5 Forgotten Frugal Strategies (and How to Resurrect Them)

Did you ever notice how industrious your grandparents and great-grandparents were? As a kid, did you roll your eyes at the lengths they went to conserve, save, and find new uses for old stuff? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to truly appreciate some of those nearly forgotten frugal strategies embraced by the older members of my family.

With our society’s renewed focus on green living and simplicity, maybe we only need to look a couple of generations back to find our way forward. Here are a few frugal strategies that are worth resurrecting.

1. Mending

My aunt, who will turn 82 this year, always used to darn her husband’s socks and “turn” the collars on his work shirts. “What’s turning?” you ask? I had the same question. You see, when my uncle’s collars became discolored or threadbare from constant wear, my aunt would detach the collar at its seam, turn it over, and reattach. The old, worn-out portion would become the invisible underside and only the pristine portion would show. It sounds not only time-consuming by today’s standards; it sounds like it took some serious know-how with the needle and thread. But her strategy doubled the life of my uncle’s work shirts and no doubt saved her family money.

I can’t remember the last time I mended something, unless resewing a loose button counts. But with the high cost of clothing, maybe it’s time to rediscover this lost art. With a few classes in hand sewing or a couple of lessons on a secondhand machine, I’m sure we could stretch the life of our clothes — and stretch our budgets too.

2. Gardening

My mom and dad planted a big garden every spring when I was a kid. We grew corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and dill year in and year out. It was a lot of work: That ambitious city garden took up an entire vacant residential lot next to our house. But it was a source of pride and a major source of food.

We hauled bushelbaskets full of potatoes to the basement and would use them all winter long. My brother and I sold excess tomatoes and cucumbers to neighbors and friends all over town (organic, local and home-delivered, no less). I know it sounds a bit too bucolic to be real, but it wasn’t that unusual in Iowa to see big family gardens, even as late as the 1970s and ’80s.

The burgeoning lawns-to-gardens movement is re-energizing this old idea of self-sufficient food sourcing. From containers planted with herbs on the balconies of big-city high-rises to neighborhood co-op garden programs, growing our own food is becoming cool again. Maybe it’s time more of us tilled a little spot of soil and tested our green thumbs.

3. Bartering

Bartering is an ancient idea. Exchanging one service for another or trading items for services was a time-tested method of commerce long before cash became our primary way of deal making. In pockets all across America, bartering is making a slow comeback. People are finding new ways to help each other without taxing their wallets.

A good friend of mine helps a salon owner market her business online in exchange for a regular cut and color. Another friend takes care of his neighbor’s lawn in exchange for access to her apple trees in the summer (the landscaper’s wife is a master pie maker).

Our grandparents and great-grandparents would be proud. Bartering is creative, relationship building, direct and often tax-free. What are some ways that you could creatively go cashless and build good will at the same time?

4. Creative reuse

I had a roommate many years ago in Chicago who saved all of his old yogurt containers. I noticed dozens of them stacked in the kitchen when I first moved in and I remember thinking, “This guy either has the healthiest digestive system in the city, or he’s got a problem.” I found out later that he used the containers to start seedlings in the spring. As the starts matured, he’d replant them in the backyard of the apartment building. By summer, the whole place would be green with young herbs, tomato vines and flowers.

This is a simple example of giving new life to an item that would otherwise be fodder for a landfill. But there are countless others. Restaurants turn wine bottles into candleholders, interior decorators transform ornate doors into one-of-a-kind headboards, old tires become classic tree swings. Opportunities for creative reuse are all around us; we just have to look with a little imagination and inspiration.

5. Salvage

Creative reuse starts with salvage. Just a few generations ago, people seemed more attuned to the energy and resources it takes to manufacture goods. As a result, even random and modest items were more greatly valued. Often, folks saved for the sake of saving — with or without a specific future use in mind. From rubber bands to barn boards and from jelly jars to flour sacks, salvage has played an important part in our history — especially during the Great Depression. Maybe the time has come to reclaim a few of those old salvage strategies and weave them into our lives in new ways.

Do you have a favorite frugal strategy that you picked up from an older friend or relative? What new methods of saving and simple living do you teach your own children? Let us know on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Carol

    Don’t forget to visit your local library to save a ton of money! Ours has not just books, but e-books, new release DVDs, CDs and downloadable magazines. Not only are these items free to borrow, but with online ordering you get an e-mail when your title is available. And . . . think of how many tons are kept from the landfill :) This is one tax supported service that everyone should take advantage of.

  • Michyle

    A woman at a Garage Sale gave me this saying:

    Use It UP
    Wear It Out
    Make It Do
    Or Go Without

    Its a saying I have used to my Profit.

  • Deborah Hale

    I used to volunteer in the elementary schools as part of my membership in Master Gardeners (the only requirement of the training to become a Master Gardener was that we “give back” our time in volunteer work), we had a program called “Ready, Set, Grow!” and would go into the individual classrooms to give instruction on how plants grew and would help the kids grow their own plants. (Remember planting seeds in your empty milk cartons from lunch?) I always used a yogurt cup as part of my instruction, to show the kids that you could take apple or lemon seeds and start trees in them rather than have the plastic sit for hundreds of years in a landfill.

  • Elsie Dunlop

    During the 30′s Great Depression, I remember my Mother making mittens from old flannel shirts for six children. And making clothing from feed sacks. Guess a stay-at-home mom would be required, (I worked 30 years and know the problems) but we were cared for.

  • Baileywick

    I only fill up my gas tank twice a year!

  • Sarah A Shunk

    I’ve patched pants for my brothers and chopped the unrepairable jeans into heavy quilt. I’ve reused egg cartons for craft projects and odd containers to hold things in my classroom. I’ve used parts of clothes to make new things from a purse, potholders, quilts, and other items. My mom and grandma were always reusing things. We took old pop bottles and milk jugs and cut off the bottoms to used as plant covers in the garden to protect young plants from the wind.

  • Baileywick

    I save money on phone bills using two empty soup cans and a long piece of string.

  • cybrarian_ca

    I’ve always mended clothes, except for pantyhose – but even with those, if you catch a small hole & cover it with lear nsil polish, you can get more uses out of them. My mother used to mend pantyhose & use the mended, ugly pantyhose as a layer under pants in cold weather (I grew up in Northern Ontario, where minus 30 weather was common in winter).