5 Forgotten Frugal Strategies — and How to Resurrect Them

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Our grandparents and great-grandparents knew how to stretch a buck. Maybe it's time to look back to find our way forward.

As a kid, did you roll your eyes at the lengths your grandparents and great-grandparents 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.

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

1. Mending

My aunt, who will turn 82 this year, always used to darn her husband’s worn 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 time-consuming by today’s standards, but her strategy doubled the life of my uncle’s work shirts and saved her family money.

With the high cost of clothing, maybe it’s time to rediscover this lost art. A few classes in hand sewing or a couple of lessons on a secondhand machine could help you stretch the life of your clothes — and stretch your budget.

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, but it was also a source of pride and a major source of food.

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.

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 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? Share your tips in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

Stacy Johnson

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