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How to Survive (And Thrive) When Money is Tight and Times are Tough

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Being prepared for when times are tough — or a full-on recession — is an exercise in self-reliant living. Getting through tough times — surviving an economic depression or a more personal financial hardship — is easier if you have skills. Learning how to provide for ourselves and learning some essential life skills now can make unexpected rough times easier to manage.

shelves of freshly made bread

I’m not an economist. I am a bit of a worrier, though. Plan for a train wreck, they say, and you’ll be ready for anything.

The next Great Depression might not be looming, but how would your family survive another great depression? If we can learn to thrive on less, downturns will be easier to bear.  With the world in a bit of a turmoil these days, it seems that there’s a lot of worrying going on, and not just in my own head.

Here’s the thing: I find that when I’m worried about something, being able to take positive, substantive action makes me feel like I’m a bit more in control. This is true when speaking about preparing for natural disasters. It’s true for dealing with medical issues. And it’s true when fretting about the economy. When times are tough, actionable steps can help us cope.

Is a recession coming?

Did you know that the times between a recession — called an economic expansion — have never lasted more than a decade in the United States since they’ve been recorded? I did not know this until recently. (There’s a great chart here, though the article is a couple of years old.)

We’re in an expansion period now, and have been for about seven and a half years.

Whether current events cause us to decline quickly into a recession or we stay the usual course, there’s a most certainly a recession in our future. How drastic that recession will be is to be seen, but thinking about how to prepare for a recession now could save you some headaches later. I’m pondering “out loud” not to scare anyone, but rather to get us all thinking about basic survival needs and essential life skills.

I’m hoping that you’ll share your insights and suggestions in the comments below, so we can all learn from one another.

[As an aside: Within days of starting this post I learned of two families I know being hit by job loss. This is not to say ohmygoshwe’reallgonnadie! but to reiterate that we just never know what’s going to happen.]

Getting through tough times

I started wondering about the people who survived the Great Depression. In hindsight, how would they have prepared themselves for such a tough time? If they had known what was coming, what would they have done differently? What did they wish for in the midst of their survival efforts? What would they have deemed mandatory survival needs?

Maybe I’ve been reading too many apocalyptic novels, but these are questions that are concerning me lately.

These days, we’re so conditioned to jump in the car and run to the store whenever we need (or want!) something. What would our world look like if that couldn’t happen? What if we lost our jobs or our savings account disappeared (as happened during the Great Depression)?

When times are tough, there’s no money for fuel, no money for shopping — then what? What if things were even more bleak and began looking more like the Great Depression? Instead of worrying, let’s talk about making some changes to our daily lives and learning some life skills that will benefit us in case of tough economic times.

bowl of red cherry tomatoes being passed from one person to another

Practice NOW for when times are tough

Economists will start by saying the best way to combat tough economic times is to get rid of debt. That’s a great plan, but sometimes it’s not always feasible.

The reason people get into debt in the first place is that they don’t have that kind of money laying around.

While I agree that getting rid of as much debt as you can is a good plan, I’ll leave that to the experts.

Self-reliance as a means for surviving the next recession

I want to talk about how we can set ourselves up to be as self-reliant as possible in situations that strain our resources. These are the items that I’ve come up with so far:

coffee mugs on a grill for survival camping

Related: 40+ Life Skills to Learn

Go camping.

Some of you might laugh, but think about the last power outage you dealt with. There were the people who just took it in stride and there were the people who moaned about it until power was restored. I’d bet you a sandwich that the people who took it in stride had camping experience.

Camping (and I’m not talking generator camping, here) teaches us to get by with less and what our basic survival needs are. Less water for washing dishes, less light in a day, less access to stores. It’s good practice for lean times.

Learn to live without electric light.

In a financial pinch, you’ll want to eliminate any excess expense, and lighting a home after dark is a luxury that isn’t so hard to cut out. Invest now in some good solar lanterns and you won’t have to do without light entirely. Think of it as mood lighting.

rainbow carrots in a white colander, teal backgroundCook at home.

Knowing how to cook simple meals from inexpensive ingredients will serve your bank account well now and help you stretch a meager food budget if you need to. Beans and rice are your friends. Embrace them.

Invest in a pressure cooker if you can. It shortens cooking time, making home cooked meals more feasible for busy families. Another bonus? Tough (less expensive) meat becomes very tender when cooked under pressure.

Stay warm.

You can save on heating costs by turning the heat way down, but you’ll need a plan for staying warm, especially if you live in a really cold climate. Heavy clothing and blankets will serve you well.

Another thing to think about is an alternative source of heat. A wood stove doesn’t require electricity or gas, but you’ll need to identify a source of firewood.

Grow Swiss chard

Related: How to Get Started With Home Canning: Equipment

Grow some food.

In tough economic times every little bit helps, and being able to harvest some of your own food can cut costs. Even if you have no desire to maintain a seasonal garden, plant some fruit trees and perennial vegetables now. Fruit trees can take several years to provide a harvest, but here are a few fruit trees that produce more quickly.

If you do want to dive in and start gardening, even on a small scale, there’s a lot of information here. And be sure to consider calories. A person can’t survive on lettuce alone! Growing food is probably one of the most essential life skills you can learn, and now is probably a good time to embrace the idea of Victory Gardens once again.

green apples in a bucket

Pass on perfection.

Shiny red apples are the norm these days, but it’s not reality. While the perfect apples go to market, the culls — the ones with scars and bruising — end up in applesauce or juice or vinegar. They’re not inedible; they just don’t pass the beauty test.

Knowing how to use less-than-perfect food (limp carrots in soup, dried out bread as bread crumbs, fallen fruit) will save money and broaden our perception of what’s acceptable if “perfect” isn’t an option.

purslane

Learn to forage.

There’s an amazing amount of edible food growing in open spaces and parks and probably your backyard. Learn to identify the edible vegetation. Even if you’re not compelled to use it right now, that knowledge could be incredibly useful if you really need to stretch your food budget.

Plan for menses.

Ladies, this one’s for you. Personal hygiene products are expensive. When money gets tight, who wants to spend it on disposable items that cost a small fortune? Keep a menstrual cup on hand. You might hesitate to adopt this method while you have some disposable income available to you, but in a pinch you’ll be happy to have it.

Earn extra cash.

When pennies count, having a little extra income can help. During the Great Depression, women took in laundry or ironing. I can’t see that happening these days (who irons anymore?) but the idea is still sound and might help you get ahead.

Houses these days are quite large. If you own your home, maybe converting an extra bedroom into a studio apartment makes sense? Offer your skills to people who can use them. Sell some of your garden abundance. Teach a class. All of these will give you a leg up on getting through tough times.

cake in pan with metal spatula

Meet your neighbors.

Take them a cake. Be nice. You never know when you’ll need help and they might be able to offer it. If you need to barter skills, trade abundance, or share tools, your neighbors are a great place to start.

Learn some life skills.

If you’re one of those people who hires a professional when something breaks, it could get interesting very quickly if you no longer have cash to pay a trade person. Try tackling simple repairs yourself so you can learn some basic skills. Learn how to safely operate a drill or a saw on a fun project; if times get tough, you’ll be ahead of the game. Click here for a list of life skills to tackle.

Think about water.

Of course this is a “bleak situation” concern, but what if water stopped flowing from your tap? Do you know where there’s a natural spring? Can you set up a catchment system?

Keep some cash on hand.

During the Great Depression, many people were shut out of their banks, unable to access their money. They had it, but they couldn’t get it. If we dive into really tough economic times, having access to cash can provide some breathing room.

Build up emergency supplies.

Invest a little bit of money each week in building up your pantry to help you get through tough times. If money gets tight, you’ll appreciate having some back up food on hand.

loaves of bread on a shelf, top, homemade pasta below - examples of getting through tough times

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Meet the Author

Kris Bordessa

Kris Bordessa founded Attainable Sustainable as a resource for revitalizing vintage skills. Her book, Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living (National Geographic) offers a collection of projects and recipes to help readers who are working their way to a more fulfilling DIY lifestyle.

39 comments… add one
  • Maridy Feb 20, 2017, 6:15 am

    I love your idea about camping as a way to prepare for disasters. Makes perfect sense.

  • Lynn Apr 2, 2017, 2:10 pm

    This is a great article. After reading I was amazed how much of these things I have already prepared for, but there were a few extra things I need to think about and prepare my home. As I am getting older I really appreciate simpler things and the way to manage with less on retirement income. A note to the younger crowd, life is short and retirement comes faster than you think. I wish I had prepared more financially when I was younger.

    • Heather Aug 17, 2019, 5:41 am

      Me too.

    • Tammy Apr 15, 2020, 7:00 pm

      My husband’s family are Mormons, they have always kept a 1 year supply of food storage, includes material to make cloths, seed packets and jugs of water. They keep 5 gallon containers for sugar flour beans. Just keep a watch on your storage
      , and rotate and use the older items and remember to rotate your freezer
      Ps. Keep an inventory list

  • Linda Daube Sep 21, 2017, 11:27 am

    Thank you so much for posting the excellent “instructions for living”; I am in a very bad place and have no privilege, no financial resources, and nothing of value in this society’s economy. I and my older brother own Mom’s house; we were raised to be problem solvers, cultivators,, crafters, cooks and care givers.
    I would like to add a few suggestions for other homesteaders who are stuck in the urban and suburban areas.
    1. Get involved with your local government; you can start slow, attend the meetings and listen, learn how problems are solved in your community. Research and dig to find the root cause of any problem. I went to the first meetings just curious to know how the rules were made. The questions I asked and comments I made led to joining the planning commission and spending 13 years as their member/secretary.
    2. When you reach out to others to connect with like-minded homesteaders; please keep in mind that a large number of us have trust issues; we’ve been taken advantage of; we have been damaged, psychologically, physically, and financially; we are in need; and we are proud to alive.
    3. Create a community homesteaders network to identify the essential needs of homesteaders then go and help the ones who need it.

  • Wendy Oct 28, 2017, 7:17 am

    Just to validate what you’re saying RE: water … here in Maine, we suffered a severe drought last summer, and a lot of people in my circle had their wells dry up. There were a lot of options – most of them pretty costly, but the result was that folks started 1) thinking about that sort of thing, and 2) being very conservative with their water, if they still had a usable well.

    This past summer, my husband was laid off. When it happened I told him we’d be fine, because “we’ve been preparing for this for ten years.” We were, and we ended up getting a lot of projects around our house completed, including putting down the “free” reclaimed wood floor we’d been planning, but never had time to complete.

    • Kris Bordessa Nov 14, 2017, 8:03 am

      Sometimes it’s situations like this that kick people into gear, no?

  • Ashley Feb 25, 2018, 4:06 pm

    I loved this post! So many great ideas! I have been worried about another recession starting. Me and my husband are planting a garden this spring and I want to learn how to can food. Our main goal right now is paying off debt and buying a house.

    • Kris Bordessa Feb 27, 2018, 10:32 am

      And the best thing? Even if a recession never happens, you’ll be gaining!

  • Suzanne Mar 21, 2018, 5:21 am

    Thanks for sharing these money saving ideas! I agree that paying off debt is the best solution for when times are good.

  • Vanessa Mar 21, 2018, 5:25 am

    This was a great read! I like the idea of camping. It is an affordable family trip and it brings us back to what is really necessary.

  • Pat Apr 15, 2018, 1:15 pm

    I’m a CNA and just lost my job 3 days ago. I was given an extra week of pay, so I cashed that check and tucked it away in a mason jar. It will not be spent unless it is a DIRE emergency!! That being said, I am at peace. I know things will get a bit tight, but I have been putting extra food, toilet paper, etc away for awhile and I will remove some ‘extras’ from the grocery list, that are unnecessary items. I put our garden in just today and since tomorrow the weather is going to be cold and wet, I will be indoors so it’s time to get some projects done that I have had to put off due to working so many hours. So, a few quilts will get their bindings put on, the stockpile of felted wool sweaters will finally be sewn into mittens for the coming winter, and I will get my inventory of my medicinal cabinet made, so I know what we will need to replenish. (last year I inherited a secretary with a china hutch above. I turned it into my medicine cabinet! I have brown boxes marked with their contents (bandages, rubber gloves, antibiotic creams) and I have plenty of room for my essential oils, thermometer, above with the drawers below holding the heating pad, large bed pads, etc). I know it can be scary when one of you loses a job, but if you adjust your spending, DON’T PANIC, and get comfortable with your ‘new normal’, it can turn out to be a blessing! (less gas being used, for starters!!)

    • Kris Bordessa Apr 16, 2018, 4:23 pm

      Love this. You’ve got an excellent attitude and I suspect you’ll thrive!

  • Grace May 17, 2018, 9:53 am

    Hello everyone
    Keeping water is simple just invest in rain gutters and huge tanks to save the rainly water this will save you during harsh/drought conditions.

    • Anne Feb 13, 2019, 9:22 am

      Rain tanks are great, but it is also important to think about filtration of rain tank water. Not only for health issues like giardia, but because after a heavy rain storm you can get a lot of particulates coming into your house water. These particulates can completely mess up the filters on all your washer and dishwasher leading to expensive repair bills.

      • Kris Bordessa Feb 15, 2019, 9:06 am

        Good points!

  • Amy Jul 16, 2018, 11:16 pm

    We moved into our camper in Spet 2016 when I was taken out of work for serious health issues, this was our big hit in the gut. We have learned to minimize and upcycle. My husband already hunted and we process our own meat. My container garden this year was eaten by the chickens, all but the herbs. So we learned to fence the garden with free range chickens. We use propane or open fire to cook. My Instant Pot saves time and space.

    • Kris Bordessa Jul 21, 2018, 8:25 am

      It sounds like you’re doing well! Awesome.

  • Maggi Schrock Nov 4, 2018, 6:46 am

    good info and just good common sense. i have always been a prepper but practice is always good. we had several tornadoes here in tampa friday, lots of trees down, homes damaged, but no injuries. we were without electricity for about 18 hours and i got out my new torches/lanterns. i just ordered rechargeable batteries and a solar charger to go with them. i cant get out to go camping but we have lost electricity 3 times this year….never more than 5-18 hours at a time but it is a great experience.

    • Kris Bordessa Nov 4, 2018, 6:03 pm

      Real power outages are good practice, too!

  • CarolL Feb 15, 2019, 4:19 pm

    RE: Beans and Rice are your friends: not if you are diabetic and trying to avoid carbs! That is my worry: grains, beans, rice, etc.; all the foods used to stretch out other foods are all banned for me as I am diabetic and am not on meds to control it, only diet: no sugar, no carbs, or only tiny amounts of carbs, leaving out most foods! It is hard, but I’m hoping that with this type of control, eventually my body will re-set itself and process insulin correctly and I’ll again be able to consume those items occasionally.

  • Rebecca Mar 6, 2019, 5:19 pm

    Thank you for the great tips.

  • Buzymum Mar 10, 2019, 8:00 am

    Great article! We’ve experienced recession type situation but at personal level, several times. We wonder at times why it seems to hit us so often. Job loss, housing loss, etc. However, we have learned to make do and still be comfortable. We don’t panic when things take a downward spiral anymore. We live daily in preparation for tight times and yet comfortable. As a friend told me the other day, “If I need to find a frugal method, I only need to ask you!” She meant it as a compliment as my family is not strange or stand out different. We have children and they go to public school, we socialize easily, and we don’t appear different. However, as my favorite cashier mentioned one time, we shop very differently! My pantry is stocked with different items than those who live cushy. I’m able to be thankful for the hard times as we have been able to be better prepared for if times ever get really hard again. I hope to be able to help others learn these skills, too. Thank you for sharing!

    • Kris Bordessa Mar 15, 2019, 7:06 am

      Great that you’re passing on your insight!

  • Karla Jul 3, 2019, 6:22 am

    Would you be able to recommend post apocalyptic reading material? Having a hard time finding books like this and I find it so interesting. Great article!

  • Jay Aug 16, 2019, 9:18 pm

    Having lived in a marriage when money was short
    Now the 3 kids & I are on our own we grow “fast food” such as spinach lettuce, peas, cucumbers things that mature fast or cut grow again and don’t take up garden space all year like carrots and spuds – we also grow flowers herbs and vegetables together all in both the front and backyards in great sun & my kids are learning we invest in fruit trees each year to make our suburban yard more productive ( and they will have the food Growing skills when they are older )

  • Lauren Sep 8, 2019, 5:55 am

    YES! I love this! My boyfriend and I are preppers in spirit… making small strides right now and planning for more in the future. We store water in glass bottles in the basement and have some in our cars for emergencies. We have tubs of rice and other grains. We are planning a move in the next year from a 1800 sq ft home to one that is only 650 where we already have several fruit trees and plan to make it a food forest and do some Ruth Stout gardening. Our goal is to be mostly self-sustainable and mostly off-grid a year after moving in. We will have alternative energies, rain collection, food storage, etc. Thankfully, my boyfriend can fix ANYTHING… I’m hoping to learn more from him. We are also both vegans/plant-based and can’t wait to put the walk in our talk. Thank you for this article. I will be sharing it! 🙂

    • Kris Bordessa Sep 13, 2019, 5:21 am

      Love Ruth Stout!

      • Cindy Apr 1, 2020, 5:15 am

        what is Ruth Stout?

        • Kris Bordessa Apr 1, 2020, 4:11 pm

          Who. She’s the author of several books on gardening.

  • Cynthia Sep 30, 2019, 6:03 am

    I loved that you talked about menstrual cups to help women save money. Another great money saver is also buying, or better yet, making reusable daily pads and menstrual pads. As women, I don’t think we quite realize how much our periods nickel and dime us to death, month after month.
    Picking up a used sewing machine and learning how to make simple things like this and even buy clothes from the thrift store and learning how to alter or repair them is a great money saver.

    • Kris Bordessa Oct 2, 2019, 3:51 pm

      Feminine hygiene products are SO expensive!

  • Jane Baker Nov 3, 2019, 9:58 am

    All good points! I would add that everyone should have a library of actual books with information on things we normally google with out phones or computers. I have resources for foraging and recognizing edible/medicinal plants, and how to process them. I also have books on foraging and processing my harvest. Generators are good to have but our economy really goes into the sewer, there won’t be gasoline. Fuel doesn’t store well for very long, although there are gasoline additives that help it keep longer. Having a wood stove AND a wood smoker is a very good idea for heat and preserving meat and fish. Survivors prepare for the worst. Victims hope for the best.
    Nice article!

    • Kris Bordessa Nov 7, 2019, 7:39 pm

      Ah, yes. BOOKS. Love them. 😉

  • Susie Feb 3, 2020, 7:56 pm

    Build a circle of friends/family that is like minded and willing to share. I have spoken to several friends about finding what each one of us is good at growing or cooking & preserving & focusing on that then swapping goods

    • Kris Bordessa Feb 6, 2020, 7:24 am

      Yes, great addition!

  • Rexie Apr 10, 2020, 11:45 am

    Well, those times you posted about are here. I’m so glad that I have all the skills needed to get by in tough times. Though we’re not out of debt, we are definitely working hard to get there.

    Now that the last two generations are seeing and living in these uncertain days, I sure hope it a eye opener to them.

    Great Article….

  • Chris Jun 13, 2020, 1:12 pm

    I have been “setting by” anything that I felt we needed that would be hard to find come disaster- be that financial, weather related, etc for many years now. We moved from a 15 acre farm in South Carolina to a smaller place (10 acres, most of it marshland) in Northern Michigan about 15 months ago. I left 80% give or take, of my preps with our sons when we moved. We have struggled to get caught back up to operational security. My neighbor, who has been very helpful around our house, had to go into the preps room. He asked many questions, and then commented that I was “lucky” to have so much.
    Blessed maybe, but not lucky. I do not own many things that others consider of value, like a huge screen tv, brand new vehicles, new furniture, snow mobiles, 4 wheelers, boats or a fancy phone or house. We did without a lot in order to have what we do in preps.

    As a result, I have no mortgage, plenty to eat, cleaning supplies, grooming and medical supplies and useful household items and clothes. I have manual tools, a wood stove, woods to harvest from, canning supplies, a creek, a happy garden, and a few species of critters to harvest for meat. I planted 6 fruit trees and 9 types of berries and around 20 medicinal plants and herbs so far. We have a long way to go, but we have come a long way too. With Covid-19 and the more recent insanity of potential collapse in our country, I think we are far better off than those with modern, new and/or fancy toys like most I know. Can’t eat ’em, can’t wear ’em, and they sure won’t keep us warm in the crazy temps we have here in the far North. I know this was an older article, but sure is timely now. Prepare NOW so you won’t be in the weeds later. Live in the now, but prepare for a less than abundant future should it arrive. No, I am not lucky- I planned for this. This is not a brag, but a BEG- in these uncertain times, concentrate on that which is important. Peace to all.

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