Simple Budgeting Tips from the 30s that Help Today

When we think of Grandma, we rarely think about her budgeting tips from the 30s, or whichever era she lived. Every year that passes, it feels as if the cost of living far exceeds our ability to earn enough income to make ends meet.

In today’s society, it often requires the salaries of 2.5 individuals. That gets frustrating when we remember Grandma, and possibly Mom, staying home while Grandpa and Dad went off to work. And they didn’t seem to be hurting at all. So why are we struggling so hard financially?

In most cases, we could possibly be wearing rose-colored glasses on those memories. Grandma and Mom probably smiled a lot, said all the right things, and fed their families well, but more than likely they were behaving like a duck – calm on the surface, but paddling like crazy underneath.

One look at the creative ‘behind the scenes’ budget of any homemaker in the 30s, and you will see exactly how their money was spent.

Average Cost of Living

According to Government Archives, the median yearly income was $1,368. For lower income families, that number dropped to approximately $1,000 to $1,200. From that salary, roughly 32% was spent on housing, and 33.6% spend on food.

With over 65% of their income going to put a roof over their heads and feed their families, most homemakers strived to find ways to stretch those hard-earned dollars.

Budgeting Tips from the 30’s

Surprisingly, most of the ways we find to balance our budgets come from the financial struggles of the past. See how many of these you already do, or if there are a few on the list you would like to try:

a lush vegetable garden


One of the best budgeting tips from the 30s shows how they stretched their money by growing a portion of their food. Depending on the size of their land, they could grow from a few vegetables and herbs to the majority of the food they consumed.

If they lived in an urban area, many cities provided a public green space for what we would now consider a Community Garden. Many folks took advantage of these. In some cases, you would see unemployed men in starched white shirts and slacks hoeing their small plots.

In the 30s, the first glass jars designed for canning was introduced. This allowed homemakers to preserve their harvest and extend their home grown food sources into the fall and winter.

Today, we can grow at least a portion of our food. Whether is is a small, large or even a theme garden, it’s easy. For apartment and condo dwellers, it may mean planting in containers on balconies, roof-top gardens (where permitted) or joining a Community Garden close by.

For those who live in suburban neighborhoods, this may mean tilling up a small space in a sunny location, or incorporating fruit, vegetables and herbs in flowerbeds. For folks with larger yards or in rural communities, the size of the garden is limited only to space and ability to do the work.

Two-In-One Meals

You may remember the delicious flavor of Grandma’s Vegetable Beef Stew or her Meat Loaf. But did you know that those meals probably originated from a roast beef she cooked earlier in the week?

Homemakers learned the fine art of stretching one meal into two or three. Even the leftovers of each meal was used creatively.

With simple meal planning, you can also stretch your food budget. One baked chicken can be stretched into several meals, just using the left overs. And when the chicken is completely gone, you can boil down the bones to make broth or stock. Now that is what I call a frugal stretch of your food budget!

choose to dine outdoors for a pot luck

Pot Lucks

One of the most frugal budgeting tips from the 30s is finding ways to stretch the food budget. This was often done by attending a pot luck. This may have been at a local church, or arranged with a group of neighbors.

Each person would bring one item to share, and everyone could fill a plate with the bounty. It assured folks they could eat at least one meal a week at very little to no cost.

Pot Lucks were also considered a social gathering. It was a cheap form of entertainment, and allowed folks to gather and catch up on the latest news.

Today, pot lucks are still in full force. Our church has one on the first Sunday of the month. One church offers a pot luck for the families who have lost a loved one. Some folks host seasonal pot lucks for their neighbors.

Even today, pot lucks can still serve the same purpose of those in the 30s – an inexpensive way to feed your family, plenty of food, and a great chance to visit and catch up on one another’s lives.

Handcrafts of any kind can be a universal language


In today’s society, making your own clothing may not be as feasible as it once was. Patterns can cost as much as $15.00, with quality fabric costing from $6.99 to $30.00 per yard. With most garments requiring more than one yard – and sometimes as many as 2 to 3, it may be cost prohibitive to make your own clothes.

However, this was one of the budgeting tips from the 30s, and most everyone did it. For one, supply costs were lower than they are now. In some cases, homemakers used flour sacks to make children’s clothing, dish towels, aprons and more. This was considered a ‘freebie’ – the flour or sugar had already been purchased, and the sacks were considered a plus.

In most cases, any clothing that was already owned was mended to stretch its lifespan and prevent new clothing from being purchased. Seams were re-sewn, patches covered holes, buttons replaced and socks were darned.

Many gifts and household items were made by hand. Although by the 30s retail stores had an ample supply, to stretch the household budget these items were continued to be made by hand.

Men often made wooden toys, shelves, and other items from scraps of lumber used for a larger building project. Women made dolls, scarves, clothing and other items.

Aprons were in constant use, and were often made by hand. Quilts were created by using small scraps of clothing that could no longer be mended. Mittens, scarves and smaller blankets for children were knitted or crocheted.

vintage image of a man and woman playing lawn games

Entertainment –

This was the lowest expenditure budgeting tips from the 30s. Where it was a regular pastime in the 20s to go to the movies, attendance declined drastically after the Great Depression.

Instead, folks would gather together with friends or a meal and a game night. Monopoly was new on the market in the 30s, and became a popular past time.

The radio was listened to approximately 4 hours a day. Folks enjoyed listening to Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny, Abbott & Costello, The Lone Ranger, Fireside Chats and more. At one point, Orson Welles program ‘The War of the Worlds’ was so convincing, many people believed Aliens had landed in New Jersey.

Soap Box Derbies were also popular in the 30s. “The idea of the Soap Box Derby® grew out of a photographic assignment of Dayton, Ohio, newsman Myron Scott. He came across a group of boys racing their homemade cars in the summer of 1933, and was so impressed with the event that he acquired a copyright to Soap Box Derby and went in search of a corporate sponsor to establish a national program.” (see History – Soap Box Derby for quote source and more information.)

If you are looking for ways to spend time with your children away from technology and television, tach them how to make their own Derby car. Then challenge other friends and neighbors to do the same, and have your own version of a Soap Box Derby!

a young man playing a ukelele while his dog listens

Pickin’ & Grinnin’

Another one of the favorite budgeting tips from the 30s is the way folks entertained themselves. High on the list was to gather together a group of musically minded friends. Each would bring their own instrument, and together they would make beautiful music.

The music included ballads, Appalachian melodies and some of the current Big Band hits that were popular at the time. Those who couldn’t play usually either kept time to the music by clapping or tapping their toes, or dancing.

simple life dollars and sense ebook

Other Budgeting Tips from the 30s

Use Cash

Most people in the 30s were still a bit distrustful of banks. Consequently they paid cash for everything. Today, we use plastic – either a debit or credit card. Although this is super-convenient, it is also a bit more difficult to stay on budget. We forget to write down a purchase, or it is so small we don’t consider it a necessary amount to keep track of.

By using cash, you are more aware of the amount you have on hand. You can also literally see how quickly it disappears. By using cash, you are more contentious of your spending habits.

Dave Ramsey has re-purposed one of the favorite money-saving budgeting tips from the 30s – the Envelope System. This is where the amount you intend to spend for any budget category or purchase is placed in an envelope. Once the envelope is empty, then theoretically no more of that item can be purchased until the envelope is refilled for the next month.

Live ‘Free’

With money more and more difficult to come by, using some of the budgeting tips from the 30s may help you keep more of it in your pocket.

First, look for any ‘free’ items you may need. Some websites, such as Offer Up have listings for free or inexpensive items just for the taking.  Mulch for your garden may be available for free, if you have a tree trimming company in your area. Bartering is also a great way to get free items.

Learn to buy used. Used cars, clothing and other items can greatly reduce the amount you spend. Traditionally, a brand new car loses its value just by driving it off the lot. On average, a new vehicle drops in value by 15% to 20% each year, from the moment you leave the dealership.

Clothing can be obtained from thrift stores and consignment shops. Many of these carefully review each item and only sell those that are in gently used condition. Consignment shops often send you a small percentage of the sales price once an item has sold. You won’t get rich doing this, but it can add to your income.

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Keep it Close

One of the best money stretching budgeting tips from the 30s is to keep what you have. Maintain your clothing, home, vehicle and technology. Instead of getting the newest, latest, greatest, keep your cellphone for several years. Be honest with yourself – do you really need the newest, latest, and greatest with all the bells and whistles? Or do you just think it would be fun to have?

In many cases, older items are usually built better and designed to last longer. So many products today are created as ‘throw away’ items. In other words, replacement parts – if they can even be found – are usually more expensive than buying new.

This is a strategy many companies are going to in order to keep sales high. With only an exception or two, washing machines and dryers are a perfect example of this. And why do you need a dryer anyway? Learn to hang your clothes on the line, and save even more money with a decrease in energy usage.

Home Budget Worksheet

Did this Help?

Money and finances are one of the top New Year’s goals most people want to make. From making smart choices, to getting organized and designing a budget, there is a lot to learn.

But by taking a bit of time, learning some budgeting tips from the 30s, applying what you have learned and practicing, you can quickly make new financial habits and gain control of your finances in no time.

And now you have learned a few more budgeting tips from the 30s to go along with everything else you learned. And by doing so, you may just appreciate your Grandma’s and Mom’s budgeting tips from the 30s even more!

Need More Help?

If you are ready to get serious about controlling your finances, here are a few things that may help:

Simple Life Dollars & ‘Sense’ eBook – this book is designed to help you learn how to manage your money in easy to read, easy to apply ways

Home Budget – an Excel Spreadsheet designed to help you quickly set up a budget. It includes a ready-made worksheet including formulas for easy calculations

Home Income & Expense Worksheet – take your budget to a deeper level with this easy to use Excel Worksheet

To read more about Managing your Money, don’t miss these posts!

Make a Choice

Get Organized with Notebooks

Basic Finances for Homemakers

Helpful Financial Tools

9 Easy Tips to Save Money

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Julie Murphree is a blogger, newspaper columnist, and speaker on all things ‘Living a Simple Life on the Farm’. She is the author of \\\'The Farm Wife – Living a Simple Life on the Farm. She and her husband have 60 acres in NW Louisiana where they actively work on living as sustainable as possible.

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