Surviving Shortages: COVID-19 Tips from the Depression Era
Updated: Apr 3
My parents were older than those of my peers -- older when they got married and older when they had me, their only child. Because they were both children of the Depression Era, I was raised with an awareness of the importance of frugality. You know the old saying: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
As I've gotten older, I have let go of many of the habits of my parents in favor of the convenience of disposability. We live in a world of disposable goods thanks to short supply chains and toys, electronics, and even appliances are meant to last only a season or two before being replaced.
When COVID-19 hysteria swept through the local grocery stores, I did a bit of stocking up -- an extra package of paper towels and toilet paper, nothing crazy. At that time, we thought the worst that could happen was a week or two of quarantine.
Soon, however, it became clear that we would be experiencing shortages and stay-at-home orders for weeks if not months to come and I started to worry. How would I run my home -- a family of four with two dogs and a cat -- without the quick and easy convenience of things that were now unavailable? How could I avoid going to the store every day or dealing with daily grocery deliveries -- especially when half of the items I ordered were out of stock?
I know that I normally only talk about writing and marketing in this space, but I thought it might be helpful to share some of the ways that my family and I are weathering the COVID-19 storm. For those of you who didn't grow up with poor parents from the Depression-era South, I thought I could offer you some advice to save you money if budgets are getting tight out your way.
1. Forget paper towels.
I love paper towels. I wash dishes with them, dry dishes with them, clean my house with them. I think sponges are gross no matter how often you clean or replace them.
Understand, I care about the environment. I know how wasteful my paper towel habit is. I am as ashamed of it as a secret drinker is of her gin breath.
When I realized that none of the home delivery services in my area had paper towels in stock and even Amazon was sold out for the foreseeable future, I ordered a pack of 15 bar towels -- thin, super-absorbent cloths akin to flour sack towels -- and a bottle of old-fashioned, brown Lysol concentrated cleaner.
The towels are great for everything -- drying hands a thousand times a day, cleaning the kitchen, doing dishes -- and because I have plenty I don't have to wash them constantly. I let them air dry, keep them in a separate basket, and wash them every few days with detergent and a capful of Lysol. They come out spotless, sanitized, and ready to go.
Yesterday, my younger daughter said, "I love these towels. I don't have to take out the garbage every five minutes anymore." Wow. I am never going back to paper towels.
2. Cook from scratch.
My mother loved a good boxed cake mix. In fact, I was an adult before I knew how different a cake baked from scratch could taste. But for most other things, she cooked from scratch.
Corn, beans, pickles, preserves -- she gardened or bought fresh from the farmer's market, cooked up huge batches, put them in mason jars or freezer bags, and we feasted for months. She bought produce when it was at the height of freshness and enjoyed the flavor all through the wintertime. (I mean, it was Georgia in winter, so not really cold, but you know what I mean.)
I can't imagine her making biscuits or cornbread from a mix, as I do. She had a variety of recipes for both -- drop biscuits or corn fritters if she was in a hurry, rolled out biscuits or cracklin' cornbread if she was not.
Cooking from scratch sounds intimidating, especially if you are used to using ready-made and convenience foods for most of your meals, but I promise it's not hard. If you need help, look up recipes from Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa); she's known for her straightforward cooking techniques and simple, delicious recipes.
In addition, YouTube is a great resource for learning to cook any type of cuisine for any type of diet. Whether you are vegan or keto or cooking for kids, you'll find someone whose taste and style is right up your alley.
One of the most interesting trends that has come out of this time has been the number of people baking their own bread. I think it's because it makes people feel connected to something simple, something primal even, in the face of something frightening and during a time of profound disconnection and loneliness for so many.
Make bread. Boil a pot of dried beans (soak them overnight first). Learn to make hummus or boeuf bourguignon. Heck, learn how to make your own beer or wine. You've got some time on your hands.
3. Forget fast fashion.
Every day I get an email from my favorite online clothing retailer. I used to open that email every day, checking out the latest additions and looking to see if that blouse I wanted had gone on sale yet. Some days, I just feel like the sale is so good I can't NOT buy something, whether I need it or not.
I work from home. Quarantine life is, basically, my life. I have plenty of clothes for going places, when I go places, which isn't often. Why do I feel so compelled to buy more clothes -- clothes that I really don't need?
Oddly, the current climate has made my interest in clothing drop to zero. There is really no sale so good that it would inspire me to order a new dress or jeans. I don't even open those emails any more (I haven't unsubscribed, though).
Many people have been spending their time at home Marie Kondo-ing their closets and realizing how much stuff they have. People are sharing things they've found in their own homes on social media -- things they didn't even know they had.
One of the worst things we do for the environment, for workers around the world, and for our own pocketbooks is fast fashion. It's the cheap, disposable clothing that you wear for a month or two while it's trending, then throw away, give to Goodwill, or forget about in the back of your closet.
If you go shopping just to "buy yourself a little happy" when you're bored or upset, consider replacing your shopping with a hobby or a workout -- something to give you those endorphins without spending money on clothing that's designed to be obsolete in a few weeks.
Whenever I wanted something new, my frugal mother made me really think about it before she broke out her wallet. There was no such thing as an impulse buy with her. If I wanted something trendy that wouldn't be in style for long, I had to either save up my allowance, wait for my birthday, or learn to sew. (Seriously, my prairie skirt game was on point.)
If you've cleaned out your closet and don't want to end up with a new pile of barely worn clothes next year, consider making more mindful choices when it comes to your wardrobe. Remember that old-fashioned concept? A wardrobe carefully crafted around usefulness and occasions rather than a conglomeration of whatever was on sale at Marshall's?
I'd love to hear what you're doing to make things last a little longer or work a little better out your way. I've been writing about money matters for Inman recently: here's one on ways to prepare for a recession, affordable at-home workouts, and YouTube videos designed to help you learn to cut and style your own hair during the quarantine.
Mostly, I've been thinking about you out there. I know this is a hard time for people in lots of places and professions. Stay strong and take care.