Surviving a Recession: Lessons From Our Ancestors

Bank failures. Bailouts. Rising unemployment. Stagnant housing market. Economic stimulus package. It seems that every day headlines contain stories about each of these subjects. If there was any lingering doubt before, there is none now. The economic news in the United States is not good.

I’m not going to speculate on how long the bad economy will last, whether an economic stimulus plan will help, or if we’re in a recession at all. None of that matters when it’s your family facing cutbacks and job losses. What matters is what we can do in the here and now. And instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, some of the best ways to survive a recession can be found from our ancestors, who often had very little, but made do with what they had.

Survive a Recession by Doing for Yourself

Our ancestors knew how to do things for themselves. If they needed vegetables, they grew them. When they bought their own patch of land in the wild west, they built their own homes. Meat? They butchered and preserved it themselves.

We’re not in 1800s America anymore, and it’s not even legal to build your own house, unless you’re a contractor. The point is, people in the 1800s were self reliant. They took the time to learn survival skills.

Survival skills today look a lot different than they did back then. Still, becoming a little bit more self sufficient can help your economic bottom line. Do you love organic fresh vegetables, but can’t afford to pay the price? Learn to grow them yourself. Is your grocery budget too high? Learn to cook from scratch.

Instead of assuming you need to pay for something, ask yourself if you could learn to do the job yourself. Sometimes the answer might be no. But sometimes the answer just might be yes. And if you learn, you’ll not only save money, but you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment for learning something new.

Survive a Recession by Connecting with Others

The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of my favorite series of books. I still remember reading about Pa building the Ingalls’ house on the prairie, and he ran out of nails, but couldn’t afford to buy more.

If memory serves correctly, the neighbor offered Pa some nails in exchange for help on his own house. They ended up becoming good friends, and the two families helped each other through difficult times on the prairie.

In our fast paced, internet driven society today, we often lose sight of the fact that personal relationships with others in our community are important. But they are. When push comes to shove, and you need financial help, having a local support system can be a life saver!

For instance, if you need a car repair, but don’t have the money for the repair, you could barter with someone who knows how to fix your car. Bartering is a great way to get things you need, if you don’t have the cash. And at the same time, you can help someone who has a need you can fill.

Teaming up can also help in other ways. If you’re a busy family who is used to eating out when life gets busy, you can cut costs by teaming up with another family or families to cook. If each of you makes one meal, but triples the recipe, you can give portions to your friends and they to you. Then you each have three homemade meals, without the effort of making three meals.

With a few friends and a little creativity, you can make your resources stretch a long way.

Survive a Recession by Simplifying

We live in a fast paced world. Computers. Cell phones. Satellite TV. Multiple cars. Multiple televisions. Big houses. We’ve grown accustomed to all of these things, but are they really necessary?

Trent wrote a great post about this very subject recently at The Simple Dollar. He compared the bills we have today with the bills our parents had. And there’s no surprise here, but we have a lot more bills today than our parents had just one generation ago.

When times are tight, look to see where you can simplify. Satellite TV is nice, but is it necessary? An internet connection is convenient, but do you really need it? We lived for years without cell phones. Do you need one now? I mean really need one?

When your income falls or completely disappears, you need to get back to the basics. If you don’t need it, cut it out if you can’t afford it.

Survive a Recession by Using Your Resources

My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. One thing that has always impressed me about my grandparent’s generation is that they didn’t waste anything. I never saw them throw food out. If a piece of clothing started to fall apart, they mended it, often multiple times, before they replaced it.

Kids clothing was handed down from one child to another. When it wasn’t fit to be worn anymore, it was made into rags, a quilt, or a rug. Yes, my grandparents’ generation knew how to reduce, reuse, and recycle!

When times are tight, we need to have the same attitude. If something breaks, ask yourself if you can fix it. Ask if you have something else that will work in it’s place. Ask if you really need the item at all. Ask if you can borrow it.

So often we convince ourselves we have needs, when those “needs” are really desires. The next time you say you have nothing in your house for dinner, ask if you really have nothing, or if you just don’t have anything that sounds good to you at the moment. See what I mean?

I know none of this sounds easy or fun. And you’re right. Sometimes it’s not either. But when you’re trying to survive tough economic times, when your income has been cut drastically, sometimes you have to do what’s not easy or fun. You’re in survival mode.

None of this is permanent. Once the recession passes (and it will pass), you can lighten up again, reveling in the fact that you survived tough economic times without going further into debt. You’ll appreciate your accomplishment on the other side. I know, because I’ve been there.

Photo by anyjazz65.


By , on Feb 2, 2009
Lynnae McCoy I'm Lynnae, wife of one and stay-at-home mom of two. I'm committed to getting out of debt by being frugal with my choices in life.


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  1. Thrifty Gal:

    Old sheets would not make good towels or rags unless they are 100% cotton WITHOUT the permanent press finish. Same with clothes: a poly or nylon garment wouldn’t work either.

    Don’t forget the value of your time. If you have a paying job, you might consider the value of your non-work time to be the same as that of your work time when considering whether to repair or replace. It might take you x amount of time to repair something, but the dollar value of your time might be more than the the cost to buy a new one. It depends on your priorities. Even if you do not work outside the home–say you are a stay-at-home mom–you might think that spending an hour reading to your kids is more worthwhile than spending that hour repairing torn clothes or curtains.

    I make a good salary but also sometimes work long hours (not my choice), so I personally often choose time over money. Am I going to spend 2 hours repairing a blouse that I can replace with an hour’s worth of salary? Probably not, unless it’s a favorite item. I might feel different about it if I were in a household with someone who didn’t work, if I were a housewife or retiree, or married to one.

    Some things are not repairable. also. Electronics, for instance, are usually not. And things made out of plastic often aren’t either.

    Don’t be nostalgic and assume that our 19th-century ancestors bought their land. Remember homesteading…when the government GAVE land to (white) people after first stealing it from the Indians.

    When times are tough it is easy to romanticize the past. Don’t forget that in “Little House” days and other times past people died of infectious diseases which can be cured or prevented today, and lots of women died in childbirth.

    Don’t get me wrong; I am NOT anti-frugal. I wrap small gifts in pages of old scenic calendars, make grocery lists on the back of junk mail, turn out lights, go to the bargain matinees, take mass transit, etc. I just wanted to remind people that we can get wrapped up in a false nostalgia about our past and also that the cheapest alternative is not necessarily the best.

  2. Beau:

    Our ancestors definitely had it a bit more difficult than we did. As such they had to learn survival skills that we do not have to today.

    With that said it is nice to hear about people starting community gardens and such. The more self sufficient you are the better off you are.

    People tend buy beyond their means and stay stuck in the machine. The more tightly you are attached to the machine the worse recessions and other economic down turns will affect you.

  3. Pat:

    My parents both grew up during the Great Depression, and as a result, they were VERY frugal adults. While I was growing up, nothing was tossed in the trash unless it absolutely could not be re-used in some form. (I laughingly tell people that I was recycling before the word was invented!)

    My mom took bedsheets that were too worn to be used on the bed and cut out the good portions, hemmed them and used them as kitchen towels, dust or cleaning cloths. When a bath towel became frayed, she cut off the frayed portion, hemmed it, and it went back into service. When towels were beyond reuse as towels, they were turned into cleaning cloths, or they went to my father, who used them for grease rags in his auto repair shop.

    Clothing was never thrown away; it was mended, given to others if it was too small, or turned into grease rags if it was beyond mending. When an article of clothing was condemmed to the “grease rag” stage, all buttons were carefully removed and stashed in Mom’s “button can” to be reused on future articles of clothing.

    If mom caught you tossing a piece of aluminum foil or a plastic bag that had been used only once, her wrath was upon you. She took each sheet of foil, smoothed it out and folded it neatly for re-use. The same was true for plastic bags.

    When my dad serviced our car, the old fan belt and air filter were stashed in the trunk as “backups” in case we had a breakdown on the road. He also salvaged every nut, bolt and screw from repair jobs, which went into his supply bin for re-use on future jobs.

    All of these things were pretty frustrating to me as a child, but when I look back, I realize that they did make me a better person.

    Even though I’m financially independent, I think twice before I actually make a purchase, regardless of the price.. (Even if an item is “on sale” or “clearance priced”, it is still wasted money if you rarely use the item.)

    I don’t toss clothing; instead, I give it to a local shelter for abused families. While this isn’t saving me any money, it is providing help to others who need it.

    Instead of tossing bottles, jars, paper and plastic into the trash can, I send them to the recycling center. Again, this doesn’t save me money, but it does contribute to saving the environment.

    There are some things my parents did that I don’t, but I try to do what I can to live frugally and help other people and our environment.

    I do find it ironic that, not that long ago, careful spending and re-using items was often called “cheap.” But now, in light of the current economic state, these same practices are considered “frugal” and “necessary to survive.”

  4. joebob:

    In corvallis we started a sustainability organization which came from our well-off community wanting to be green, but I always thought the real value would come when the depression starts, which it seems to have. I view the recession as a chance to move towards a better world with all the pain that is coming. With a town of 50K which includes the student at OSU our real town of maybe 30K has had 500 plus at our several community town hall meetings on sustainability.
    We have an organization that started using a local currency called Hours which is sure expand.

    I offer a website I found several months back about a small town in Texas and some of their history during the Depression that was uncovered and very worth a look at.


    if that doesnt work you can search on google with texas across the fence fdr depression and it will come up near the top and is called “Depression 1934” – gives some history of a cannery set up with federal money that returned one half what was brought to it canned and kept the other half for distribution or sale and gave jobs to the residence of the city.

    That is what we need to do – set up organizations and take care of our community and help and exchange with other communities. To entertain our selves with local talent and occasional outsiders like the Big Band era where bands traveled around on buses and played in school gyms with set up table and candles and a turning mirror ball….which i used to laugh at when i was young but now realize what they ment to the communities……..

  5. cln56:

    My Dad grew up in the depression, said their dinners consisted of mostly MONO meals, meaning just that one item for dinner: fried potatoes w/ onions, cherry cobbler, pot of beans & cornbread, oatmeal etc. When I mean MONO, I mean thats all they had, but plenty of it. Of course they grew their veggies and got some from relatives that had farms etc. People now a days dont know how to eat cheap, they think of chips, lunchmeat sandwiches, crap like that, not healthy cheap: carrots, beans, cornbread, oatmeal etc

  6. In difficult times like this, it’s really important to know how to balance and save money. One of the most important lesson my grand mother told me is not to throw away anything, if it’s still usable. It really depends on how people view their needs to wants.

  7. Lisa:

    I am always amazed at how people can turn wants into needs in their minds. I view “needs” as being what is necessary to keep body and soul together–nutritious food, shelter, health, clean water.

    I understand that some people need things such as cell phones and internet connections to do their jobs which pays for the needs. But, by and large,(and with the exception of certain medicines) how can something that didn’t even exist 30 or so years ago be a true need?

    Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong with having some of the wants. I have quite a few of them myself. It just seems silly, and limiting. To label them as needs.

    My favorite quote is an old aboriginal saying: “The more you know, the less you need.”

  8. We just addressed some of these items on our blog as well. We got together with a friend that was skilled in an area we needed in order to repair something that otherwise would have cost hundred’s of dollars to replace. Everyone has special talents and abilities so it makes sense to help friends and ask for their help when you need it.

  9. mimi:

    I liked your post a lot. Something I’m doing with friends is getting together each season and swapping clothes that either don’t fit or that we’re sick of. It’s like getting new clothes without buying anything!


  10. Michelle H.:

    Great post! I loved “Little House” series too – we can learn a lot from Pa & Ma and all our parents, and grandparents too! My parents grew up in the Great Depression and I remember my mother saying they had a little rhyme “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!”

  11. I agree absolutely! We need to acquire the skills we need to get by – I have seen it in my hubby who would want to toss something, whereas I thought it could be mended! My mother taught the girls to cook and sew and was a great role model because she did almost all of the household maintenance herself! She learned how to keep the original furnace of their 50’s house going by watching what the servicemen did and asking a lot of questions. It’s a great way to learn. I fix whatever I can myself – and only then, if it is impossible, do I turn to a professional or give up! I am a city girl and can’t say I have ever grown vegetables – but you know, I know I could if it came to that!

  12. You are so right. You do what you have to do and are in survival mode during difficult times. When my hubby was out of work many years ago we cut way down and learned to know the difference between a need and a want. You learned to do without and you survive it. I know that I could do it again if I had to.

  13. Justin:

    Spot on! It’s truly amazing how many people in our society have absolutely zero clue when is comes to repairing something on their own. Why not utilize some of the current tools that our ancestors didn’t have such as the internet and learn how to become more efficient? If you want learn how to grow something, it’s pretty simple, “Google” it and you will have pages of knowledge.
    Clearly times are different and society isn’t the same today versus when our ancestors lived, however sometimes learning from the past makes for a smoother future!

  14. Great post! When my father in law was young on the farm. His father bought him a wheel barrel for Christmas. When planting season came it was used for work.Can you imagine the kids of today with a gift like that.

  15. I’ve been thinking about bartering tax services with people. Not sure if I actually will, but it’s fun to see you mention it as advice here.

  16. Ruth:

    Hi! Love your blog, Lynnae, and this is another great post! Right before I read this, I was thinking about what a shame it is (and how ironic!) that so many Home Economics/Family Life Science and Industrial Tech-type classes are being cut from high schools, at least here in the Midwest. I learned to garden and cook from scratch from my mom, which is far cheaper and more nutritious than so many convenience foods available today. Many of my classmates learned that and skills like sewing and mending, building furniture, basic household repair etc. at school. If today’s kids aren’t learning these skills at school or from their parents, I feel they are less likely to ever learn them. (Unless they find SuperMom’s blog!) Does that mean that future generations will be less able to be truly frugal?

    Also, I liked Frugal Dad’s comment about the recession having a lesser impact on those of us who have always lived frugally. We are thinking of taking advantage by replacing our 10-year-old car with no air conditioning with a newer model that someone can’t wait to give us a good deal on!

  17. marci:

    You’ve hit almost all the nails on the head here – I can only think of one more…. Survive by changing your attitude! From “Woe is me”, to “I can do it!”

    While I’m fairly frugal and down to earth already, I will be working on more canning skills and a bigger garden this year, altho I grew more than I could eat last year! :) But there’s family to share with, and I have the time to do it and grandkids to help with the weeding!!!

    Great post, Lynnae – one of your best ever I would say! Thanks! Now if you could just get everyone to read it!!!

  18. People are often amazed with the number of skills that my husband and I shared between us, ones that are considered old-time skills, but to us are just common sense every day skills. For me: cooking, sewing, knitting, crocheting, gardening, canning, chopping wood, raising chickens… just to name a few. For my husband: cooking, woodworking, basic vehicle and small engine repairs, gardening, felling trees and chopping wood… again just to name a few. Now not all of these skills are being used in our current living situation, but the skills are there should circumstances change.

    We’ve always kept a stockpile of food staples. We’ve kept our life fairly simple… adopted new technology only if it makes sense to add it to our lives. We have cellphones but basic ones. We have one TV, but certainly not the latest model. Same thing with our computers.

    And perhaps most importantly, we have passed these skills on to our children. And I know I may sound like a proud mama… but I think they are more prepared for what’s ahead than many of their peers. In fact, it was through encouragement from our children that I started my homemaking blog. It’s a way that I can pass on some of these skills to others who didn’t have the opportunity to learn them.

    I think that’s one of the greatest things about the internet. We can have our virtual “quilting” bees and pass on our knowledge to others and in turn learn new things from them.

  19. Lynnae:

    That’s a very good addition, Marci! Having a good attitude is extremely important. When I talked to my grandparents about their childhoods during the depression, I don’t recall them being depressed about it. Instead I heard of the antics they shared with their siblings and how much fun they had. Attitude is important for sure.

  20. Linda Duty:

    Its amazing how life has come full circle. My Mom made our clothes, canned fruit and vegatables, reused and all that. My Dad grew a huge garden. I’m dating myself here. We didnt have indoor plumbing until I was 12. And yet we never considered ourselves poor. Our elders are laughing at us. We should have listen to the older folks. Thank You,Linda

  21. AngelSong:

    Great post! If more people took this to heart, it could save a lot of money and help build relationships with neighbors at the same time. We lived in an apartment for seven years before we bought our home (and in other apartments before that one). We did not know our neighbors well enough to say more than a quick hello, if that. Since we bought our home, we have become friends with several of our neighbors, and we do what we can to help them out just as they help us when they can.

    I began getting a small taste of self-sufficiency when I decided to stop buying commercial household cleaners and make my own. I love doing it myself, and mine work better with less toxicity. I have physical limitations that prevent me from making all but the simplest home repairs, but you can bet I am always reading to learn how to do what I can for myself. My grandmothers and great grandmothers routinely baked their own bread, made their own clothing (and then recycled the worn out clothing into beautiful patchwork quilts, made with the help of friends and neighbors at quilting bees). If they could not make it or grow it, they did without. And they survived. So can we, by learning to do things ourselves. I would love to see a rebirth of some of those tried and true skills that are fast becoming lost arts.

  22. Rebecca:

    My mom grew up poor and I think a lot of the frugality that I have is a result of learning from her as I grew up. I think I’m quite self-reliant as a woman and am proud of myself for that. Great post!

  23. Excellent post! It is a great reminder that we could all be a little more self-sufficient, even in times when we don’t have to be. Perhaps this is why recessions don’t impact frugal people as much as others–they are already used to doing more with less.

  24. This post is right on the money!

    People today would be lost if the supermarket ran out of food– which by some estimates would happen in three days.

    Do-it-yourself? Ha! People have lost the skills and seem to have no interest in learning, let alone doing!

    People that hear that I process my own firewood to offset my heating bills, cook top quality meals at home, grow my own veggies, sweep my own chimney, repair my own cars (to a point), etc., etc., etc. look at me like I have three heads when they hear that I do.

    I have a co-worker who couldn’t change his own car battery– it’s turning two screws . . . helpless!

    God help these people if a natural or other disaster disrupts their comfortable lives for a few days or a week . . .

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I'm just an average mom, trying to live a frugal life and get out of debt. I write about things that have (and haven't) worked to improve my family's financial situation. What works for me may or may not work for you, and you should always consult a financial advisor before making important financial decisions.

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