This isn’t your grandparents’ recession.

Editor’s note: A version of this post (written by me) originally appeared on MSN Money’s Smart Spending blog.

When the going gets tough, it’s tempting to invoke our grandparents and their tribulations during the Great Depression.

I’m about to commit cultural heresy: A lot of their advice wouldn’t help us.

My paternal grandparents, who were 17 and 18 when they married in 1935, knew an awful lot about living on an awful little. They’d make most of us modern frugalists look like Rockefellers.

But allow me to point out an irritating fact: The world was different then. When you look at our grandparents’ lives in context, you’ll see that it was easier to manage on relatively little. Not more comfortable, or more fun – just easier.

We can’t all raise pigs

Let me be clear on this: I am not saying that the Depression generation couldn’t teach us a thing or two. Advice on topics like sewing, scratch cooking and home repair could be of great use.

But some of their advice just wouldn’t fit the reality of many Americans’ lives. For example, not all of us have the physical space (or the zoning) to grow a garden or raise pigs. We’re limited to what we can buy in the store, and basic food prices are soaring.

If a child outgrew his shoes during the Depression, his parents might have simply slit open the ends. His toes would stick out, but it sure beat having them pinched all day. Or he might have gone to school barefoot. These days, either solution would warrant a visit from the Division of Family and Children’s Services.

Maybe your grandfather walked three miles to work to save a nickel streetcar fare. Good for him. But that simply wouldn’t be safe in many areas today, especially for a lone woman. Besides, many people live very, very far from their workplaces because of the way our cities and suburbs have developed.

If the family did have a vehicle and it broke down, likely either Grandpa or a great-uncle could fix it. Modern cars have computerized innards that daunt most shade-tree mechanics.

And what about car insurance? Or homeowners insurance, private mortgage insurance, health insurance – do you think Grandma and Grandpa spent thousands of dollars on these each year? Burial insurance, maybe.

White gravy and grimy shirts

Our notions of minimum comfort have changed, too. I’m not talking about the way some people can’t seem to live without cable TV or a smartphone. I’m talking about our love for things like frequent showers, clean laundry and balanced diets.

Laundry and baths were harder to manage back then; my Aunt Dot remembers carrying water from a stream two miles away when their cistern went dry. Bear in mind, though, that laundry and baths might not have happened as often. It wasn’t unusual to bathe just once a week and “wash up” in between, or to wear the same clothes for several days. Today’s water and sewer bills reflect daily showers (and maybe daily hair-washings) plus the laundering of all those towels plus seven outfits per person per week.

Don’t forget to add in the cost of electricity or gas to heat the bathwater and to run the washer, dryer and clothes iron – or for that matter, the costs of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, deodorant, razors, shaving gel, facial moisturizer, lotion, laundry soap and fabric softener.

Food back then was a simpler proposition, too: You ate what you had. If you were poor and all you had was flour and lard, you’d eat a lot of biscuits and white gravy. Imagine implementing that menu for days on end in modern times. The same DCFS worker who nagged you about your barefoot kid would return, and your kids would probably be with her when she left.

But that probably wouldn’t happen, because now we can charge our groceries. Besides, a lot of people don’t know how to make biscuits – and a lot of people are afraid of lard.

There’s no comparison

Again: I am not saying that we couldn’t learn a lot from our elders. But I think it’s facile and even a little dangerous to get too pious about how our grandparents coped with the Great Depression, and why can’t we seem to handle an economic downturn.

Their world was just too different. It was harsher in some ways, such as the fact that if the bank failed you’d never see your money again. But a number of social and cultural pressures that we now face didn’t exist in the 1930s.

You weren’t automatically expected to go to college, let alone go into crushing debt to pay for it. Working with your hands was an honorable way to make a living, and there were plenty of factories hiring. You weren’t considered a failure if you didn’t have a home of your own by the time you were 30.

Besides, underneath all those collective, sepia-toned Great Depression memories lie some pretty unpleasant realities: malnutrition, poor sanitation, a lack of medical care, institutionalized oppression. Homes were foreclosed upon back then, too. Some men deserted their families because they couldn’t provide for them; some committed suicide for the same reason.

There’s plenty to be learned by reading about the Great Depression, especially oral histories of the folks who lived through it. But please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that (a) we’ve become soft and lazy and can’t take a little adversity or (b) that things were “better” back then because people pitched in and made do.

There’s truth in both statements. Some people today consider it a sacrifice just to give up going to restaurants, and some folks back then were desperately poor but still fairly happy. But the fact remains that today some people are in big trouble not because they’re lazy, but because of complex personal, local, national and global economic issues.

Don’t over-romanticize the past, either. Americans have a tendency to wax nostalgic about simpler times. They were simple, all right: A simple matter of national heritage could keep you out of the running for a good job. A simple sniffle could lead to pneumonia and almost certain death. And simply put, nobody wants to be the kid whose toes stick out of his shoes.

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  1. Well stated and thought provoking. Thanks!

  2. Another great article!! =)

  3. Your article raises so many good points, and it also makes people like me feel better about our situations. You’re right in that we are all at least partly responsible for our financial status, but on the other hand there are several things that are beyond our control. For example, many people look down on people with graduate degrees for working minimum-wage jobs; what they don’t realize is that because I haven’t completed my Ph.D. yet, I’m not eligible for most full-time teaching jobs that pay regular salaries. And even the adjunct positions are very difficult to get, because the number of these positions that are available are dwarfed by the number of people competing for them. Even though I don’t like working low-paying jobs, at the same time I view it as being honest work that helps me to make ends meet. I view it as paying dues, in the hopes that eventually I’ll one day have the luxury of having one full-time job that pays me enough to live on.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Neurotic Workaholic: There is definitely a sneer in some people’s voices when they talk about how they’d never take a job “flipping burgers.” Or they view retail et al. as a fate worse than death.
      Honestly? I don’t want to do either job myself. They’re hard and thankless. But I’d do them if my current jobs went away.
      I can’t imagine how you balance doctoral studies/dissertation writing with work. I had enough trouble managing my part-time jobs with a plain old bachelor of arts degree. My mortarboard is off to you, friend.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  4. Mollymouser

    Nicely done 🙂

  5. Thanks for writing this Donna.

  6. Insightful comments as always.

  7. Reta Davis

    You are so right again, Donna. Right on. The “good ole days” were certainly not as good as remembered. It amazes me when I think about the changes my 90+ yr -old clients have seen. It is a way different world we live in now.

  8. Caroline


  9. @Neurotic Workaholic: I still remember one professor’s sneer when I mentioned that it took me six years to get my undergrad because I went part time and worked during the school year (as well as two jobs each summer) – his comment? “Sometimes education is more important than money”. Um, yeah, and sometimes having money for rent, food and tuition is more important that carrying a full course load!

    @Donna – I always chuckle when people wax nostalgic about the past. My father’s parents got married in the 1920s, had children in the 30s and 40s (six in all), and were both raised on farms. My grandmother grew up in Ontario, while my grandfather (born in the 1890s), was born in Ontario, moved to a farm in Manitoba, then to one in Saskatchewan, and then back to Ontario as a young man. He lived most of his childhood on the Saskatchewan farm – think North Dakota, but further north.

    His parents left the farm every winter to work even further north on the logging camps, leaving the children (the oldest a teenager) alone to run the farm and the house. It was this money that kept the farm going. None of the children went past grade 6 in school – there was too much work to do on the farm. As an adult, after marrying, my grandparents lived in northern Ontario, literally in the back of nowhere, where my grandfather worked as a guide for hunters and fishers. There were no roads to the cabin they lived in, so, when my grandmother figured she was close to giving birth, she’d hop in the canoe, paddle downstream to town, and work at the hospital for her board and care until she gave birth. Then, back in the canoe, back to the cabin.

    Seriously, when they moved to the Niagara area, and my grandfather got a job in construction? They couldn’t have been happier. A regular paycheque, running water and inside plumbing, hospitals and doctors reachable by car, and glory of glories – a GROCERY STORE!

    Sure, they had a large garden and fruits trees, and my grandmother cooked from scratch and canned, and my grandfather built the garage completely from scrap, but they NEVER would have thought their younger years were ideal, and never would have wanted any of their descendants to live as they had.

  10. This is a very good post. Although my grandparents never suffered during the depression (my grandfather had a good job), they were frugal in ways that I can still emulate. I miss them. I wish I had paid more attention. But you are right. Things are very different today.

  11. Once again, a very impressive piece. I’m so lucky to know you!

  12. Thanks, Donna. It frustrates me when people talk about the grand ol’ Great Depression, and now I know why. You’re so smart!

  13. Catseye

    A good friend told me this story about her maternal grandmother. The woman began turning tricks after her husband abandoned the family. One night, she had my friend’s mother treat the knife wounds in her back.
    My maternal grandfather was an alcoholic and gambler who actually had good paying jobs during the Depression but drank and gambled most of the money away. My mom and her siblings frequently went hungry simply because he couldn’t be bothered to buy them food.
    Yeah, let’s hear it for the good old days!

  14. O…M…G… I can’t believe this kind of writing is showing up in a freaking BLOG post. Great, great, great piece! You haven’t hit a nail on the head, lady: you hit a whole fenceful of nails on their heads.

    This is something I’ve often thought about, though not with the clarity expressed here. My parents married just at the start of the Depression. My mother spoke of living for ten days on nothing but pancakes and oranges (they were in California so could get the fruit free or cheap). After a difficult period that entailed having to move back to Texas and in with his brother), she landed a job with the phone company in San Francisco, and they lived on her salary until he was able to get work again.

    Their lives were very different from ours. My father knew how to raise livestock and food crops, but they didn’t, because they lived in cities and he went to sea for a living. We didn’t have a television until 1957. My mother had a wringer washer (and later an obnoxious Bendix front-loader, memories of which make me wonder why on earth anyone would willingly buy a front-loader today) but she never owned a dryer. She didn’t have a dishwasher or a self-cleaning oven until they retired to Sun City in the 1960s, and then they only got the things because the gadgetry came with the house.

    Their needs were not as elaborate as ours, because they didn’t depend on things that we have come to depend on. What we regard as “needs,” they would have regarded as “wants” (or, more likely, as fantasies). Most real necessities didn’t cost anything like what they cost today. And a great deal of housework that’s done today by machines was done, by dint of physical labor, by human beings.

    My father did not have a high-school diploma but he made a good living as a Merchant Marine officer — in those days it was possible to move upward by dint of hard work and native intelligence. My mother had a diploma but could not get a decently paying job because she was a woman — she didn’t think of that as out of the ordinary.

    It’s a brave new world we live in.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Funny: You can’t see me, but I’m blushing. Thanks for your kind words.

  15. average nobody

    yes, I agree with all the comments. Some other things recently came to mind about this.
    Yes in those days you didnt need medical insurance, some doctors would see people on credit, or barter. And in 1940 the average person in the US lived until age 63.
    At least while I can work, I prefer to have medical insurance, thank you very much.
    On the other hand (dont get me started) tying medical insurance to employment by design screws many.

  16. Thanks for the article. It’s hard to imagine life back then (I’m only 24 and I didn’t grow up with much “family” to learn life lessons from)… but by spending more time with my fiance’s family, I’m learning a lot of the things that I wasn’t able to learn from my family… and these are the type of things I can incorporate into my daily living to live off less.

    I love how you mentioned the Pig Situation… because its so true. At my condo complex, i’d be hung alive if I ever tried to raise Chickens on my balcony… but back then, someone would have already been doing it and having pleanty of eggs to add to their diet… instead of paying $1.99 a dozen at a good price at the store.

    So instead, my fiance and I take the things we CAN learn from previous generations and we make our own granite disinfecting cleaner, and we “refill” the swifer solution bottle with a homemade floor cleaner… and we make our own bread and bake and cook from scratch as a hobby to fill time, but to also make sure we aren’t buying more processed junk either. I’d rather feed my fiance homemade cookies (with simple ingrediants that I can pronounce then buy something with a 5 year shelf life and ingrediants I cannot attempt to utter for the life of me.)

  17. This is a wonderful post and something my husband and I “discuss” all the time. We live in a remote, rural area. When he grew up here, his dad farmed and his mom was able to do much of her shopping here in the local small town of 2,000. There were- at that time- dry goods stores, bakeries, meat markets, furniture stores, and a host of other types of establishments that pre-dated the era of Walmart, back when many small towns were still vibrant and thriving. As my husband grew up, the small town life that he had grown up with began to change. Now, as we have lived in this same small area while raising our kids over the past twenty years, he gets frustrated with me at how often I have to drive to the “big city” that is 45 minutes away. But the same town that once held a variety of establishments while he was growing up now holds….just about nothing. We have a tiny grocery store that is WAY overpriced, a gas station, a dollar store that sells mostly junk and a few staples and…..that’s IT!!!! My life is nowhere NEAR the same as the one he knew growing up, and I have found it extremely difficult to raise a family in these circumstances. Most people assume that because we live in a rural area things would be easier, but even in these rural areas, there are mostly just corporate-type farms that exist alongside the modern lifestyle that exists everywhere else. My husband is very skilled, and we have a large garden and do a lot of things ourself, etc., but you would be amazed at how we are completely in the minority among the people in this area. I think the answer is to always, no matter what era you live in, do the best you can with the circumstances that present themselves, and figure out the most economical way to live during those times. We are BIG proponents of teaching our kids life skills, and as many homemaking and agrarian skills as possible, but even saying that, they are still going to have to make their way in a modern life where those kinds of skills are going to be difficult to practice. Wonderful post!

  18. With the largest majority in the Unites States on welfare and government assistance, then yeah, no, this recession of 2008 is not the same as the Great Depression. Yeah, duh?

    But what is going to happen to all those people sucking on the government’s tit when they go belly up and declare bankruptcy? We’ve got a boatload of people in America who don’t even know how to shine their own shoes. They just sit around and wait for that government handout.

    You’re right. This is not my grandmothers recession. It’s WORSE than my grandmother’s time. At least SHE knew how to do things. All you have done in this post is spew out more excuses to not be self-sufficent, which is what is entirely wrong with this country.

    And the fact that your readers praise you and call this post a ‘masterpiece’ proves my analogy.

    You people better hunt down your parents and grandparents and find out what to do because you are going to be hit with the greatest rise in inflation the likes of you have ever seen. This recession is worse than the 1970’s (when we ate dog food and waited on long gas lines) and the Great Depression of 1929.

    If you’ve been evicted, lost your job, had your car repossessed, lost your home to foreclosure, WTF do you care about indoor plumbing or advances in health care? You are still going to be malnurished, hot showers will be few and far between and you’ll be reduced to nothing more than a traveling vagabond, just like in the movie
    “‘Grapes of Wrath.”

    Wake up, Americans! I found this post to be shameful, misleading and a disgrace.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Alicia: If you’ll re-read the post, you’ll see that I note some of our grandparents’ advice is very useful. But I stand by my assertion that some of the advice won’t work. “Grow a garden” if you live in a place where there’s no way this can happen? Useless. “Cook bean soup from scratch,” on the other hand, would be a huge money-saver.
      My point is that you can’t compare the two eras because they are so utterly different. That is not the same thing as making excuses for a lack of self-sufficiency.
      Incidentally: “The Grapes of Wrath” was a book before it was a movie. If you take time to read it, you’ll see that Mr. Steinbeck tends to agree with me. And I with him.
      Thanks for leaving a comment, however choleric.

  19. Donna,
    The fact that you used the word ‘choleric’ proves to me you are nothing more than an elitist. What era was Mr. Steinbeck comparing the Great Depression of 1929 to? Of course no one era can ever be as the same as another era. That’s a given.

    As to growing a garden, I don’t care where you live, there’s a window somewhere. People can grow their own herbs, for pete’s sake! Or use a heat lamp! Don’t they grow vegetables in space ships as experiments? We’re not ALL helpless.

    For you mindless readers:
    * You are a born leader, dynamic and active and have a compulsive need for change.
    * You often feel that you must correct wrongs.
    * You are strong-willed and decisive, independent and self-sufficient.
    * You are not easily discouraged and can be unemotional when necessary.
    * You are capable of running anything and exude confidence.
    * You are an expert in exerting sound leadership, establishing goals and able to motivate the family in to action.
    * You always know the right answer and organize the household.
    * You are very goal oriented, see the whole picture and organize well.
    * You seek practical solutions to problems and move quickly to action.
    * You delegate work but insist on productivity.
    * You make the goals, stimulate activity and thrive on opposition.
    * You have little need for friends and will work for group activity.
    * You often lead from the front, organize and are usually right.
    * You excel during emergencies.

    Your personality weaknesses

    * You can be bossy and impatient.
    * You are quick tempered, can’t relax and can be too impetuous.
    * You enjoy controversy and arguments and won’t give up when losing.
    * You can come on too strong, are inflexible and uncomplimentary.
    * You dislike tears and emotions and are generally unsympathetic.
    * You tend to over dominate, are too busy for your family and will often give answers too quickly.
    * You are impatient with poor performance and won’t let children relax if you have any. You are likely to send them in to depression.
    * You have little tolerance for mistakes, however, you don’t analyze details yourself, are bored by trivia and can often make rash decisions.
    * You can be rude and tactless and often manipulate people.
    * You are demanding of others and believe that the end justifies the means.
    * Work may become the driving force in your life and you demand loyalty in the ranks.
    * You tend to use people and dominate others.
    * You make decisions on other people’s behalf and you know everything.
    * You can do everything better, are too independent and are overly possessive of friends and mate.
    * You can’t say your sorry and, although you may often be right, you can become unpopular.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Alicia: You’re wrong. I’m not an elitist. I’m a person who loves words.
      It would take a little too much time to go into my background here, but you could get an abbreviated version by reading “Why I’m writing, and why you should read it”:
      Not sure where you got that definition of “choleric.” Mine came from my old Webster’s: “easily angered; quick-tempered.”
      It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

  20. Mirabel

    Hi Donna,

    Can you stand one more story about growing up in hard times? My grandparents’ farm in South Carolina was foreclosed on (illegally, as it turns out) right after WWI, and my dad grew up as a tenant sharecropper. Grandpa farmed, but did not own his land. They moved every few years, trying to get a better deal.

    My dad tells me the closest he ever heard his parents come to an argument was when some neighbors wanted to help the family, and my grandma was upset that her husband would even consider “taking charity”.

    Dad grew up appreciating every possession he had, which was not much, and turned into a generous, giving person.

    As I follow your writing, you seem like you were cut from this same cloth. All that, plus you have a way with words. Congratulations, and keep up the good work.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Mirabel: Thanks for that story. Some people have a hard time accepting help. I’d rather give it than get it, myself.
      Thanks, too, for your kind words, and for reading Surviving and Thriving.

  21. Donna,
    Thanks for the link. You just keep proving my point more and more. Your $12,000 a year that you used to live on came from alimony an school grants. You still did NOT work for it. You got the greatest handouts of all.
    So, let’s hold the hankies, why don’t we?
    My husband and I live on $24,000 a year and we EARN it. Nobody hands us a thing. Because we are self-employed we do not qualify for any government assistance yet we pay our taxes dutifully.
    If you want to see an actual comparison of American’s past life during the ‘good old days’ to today, watch a re-run of ‘It’s A Wonderful life’ with Jimmy Stewart. You show me where life at that time is any different than what it is today?
    Homeowners are still struggling against the big bad banks, our current Mr. Potter is Ben Bernanke, unions are still trying to control the lives of the ‘little people.’ Maybe the cars look a little bit different, but you can still today change your own oil, do a tune up. You can still fix a flat, change tires, do your own brake job. If you are handy, you don’t pile on the electronics. You buy the basic appliances, without all the gizmos and do your own maintenance.
    That’s what my husband and I do. We drive, good, dependable Fords! I have a basic washer and dryer. We are fooled into thinking we need those fancy front loading, jazzy machines. Ditto for the dishwasher and the refrigerator. One improvement, you didn’t mention, cars today are better than the days of George Bailey. A new car, and then an extended warranty can cover you for 100,000 miles. Stop buying used cars and you’ll see your bottom line improve.
    But then again, how would you know that? You ride a bus.

    Sorry, Donna, nothing has changed in America since the 1929 Depression. People still want the same things now as they did before: a job, a home, a family, respect and love. Perhaps if we indeed follow EVERYTHING our elders tell us, we all can once again claim our heritage. Standing around, waiting for a handout, will get you nothing, in the end.

    This post encourages waiting on a government to bail you out.

    Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

    Your post was preposterous. And a disservice to your readers. We do NOT have things better than before. We’re all still in the same old hole.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Alicia: I’m not going to get into a pissing match with you about the complicated legal reasons for alimony and the difficulties of winning a three-year scholarship in one’s late 40s. Suffice it to say that those monies were not “handouts.”
      I will, however, point out that at the time I was in school I cobbled together a living with jobs such as managing an apartment building (which for two years also meant cleaning it), doing work-study (a very physical job, in my particular case), freelance writing, medical studies and babysitting. I needed every penny I could get for rent (my own and my disabled adult daughter’s), car insurance (needed reliable transport — a Chevy, by the way — for my daughter), food, utilities and feeble attempts at paying off my divorce-related debt.
      I worked. I worked damned hard.
      What’s amusing is that you say we’re “fooled” into thinking we need fancy stuff. Sorry to say this, but you’re actually agreeing with me. This is the sort of thing I write about all the time: Living intentionally and remembering that we’re being fed a heavily consumerist philosophy in this country — and that we buy into that philosophy, so to speak, when we go into credit-card debt for stuff we don’t need.
      Still not sure where I encouraged people to wait for a government bailout, though.

  22. Alicia – one doesn’t have to spend life so miserably. There are drugs available to help you with irritability. Donna makes some good points and always tries to inspire others to live purposefully. Take what you can from any blog and move on. There is no prize for belittling the author.

    For what it’s worth, you too, can have the scholarship “handout” Donna was so blessed to receive. But, be prepared to work damned hard for it. Getting a scholarship is difficult – especially the larger ones. I am envious of Donna for her ability. I paid my way through both undergraduate and two graduate degrees. All while being a mother (single most of the time) working full time. Do I make a lot of money – no, am I being supported by a husband – no, am I on the “government’s tit” – no, do I/did I get alimony or maintenance – no, do I have family that paid for education – no. I did it myself. Self-sufficiency goes way beyond raising a pig or growing herbs in the window. Self-sufficiency is knowing no matter what you will survive by adjusting and moving forward. There is no need to accept your lot in life if it doesn’t work for you – there are always opportunities for change. But, you have to be willing to change and work extremely hard. For what it’s worth – you have solid computer skills I suggest you try an online school for further education. Who knows, you might even qualify for a scholarship or better yet, with your income you might qualify for one of the government tit grants. Best of luck to you.

    • I usually just lurk but I’ve got to say – well put Susan! As I read her posts, I was thinking what an angry woman Alicia seems to be. Perhaps its all that hard work from trying to live so simply? I wonder, if this blog so offends her, why she doesn’t just go elsewhere instead of trying to brow beat the author. It’s fine to voice a differing opinion, but to go on and on trying to prove yours is the only, right way is tiring. There is something out there for everyone Alicia – go in peace.

  23. Harry Martin

    Such great insight that I had never read before. Thank you!

  24. Glad to have found your site. New twitter follower!

  25. Kathy King

    So glad to have found this site!! I’ve loved your writing on MSN Money….keep up the good work!!

  26. I agree totally and shake my head when people romanticize the “good old days”.

    My grandparents and great-grandparents were not well off by any means. My dad’s parents in particular as they weren’t allowed to go to school past 8th grade so they could start earning money to help the family.

    My life is so cushy comparatively and in just two generations.

  27. Working Sister

    I just found this piece and hope it isn’t too late to add my two cents -just that I’m forwarding this to my brother and his wife, two college-educated professionals. He’s been unemployed and/or underemployed since the economy broke. She refuses to go to work. Their family eats from the foodbank. They complain: the tuna from there is chunk light, not solid white. They make you take too much peanut butter and blocks of processed cheese.

    Meanwhile, neither will “flip burgers” or be appreciative of what assistance they do get.

    I’m so glad my parents ignored my pleas to go to college and that I learned steno.

    And Happy Mother’s Day!!!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Working Sister: Thanks for weighing in. I hope that it helps your brother and sister-in-law. At this point, I would hope they’d take a job, any job, to help make ends meet. They probably aren’t thinking ahead, i.e., what about retirement savings and Social Security? This is the time to be thinking about both, while they’re still relatively young.
      I’m glad you have a job. If I read your letter correctly, you didn’t go to college even though you wanted to go but at least have a useful job skill. Keep in mind that college may still be an option. I went for one year and then had to drop out, and also had a salable skill (learned to type in the fourth grade, believe it or not — my mom, a secretary, taught all of us), so I was able to support myself. I finally went back to college in my late 40s and graduated at 52. Don’t write it off completely, even if it doesn’t feel possible at the moment. Just sayin’.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment. (And for sharing the link!)

  28. SoulandGrace

    Hey Donna,

    Great article, I love your writing style. Congratulations on going back to school in your 40s. That takes a lot of guts. I am 25 and I don’t feel like things are harder than they were “back then”, just different. Every decade has its different challenges. I own my home (or at least am working towards it) and have a pretty good job but I know what its like to struggle. My boyfriend was laid off for quite a long time and he took whatever side or part time job he could get to pay the bills. There is absolutely no shame in taking a “hamburger flipping job” if it means providing for your family.

    I am going to follow your blog. I like what I am reading.

    By the way, you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone. People who carry such negativity in their lives are only hurting themselves.

    • Donna Freedman

      @SoulAndGrace: Thanks for your kind words, and congratulations on paying on your home at such a young age. You must have a lot of determination. Tell your boyfriend that I think he’s a keeper.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  29. cheapcat

    It seems like Alicia didn’t really comprehend the point of Donna’s p0st. Where exactly did she say to wait for the government to bail you out? I think she was just comparing the reality of life today to that in 1929.
    My father was born to parents who made it through the Great Depression. My grandfather planted a huge garden & my grandmother canned & froze vegetables & baked nearly everything else from scratch. My grandparents didn’t have Tupperware or Rubbermaid, they reused glass jars & later plastic ice cream & Cool Whip containers. My grandmother didn’t buy plastic ziploc bags, she saved bread bags & twist ties. Gram really did think sliced bread was amazing! She didn’t have to hurt her arthritic hands kneading the dough & it didn’t make a mess on the counter because it was already sliced.
    When my parents were loking for a house all my dad cared about was the land; it had to be big enough for a garden like Grandpa’s. Dad still has a huge garden, Mom & Dad still can tomatoes & freeze vegetables for winter. They use plastic containers from sliced ham instead of Cool Whip containers, and they do buy ziploc freezer bags so everything will last longer. It takes about an acre and a lot of time to grow enough vegetables to last through the winter.
    I’m not sure how many people have the land, time and energy to really be self-sufficient in that way.

  30. Falicia

    Love it. Completely agree. Everytime I say anything like this around my town, it’s blastphamy. Two thumbs up!

  31. I never even thought about all this but it’s true. Government regulations and the crunch to wring every last dime out of us is the worst it’s been since the Queen ruled over our forefathers. I think taxes, insurances and licenses tap out 50% of a new business’ income and all the comforts we take as necessities (showers and cleanliness for instance) do kick up the cost of being alive. I was homeless (and working full-time) for 18 months. The biggest costs for me were gas and repairs for the van/home, food and cleanliness so I could keep my job. I now have a garden and an efficiency, but no room for pigs and it’s daunting to eek out enough tomatoes for salads, let alone enough food to sustain me year-round! Our grandparents were definitely made of much sterner stuff!

  32. Good old days? Financially romantic? Puhleeze. Only if you didn’t live back then. My grandma did, and we heard our share of stories about how they did without, made do and fixed up so they could keep going. We could all make do with learning from those days, but there’s nothing romantic about them. Sensible and down-to-earth, definitely. There’s a lot to be said for old-fashioned, without saying how wonderful it was (when it wasn’t).

    Thought-provoking as always, Donna!

  33. got to read it because of Tour de personal finance, great write up, voting for you

    • Donna Freedman

      @SB: Thanks for your kind comment — and your vote. 🙂

  34. Zerlina

    Thanks for the post Donna. Iv’e been reading you for years on MSN Money. Glad I finally found your blog. You hit the nail right on the head: our challenges are different than theirs given how complex our society is right now.

    In my spare time (read SECOND job), I review books for a living. I also buy and sell used books. Recently, I came across several books with the themes of starting a business or earning money part time to supplement your income. Many of these ideas wouldn’t even fly today. Thanks to the internet and technology!
    Burger flipping? Heck yes I’d do it if I had to. I was in the grocery store yesterday and the gentleman in front of me was remarking to his friend that between foods stamps and unemployment, he was pulling down the equivalent of $600 a week. “And, it’s all free!” Gee must be nice buddy. Where’s my thank you card? Have you ever read Nickle And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America by Barbara Ehrenreich?

    As to growing your own food, great if you can do it cost effectively. I can’t. I tried. It cost me more to try and grow tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce, and herbs, than it would have to buy organic at the grocery store. I now have a box of fruits and veggies delivered by a CSA farmer for $17/week which I split with a friend and her family. I can’t grow it for that. I wish I had read William Alexander’s The $64 Tomato before I tried growing veggies and fruits – in a draught. Now, I prefer to support local farmers.

    What I got out of the article, was that those of the great depression had their own challenges and solutions. And, we will have ours. One isn’t necessarily BETTER than the other – just different.

    Oh, and for the record, my dad DID raise turkeys when he was in school (during the dression). He knew he couldn’t make alot of money from just selling them individually. His solution? He raffled them.

  35. Zerlina

    Oops. Sorry about the typos. That should be I’ve and depression. I’m typing on a very old laptop that is misssing keys. But, what the heck? It’s paid for and it works. LOL

  36. Donna Polofsky

    This is the first blog I have ever been on! I really like it. May I add my two-cents? (Thanks)

    Both Donna and Alicia have very interesting things to say and while their style of presenting them is different, I’m hearing pretty much the same message. I think our country hasn’t seen the worst. We need clear thinkers such as Donna (and, Alicia) who rally us to believe in ourselves and that we can steer through rough rapids.

    Talking about the old days. My grandmother gave me one piece of advise when I got married. She said, “Donna Jeanne, ALWAYS keep a sack of potatoes and a sack of onions on hand. You will have the makings of a delicious meal.” I’ve eaten at the finest restaurants in the world and I am anything but frugal even when I am pretty much broke. To this day, there is nothing more delicious to me than fried potatoes and onions, and a bit of fresh parsley from my summer garden (It’s just a big pot of basil and parsley on my back step….hee hee.). It IS good to find joy in simple things. Thank you, Donna, for sharing your story. You are quite the gal.

    BTW, I took the test for Mensa and passed with the lowest allowable score. I would never join. Who wants to be the dummy in the group? LOL

  37. Well, I’m coming late to this, on the “long tail…”. Just wanted to say a few things. First, congratulations, Donna, on going back to school and paying for so much of it yourself, between scholarships & jobs – all while caring for & supporting a disabled daughter. I worked my way through school too – 3 degrees, actually, all of which I needed for my profession (I am now the director of an academic library). I did it on time & without a penny of debt or a penny from my family, which I left at 18. I got a scholarship that paid public college tuition & books, but other than that, it was a combination of multiple jobs, working in co-ops for lower rent & discounted food, participating in psychology studies for $10-20 a pop, etc. But I couldn’t have done it if I’d had a dependent. I was married for 2 of the 3 degrees (still am), but my husband was a student too, and was on his own at age 16. He did as I did – worked like crazy, at anything available. Kids – you can get through college without crippling debt, but it is not easy. Second, thank you for doing this blog. I’d read your work on MSN Money, but didn’t know about your blog, for some reason. I’m very glad to find it, and I’ll be reading it!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Rosa: Thanks for sharing your story. It’s harder to get through school without debt than it used to be, but you’re right — it’s not impossible.
      I appreciate your kind words, and hope you keep reading and commenting.

  38. factchecker

    What Donna is saying is just a reflection of how times have changed,
    its no different than folks who grew up in third world countries which may have been former colonies of folks on plantations,
    in fact many folks would probably not believe that donna wrote this,
    after all many folks look down on poor folks, calling them lazy, and referencing “hard work” as folks did on the farm.

    It is true that we have more opportunities than folks had back then,
    but its not an equal bearing standard, for instance migration from rural to urban areas means food choices and struggles are different
    it also means that failure back then was more imminent, such as people only living in their 40s, childbirth deaths, and lack of modern medicine including modern dental care or prevention.

    So contrary to alice’s point about donna being self righteous.

  39. Robin

    >A simple matter of national heritage could keep you out of the running for a good job<

    Good point that many people often forget. My grandmaother said the if you were of Irish descent you could only hope to be hired at Bank of America or Hibernia Bank. The rest said no Irish need apply.

  40. Wish I had some family stories about the depression but my great grandfather worked making hemp ropes for ships so my family was always well off. If you have any more stories I would love to read them.


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