Money-Saving Lessons From a Depression-Era Dad

Money Stash

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Lessons in Frugality

There was a time when being frugal meant you were smart — you weren't cheap, you were savvy. It was a natural side effect of living through the Great Depression and World War II, says Jeanette Pavini, author of "The Joy of Saving." The book aims to teach 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 skills of her Italian-American father, Galdo Pavini, who survived the Depression, as well as wisdom gleaned from 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: Things We Can Learn From the Great Depression

Follow the 50-30-20 Rule
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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." This observation — one of the book's opening quotes from Galdo Pavini — couldn't be more true. 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 did not believe in paying someone else interest and fees is an understatement," Jeanette Pavini writes. "He didn't want his money to end up in anyone else's pocket for no reason, and neither should you." Saving was a top priority, not an afterthought once all the spending had been done. 

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Groceries on Sale

Slash Your Grocery Bill

In the Pavini 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 $1,301 a month on groceries. That's about $15,600 annually. You can reduce food costs dramatically with four simple steps: Build your weekly menu around what's on sale at your grocer; 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% a month, Pavini says.

Related: 52 Smart Ways to Slash Your Food Budget

Bananas on Sale

Find Produce-Aisle Savings

Yet another way to save on your grocery bill: Stick with in-season items. "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," Pavini writes.

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

Discount Code

Find Discounts When Shopping Online

Online shopping became a way of life during the coronavirus pandemic. 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 coupon codes on everything from travel and wine to clothing and sports gear by simply doing a quick Google search.

Related: Insider Tips and Secrets for Frugal Online Shopping

Family Hike

Plan Cheap Family Fun

Growing up in Galdo Pavini’s 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. Jeanette Pavini suggests that’s possible today. For inspiration, try developing a calendar that you fill with cheap entertainment options the same way you would fill a professional business calendar with activities. Check out community event listings, which typically list low-cost options, and 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. 

Furniture Flea Market

Decorating on a Dime

Those who lived through the Depression knew how to stretch a dollar even on home furnishings. One way to save money on decorating and 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," Pavini writes. "Search online for reuse or recycling centers to find stores like this near you." 

Secondhand Furniture

Skip the Big Department Stores

To shave even more from a decorating budget, peruse 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, Pavini writes. 

Overstock Furniture

Save on Home-Office Gear

With millions of Americans 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: searching for home office furnishings at a 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. Asked why he wouldn't buy another, Galdo would respond: "This one still holds my pants up." We may not need as much clothing as we think we do. The average U.S. household spends nearly $1,900 annually on clothing and related services such as cleaning and tailoring (and some spend far more), Pavini writes. To scale back, shop consignment stores, social media consignment groups, and thrift stores, as well as bidding such as 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.

Sale Sign

Watch for Price Adjustments

Another favorite money-saving tip of Pavini's is keeping your eyes peeled for price adjustments on recently bought 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." 


Save Money on Prescriptions

Like the cost of health insurance, prescription prices are always increasing. In a tip not from Galdo Pavini but from Jeanette Pavini's years as a consumer reporter, she suggests signing up for GoodRx, which "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." As a bonus, GoodRx provides you with a drug savings card that can be used at a local pharmacy for discounts of as much as 80% on prescription drugs. Galdo Pavini would have approved.

Related: Reduce Your Health Care Costs With These Expert Tips for Seniors