The Great Depression Taught My Family These Important Values

My grandparents were only children in the Great Depression, and they learned a lot from their own parents during that difficult time. When they first were married, they had no money at all. They were very, very poor. But they were happy.

These two amazing people taught me many lessons in life — how to be a good person, how to sew, and so much more. I remember watching my grandfather auction off cattle and pigs. Thinking back, it really amazes me how much they taught me without sitting me down. I suppose they led by example.

Of all the lessons they taught me, some stand out more than others, of course. Here are the values I hold close to my heart, all these years later.

1. Don’t waste food

Leftover containers of food in a refrigerator

Save your leftovers. | iStock.com/ joebelanger

I remember going to my grandma’s house and opening the refrigerator, or what my cousins and I often called “the ongoing science experiment.” Inside, you would find containers with a tiny scoop of potatoes or a completely dried out stalk of corn. When we tried to throw them out, she would get upset and tell us we could still eat it (which we never let her do, by the way). Still, it served as a lesson. Don’t throw things out immediately, save it, or have it for dinner the next night.

When it comes to food, make sure you only purchase what you will eat. That way you’ll waste much less.

2. Know your wants versus needs

front of small house

A home is a need, but the fanciest house on the block is probably a want. | HGTV

The needs in your life include food, clothing, shelter and utilities, such as water and power. Your wants are different. You want a cellphone, but you don’t need it.

When we learn to identify our wants and needs, we become wiser about how we spend money. We hold onto it and get what we need. We also allow ourselves the occasional want — but not until our needs have been met. Learning to identify your wants versus your needs is a crucial step in financial planning.

3. Pay with cash

cash drawer

Spend only what you have using cash. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Unfortunately, I forgot this lesson when I was younger. Because of using credit unwisely, I got overwhelmed with debt and turned to bankruptcy for a way out. I then got married, and my husband and I built up more debt and had to dig ourselves out of the hole.

During the time we were paying it off, we switched back to using cash for everything. As a result, we gained better control of our money because it really made us think about how we spent. We didn’t just rush out and get things because we could.

Looking back, I recall my grandparents always using cash, too. In fact, they did not even own a credit card. It was not that they couldn’t get one. They just decided not to. They said if they could not pay for something with cash, then they did not need it. (Not sure where your finances stand? You can view two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

And though they were not rich, when they retired they lived comfortably. They had been wise enough with their spending that they were able to enjoy their retirement. In fact, my grandmother supported herself for many years until she got too ill and had to enter a nursing home.

4. Find joy in simple things

group of children outside looking at a bug they caught in a jar

You can find free sources of joy all around you. | iStock.com

When you ask people what makes them happy, some say it is their house, their car, or even their gadgets. For others, it could be the expensive handbag or new watch they purchased.

When you asked my grandparents this question, their answers were always the same: things that were free. Playing games with the kids. Campouts in the backyard. Having joy doesn’t mean you own a big house. It means you find happiness in the people and things around you. Find your own joy, and don’t rely on things to give it to you.

5. Cook at home

family eating at home around table

Sharing meals brings a family together. | iStock.com

My grandma was an amazing cook. She owned a small cafe in the same building where my grandpa was an auctioneer.

Every Saturday, the cafe would be filled with farmers from all around the area coming in for one of her amazing caramel rolls or cinnamon rolls. When an auction ended, they’d stop in for a good home-cooked meal followed by a slice of Grandma’s award-winning pie.

Then, after a long day of cooking for others, Grandma went home and did it again. There was always a home-cooked meal on the table for her family. She planned her meals and any shopping trips wisely, so she always had what she needed to cook for her kids.

My grandparents did not eat out very often. There was a garden where they grew their own vegetables, and the chickens they raised provided eggs and meat.

While I don’t have a garden or a small farm, I still cook most of our meals at home. I find it not only tastes better but is healthier. The best perk of all is sitting around the dinner table with my kids and having incredible conversations. I can often picture my own grandparents doing the same thing. Sharing a meal really matters.

6. Save for a rainy day

umbrella protecting coins

A savings fund provides peace of mind. | iStock.com/tiero

Nowadays, I don’t call my savings a rainy-day fund but an emergency fund. But the idea is the same. My grandparents always saved a bit of every dollar they made “just in case.” This was money they never touched until they had to. For them, and even our family, having money set aside provides peace of mind. (You can see more smart habits of savers here.)

Though my grandparents are both gone, the values they taught me live on. I am now taking the time to teach these to my own children. I hope that they, too, pass them along to their own kids someday. The 1930s might be in the past, but the lessons learned during that time can still resonate and work today.

This story is an Op-Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.