your decorating budget? Peruse the offerings on social media marketplaces or Etsy for creative bargains. You might also consider consignment stores where the quality is generally high but the prices are far more competitive than a brand name store, writes Pavini.

Related: Buy These 24 Things Secondhand to Save Big

Overstock Furniture

Save on Home-Office Gear

Now that millions of Americans are suddenly working from home, the creation of home offices has become essential. Here, too, it's possible to save big with a thrifty-Depression-era approach to life. Pavini's tip on this front is searching for home office furnishings at your local county surplus warehouse. "These stores sell used government office equipment," she writes. "Chairs, desks, file cabinets, calculators, lamps — just about everything you would need in an office, and at low prices." When she originally did a story about one of these surplus warehouses as a young reporter, Pavini scored a desk, chair, computer, calculator, and file cabinet for less than $160.

Related: How Working From Home Long-Term Will Save You Money

Second Hand Shopping

Build Wardrobes on a Budget

Galdo Pavini had only two belts — one was his dress belt and the other was his everyday belt. When asked why he wouldn't buy another belt, Galdo would respond "This one still holds my pants up." The takeaway for those paying attention is that we may not need new clothing at every turn, or even half of the clothing we think we do. These days, the average American household spends nearly $1,900 annually on clothing and related services like cleaning and tailoring, writes Pavini. (Some spend far more). Want to scale back your fashion budget? Pavini suggests consignment stores, social media consignment groups, and thrift stores, as well bidding sites like eBay. She also proposes hosting clothing swap events during which friends contribute bags of gently used clothing they're willing to trade with each other.

For more great senior living tips, please sign up for our free newsletters.

Sale Sign

Watch for Price Adjustments

Another favorite money saving tip of Pavini's is keeping your eyes peeled for price adjustments on recently purchased clothing. "If you buy something and it goes down in price within a certain period of time (usually 14 days), you can get the difference between what you paid and the new, lower price back," she writes. "All you need to do is save your receipts. Most major department stores have a price adjustment policy. You can also use these adjustments when shopping online. I have saved thousands over my lifetime doing this one thing."

Related: 75 Websites That Can Save You Money in a Recession


Save Money on Prescriptions

One last tip, not from Galdo Pavini but from Jeanette's years as a consumer reporter. Like the cost of health insurance, prescription prices are always increasing these days. Pavini suggests you can score savings on this expense by signing up for GoodRx, an invaluable resource for information on drug prices. "The organization gathers prices from tens of thousands of pharmacies across the U.S. in a database offering up-to-date information about what drugs cost and how you can save," writes Pavini. As an added bonus, GoodRx provides you with a drug savings card that can be used at your local pharmacy for discounts of as much as 80 percent on prescription drugs. Galdo Pavini would have definitely approved.

Related: Reduce Your Healthcare Costs With These Expert Tips for Seniors