12 Things Our Grandparents Lived Without

My grandfather grew up in a rural setting during the Great Depression, and for much of his young life had no running water or electricity. Actually, he jokes that they did have running water–he ran to the well with a bucket and ran back.  During particularly lean summer months, he didn’t even have shoes.

Since my parents divorced when I was a young boy, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents while my mom was busy trying to provide for her and her young son as a single mom with no support. My grandfather shared many stories about his youth; some good ones, and some that made you feel for him and his eight brothers and sisters (and his parents). He often jokes that he doesn’t know why people refer to those times as “the good ol’ days,” because there wasn’t much good about them.

Photo courtesy of DEEJKEOKI

Of course, I cherish these stories and the time spent with my grandparents because they made me the “frugal dad” I am today. When I feel myself pining for a new gadget I think back to stories of my great-grandmother searching the cupboards for a missing dime that meant a can of soup for her kids’ dinner.

We are in tough times these days too, no doubt about it. But those who compare today’s standard of living to the times my grandfather faced, have little appreciation for how hard life was back then.

A visit to an electronics store with my grandfather is always amusing, as he marvels at the advances in technology, particularly the miniaturization of devices. I have to say he’s pretty well connected though, as he owns both a computer and a digital camera (two things he probably couldn’t have even dreamed up as a boy).

We also share a laugh at the things people spend money on to make life seemingly easier. With that in mind, here are a few things our grandparents (or great-grandparents) lived without, but we consider a necessity. As a disclaimer, I’m not advocating that many of these items have not made life easier. In fact, I own or have participated in a few on this list. I’m just making the point that there are many things out there we consider required goods that people got along without for many years, and probably could again in a real crunch.

  • GPS Devices. For me, the jury is still out on GPS devices for your car. I hear about more people arriving late because they took the “GPS directions” than I hear success stories. I don’t know what’s wrong with a road atlas – I just bought a new one from Sams Club for a few dollars. Besides, some of the best discoveries are found when you are lost.
  • Cell Phones. Yes, people can live without a cell phone. In fact, many still do, as hard as that is to imagine. If you are concerned with safety while traveling, consider a prepaid phone and keep it charged. Heck, even a cell phone without a calling plan, but a charged battery, can call 911 in an emergency.
  • Microwaves. I’ve yet to taste anything out of a microwave that tastes as good or better than stove top or grilled. Still, it’s a time saver, and since we all have so little of it these days I suppose it helps.
  • Credit Cards/Debit Cards. The concept of borrowing has been around for centuries, but it has only evolved into plastic over the last century. Speaking of plastic, my grandfather didn’t use an ATM card until he was in his 70’s, instead opting to enter the bank, walk up to the teller and do “business eye-to-eye.”
  • Electronic Book Readers (Kindle). Why would you spend over $400 to read something on a screen the size of a book when you could simply…read a book. They even let you borrow them for a couple weeks at libraries for free. Yes, I know toys like the Kindle do other stuff, but it’s primary role is an electronic book reader.
  • Digital Cable. Even I can remember growing up with seven or eight channels from rabbit ears on top of the television. My grandfather can remember times before television! Imagine getting all of your news and entertainment from a radio, instead of Fox News and MTV.
  • Plasma Televisions. Up until 2004 my grandfather owned a decades old, 27-inch floor model console television.  He eventually got rid of it when the picture began to have problems around the edges, and now has a basic 19-inch screen on a shelf. When I asked him about a plasma screen once he said, “There is nothing wrong with the picture on my screen now. Besides, I’ve heard those plasma things cost as much as a small car.” Indeed.
  • iPods. Pay for a device to store music you had to buy when same music is readily available via the radio for free (and available for purchase on CD). Most of my grandfather’s favorites are on cassettes, and his Sony cassette Walkman serves him just fine.  Over time he has upgraded to CD, since most classical compilations can be found for a couple dollars in the bargain bin.
  • XM Radio. Along the same lines at the iPods, why pay to listen to something that is available for free? I did get an XM satellite receiver for my grandfather’s car he did find one feature worth paying for – no commercials.
  • Xbox, Playstation and Wii. I remember one Christmas while staying with my grandparents I got an Atari 2600 game system. I hooked it up to the television and ran through games like Combat, Frogger and Pole Position. He thought it was interesting enough, but those little game cartridges sure were expensive!
  • Tanning Bed Salons. Why pay to cook your skin when the good Lord shines a sun over your head that does the same?  I’m paraphrasing, but I think I’ve heard close to those same words in response to spying a tanning bed salon.
  • Health Clubs. Why pay to pick up heavy weights and walk on a 10-foot belt that runs underneath your feet? You can get the same workout walking outside, lifting things in the garden, etc.

I wonder what things we’ll make fun of when we get older? What things have not even been invented yet, and are beyond even the most creative imaginations today?  For me the lesson is to think about the things we spend money on to make sure they are a real necessity, while making room for a few wants, too.


  1. It’s amazing how some many of our “needs” are actually no such thing. A great reminder that we could, indeed, live without many of the things we seem to think are vital to our survival. Although, honestly, since the Internet is my livelihood, I couldn’t live without online access…

  2. I agree that some of the things that our grandparents can do without we can still do without them today like Xbox, cable. However items like mobile phone may not be live without items..especially in our family.

  3. I just recently moved to a new city and flippantly remarked, “If I get a GPS, I’ll never learn my way around!”

    I only have 4 of the 12 things on this list. Does that make me a curmudgeonly 35 year old?

    And as for blaming the GPS for being late… that was around long before your grandfather was born. It’s called “passing the buck.”

  4. Interesting list. I could add: power tools, air conditioning/central heating, automobiles, indoor plumbing, pre-cooked foods and more… I have only 3 of the items on your list, and could probably do without one of them (digital cable) without missing a beat. Now that I think about it, I did without a microwave and cell phone for quite a few years, so I could do it again.

  5. What’s the big one here? The one that often times leads into all the others?

    Credit/Debit Cards. How could they every survive on cash? Another great list post. Keep them coming, man!

  6. You had 7 or 8 channels growing up? We had 4 – the 3 networks PBS. I think we started to get Fox when I was in my teens. It was always a toss up between Wheel of Fortune (ick) and M*A*S*H* (which I hated at the time, but love now)

    I use GPS in conjunction with maps. I have utterly no sense of direction because of a cognitive inability to handle spatial relationships (detailed here -> http://www.observingcasually.com/a-mind-laid-bare/ ) and GPS keeps me from getting irretrievably lost and dying of starvation 🙂

    I like iPods for the portability. It’s hard to carry thousands of songs with you in CD format. Both my wife’s iPod and my own were refurbs that were at least a generation old when we bought them – just give me the music, I don’t need “features”.

    When I was a kid, I’d often listen to baseball games on the radio. Unfortunately, I now live in a city that has horrible AM reception. I have to subscribe to MLB audio to pick up the same games that I could listen to for free growing up on the farm 🙁

    I really don’t get Kindle at all. If it cost maybe $50, I might see a benefit, but I’d rather take the $400 and go crazy buying books on half.com.

    One thing is for sure, though – running water = good!

  7. Loved this post and the list. I do think we have a skewed vision of life in these rough economic times as compared with The Great Depression…actually there is NO comparison! I looked over your list and felt pretty good that there is only 1 thing I feel that I rely on and that is the cell phone – I don’t know how our parents managed because I feel like it is a life line to my teen-ager. LOL Guess it is the cell phone or she stays HOME! Thanks for another reality check!

  8. And I only have or have ever used 3 of those things – woe is me 🙂 And the credit card is just for emergencies and online… But the microwave sure is nice (altho I could still live without it), but the boss provides the cell phone and I don’t think he’d like it if I didn’t answer it….. oh…so actually, I myself only own two of those – the Microwave and the credit card 🙂

    Ah Frugal – thy name is Me 🙂

  9. The fact that our grand parents didnot own these exotic and fancy products meant they ahd debt free, cash surplus and happy life. They also did not had both the spouses working and yet never faced any difi=ficulty..today DINKS struggle providing for all these…

  10. I love this post. This kind of perspective inspires me to be frugal. I try to ask myself “how would my parents/grandparents have handled that?”. The answer is usually something simple & free/inexpensive. There are so many “modern conveniences” that we consider “needs” just because they’re so ubiquitous. I’m learning to stop and breathe, and assess what will really make my life easier – a gadget, or un-spent money and less clutter!

  11. @AngelSong: Power tools are a great addition to the list. In fact, my grandfather’s brother was a master carpenter (he’s now in his 90s), and still maintains a collection of many of his old manual tools. To think now we can go around with cordless versions of virtually any power tool is really something!

    @Kosmo: After giving it some thought, perhaps I was being too generous with the channel selection, or I was combining options on the UHF/VHF dials. Either way, I feel old!

  12. I love this list, not necessarily for personal finance reasons, but more for the fact that it challenges the mind to put modern technology into perspective.

    It’s a perfect example of how we do not necessarily need a lot of the things we think we need.

  13. I enjoyed this list a lot, as I do many of your posts, but do have to disagree with your rationale on the gym one. I agree it’s not a necessity, but While many (most) people at the gym don’t work out all that hard and could get the same results outside of the gym, there is no way that walking and gardening can achieve the same results that are possible at the gym. Not that I wouldn’t love it if you could! You have a great blog!

  14. Awesome reminder.

    Our grandparents also lived during a time of innovation……I wonder what their list would have looked like.

    I wonder if their “grateful factor” was higher than ours. I imagine it was.

  15. Another 3-item-lister here, also raised largely by my grandparents. Coincidence? Who knows – but I’m proud to be a 38-year-old frugal grumpus (if that’s what this makes me)! 🙂

  16. Boy, am I ever out of touch. I have only one of the items on the list: a credit card that gets used for car rentals, gas, groceries and such and then paid off at the end of each month. I’ve never actually seen a “kindle” in person although I have played Wii once at a student’s house.

    But I have something none of my students have: pet chickens who live in a cute little house with a yard all their own. The chickens even have their own tree. They give me eggs every day and they sit on my lap to eat out of my hand and to be petted.

  17. Grandparent? Hell I lived without all of it and I am only 43. Except a microwave I had that while growing up.

    My grandfather knew the 12 streets in the city he grew up in. a map was a luxury

  18. I’ve got 4… However, I only use credit cards for the cashback and bonuses which are substantial.

    My “ipod” is a $35 Rockboxed Sansa. The enrichment is worth many, many multiples of its cost.

    I do have a $200 Sony PRS-505 ebook reader. While expensive, it’s one of the best purchases I’ve made in my life… I live out in the sticks and have no adequate library. With this I can access free digital content from libraries all over. Not to mention I can have an ENTIRE LIBRARY in something smaller than a newspaper… I don’t think I can go back to traveling without it.

    Needs? No. But then neither is indoor plumbing a need.

  19. And in these tough economic times, how bad would it be if people lived without these? Of course if everyone cut back the economy would be in a deeper recession. I have not turned on dish tv all week, nor used the cell, nor gps. Microwaves are so cheap now one can get one for about $30 on sale and they use much less energy for heating up things rather than stove top. I use credit cards because they are a modern money saver and convenient. Remember the days of ordering from a magazine and sending in order form and payment and waiting for check/mo to clear before they sent item? Glad those days are over! Don’t have the other things.

  20. 13. Calculators – they actually knew how to do math.
    14. Student Loans – if they went to college, they paid for it outright.
    15. Health Insurance – if they went to the doctor, they paid for it outright.
    16. A car for Junior upon high school graduation – hehe …Junior got a JOB!
    17. Anything disposable – if they bought, they bought quality and fixed the item when it needed repair.
    18. Fancy coffemakers – Ain’t nuthin’ like a percolator!
    19. Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances – where did we go wrong on this one?
    20. Professional landscapers – they did their own yardwork rather than subcontract it out.

    Man, I could go on and on …

  21. My grandfather recently died and he also lived through the depression. He fixed everything himself. He built his own house (still lived in it till he died, now my grandmother lives there.) He also built his own vacation home. He worked hard his whole life and never borrowed any money. My grandmother reuses every tea bag. She also saves all junk mail for scrap paper. They are a true inspiration. They never had cable and do not have a cell phone.

    The funny thing is they had life insurance with the same company like 50 years and one day they got a letter saying they were being increased due to bad credit. They had no credit as they had never borrowed. They quickly got the company to agree to keep there old rates as they were such good customers.

    Now my grandma has money to live off since my grandfather is gone. She is not a burden on anyone.

    They are truely an inspiration to me. I want to leave my kids free from having to foot my bill one day.

  22. Some of your examples derail your arguement. Your grandfather could probably have done without the Sony Walkman too. Why have some fancy electronic device that plays music when you can sing!

    Some of these things, like an iPod, Cellphones, Plasma TVs and debit cards are just recent updates to products. Just try buying a 19″ tube TV these days, or a cassette player, or get cash from a real live bank teller. I admit that I have a cellphone, but I don’t pay for a landline in my house, so I’m saving the cost of phones in every room, answering machines, etc. and my monthly bill is cheaper than I could ever get a home phone for.

    Sometimes an initial investment in technology is the more frugal choice in the long run.

  23. I love this list! It is amazing when you tell people that you don’t have something on this list…they look at you like you’re crazy! My husband and I (were are 24 and 25) don’t have cable, only have one cell phone between us, and no game systems (except the Nintendo he’s had since he was young).

    We don’t even have a toaster…b/c we have a toaster oven that does the same thing 🙂 We just recently got internet b/c my husband is taking online classes for school, but our families just can’t fathom why we wouldn’t have things like internet, cell phones, and cable. It’s interesting also when we tell people we are having a baby and they assume we will get cable…why? Due to the digital conversion we get a 24 hour, commercial free childrens station in addition to about 20 other channels. And why would they assume we’ll just plop junior down in front of the tv all the time anyway? It’s just interesting how different peoples priorities can be (my sister would rather pay her cable bill on her credit card than have to cancel it).

  24. @PDC:

    My husband and I used to use that same argument for keeping our cell phones. When we actually looked into it we were dead wrong. You say you should invest in technology, but people are being held captive by some of these cell phone companies. Inferior phones that need to be replaced aren’t cheap and that is how they keep you in a contract. The better investment is to invest in a decent home phone and pay the minimal fees. Our home phone service is $20/month and we bought a dual receiver phone system with answering machine for less than $80.

  25. And many of our grandparents lived those years without medical care and proper nutrition. Also, as one poster said, the 1920s were an era of innovation much like the preceding decade was. The depression was as much a shock to that generation’s sensibilities as these times are to ours. They didn’t go into tough times any more noble than we have, and it’s tiresome that people imply that they did.

    I accept the argument that a cell phone can be redundant, but there’s also the argument that a cell phone can be in place of a landline. Is a mobile in and of itself such a bad thing?

    Also, the cost of electronic devices has gone down markedly in the past decade. An iPod and a Kindle (of which I own neither) are likely more cost-effective in the long run than buying CDs or books. With an iPod, you’re paying a few dollars for just the music you actually want, and Kindle books are much less expensive than their print counterparts (and better for the environment — no dead trees).

    Sure some of these things are unnecessary, but in some cases they make our lives much more comfortable, and is there really anything so bad about that?

  26. A few more items:

    1. Washing machine and dryer. These didn’t become widespread until after the war.
    2. More than one motor vehicle? Again, our love affair with the automobile really got kicked into high gear after the war and with the development of the interstate highway system.
    3. Stuff that was meant to be fixed when it broke, instead of being tossed and replaced. Most consumer items these days take GM’s infamous tack of “planned obsolescence”.

    You’ll notice that a lot of the items on your list are technology items. I think over time, things like a kindle or other currently high priced technology will come down in price. Remember the first cell phones? Not only where they laughably big and not very portable, they were also expensive. As you note, one can now easily get a cheap prepaid cell phone for occasional use. You see this most dramatically with computers, as they moved from being huge expensive behemoths only purchased by big organizations to relatively cheap ubiquitous items. With technology, the frugal thing to do is never be an early adopter. By and large, electronics get cheaper and more ubiquitous as time goes on.

  27. @Kosmo #6,

    We definitely had 7 channels growing up (and I’m 41). We had 3 major network channels, 1 PBS channel, and 3 UHF channels. I grew up in a Philadelphia suburb so maybe we had more than people in more rural areas. (Channels 3, 6, 10, 12, 17, 29, and 48)

  28. I have five of the items on the list. I still think one of my better purchases was my GPS. Rather than printing out directions to read or looking at a map while driving, my GPS tells me where to go. This allows me to keep an eye on traffic (I’m single, so I’m often in the car alone; if someone else were there to read a map, that might change things). However, could I live without it? Sure.

    And I’d like a digital book reader, just to allow me to more easily take with a couple of books while traveling. One small electronic device takes up less room than three or four books that I’ll probably end up bringing.

  29. One or two years ago, cell phone penetration reached 50% of the human population, meaning 1 in 2 earthlings used one, even across remote and impoverished places such as rural Africa and rural Asia. Landline phone never came to these places, they were far too expensive and were a luxury of the world’s uber-wealthy, a cell phone is much more economical than wiring together every house. Thanks to the cell phone we have democratized communication and hooked up basically all humans to a global network and anybody can talk to anybody in real time – this was science fiction just 2 decades ago. This is much more economically efficient (than e.g. smoke signals), and is profound human advancement.

    ATM’s make the world a much better place because no longer do high paid professionals (or ordinary day laborers) have to stand in line (during office hours!) to get their own money, a whole human being’s full-time labor is no longer wasted doing a job machine can do faster and more accurately, and can instead be dedicated to more creative endeavors. ATM’s are used all over the world, variants of the concept are even used in rural Africa to distribute money because it has been proven to be economically efficient. You can get credit card advance from a bank teller just as easily as from ATM machine, don’t blame to machine if you can’t control your own consumption

    In the long run, paper will be obsolete. The Kindle will be obsolete much sooner, but electronic text (probably over device such as cell phone) is far cheaper and less of an energy natural resource than burden than printing a book and shipping it across the world. This will also have the effect of democratizing information and human knowledge (printed books are currently basically a pastime of the world’s wealthy, the poor cannot afford to buy them), and will profoundly advance the human race much more than Gutenberg ever did.

  30. I was going to add air conditioning, refrigeration (at least as we know it), and indoor plumbing. Looks like someone mentioned a few of these.

  31. It is funny to look at that list and to imagine what life was like before it and what life will be like years from now and how we will react to it. I personally don’t think we will see the same sort of drastic technological changes, just innovations on what exists now.

  32. My grandpa is famous for saying:

    The only thing “good” about the “good ol’e days” is that they are gone! 🙂

    My grandpa grew up on a farm in the middle of the depression. He cant understand why I pay money to eat “duck food” (cottage cheese). It really freaked him out when I showed him my new iPhone – touch screen, all the apps, GPS, etc. He has millions in the bank, but still asks my mom to sew the pockets of the pants he buys at the thrift store for $2, because the ones without holes in the pockets cost $3 😉 And that is exactly why he has the reserve that he does – because he acts as though every penny he spends is his last, so it better be worth buying.

  33. I agree with everything. Even before “our hard times hit” my husband and I have been trying to take life a step back and reduce everything we can. Now I idealize living like Laura Ingalls Wilder in my head, and I’m sure it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, but with two young girls the more I can pull them away from a tv and have time with me I think all the better.

  34. I agree about many of your items, but disagree about MP3 players (not necessarily Ipods.)

    If you own an MP3 player, you can check music CDS and books on CD out of the library, upload them to your MP3 device, and you’re ready to go. It takes up less space and costs less money than buying the music for yourself, plus it’s better for the environment.

    And I’ve purchased a most basic MP3 player for around $10 (and that was 2 years ago), so it’s not as though the cost of the device itself is necessarily prohibitive.

  35. Do we “need” all of the stuff we have today? We can argue both sides.
    Quality of life can be different things to everyone.
    I think video games are useless, but since owning a cell phone, I can pick up extra shifts at work that I would have missed, had I received the message late.

    Seriously we can all just get rid of everything, live on a farm, and grow your own food, and gaze the stars, and whittle sticks for fun!! No thanks.

    True wealth is being able to live life the way you want to live it.

    If I can pay my bills, save for retirement, why not spend 300 bucks on an Iphone? If having it makes me happy and I am still within my means why not?

    As for having millions in the bank, and still sewing buttons on old shirts? If it makes you happy why not, BUT whats the point?

    All that money sitting idle, doing nothing for the economy, and besides…..

    The Brinks truck does NOT follow the hearse. Once you are dead, that’s it folks.

    It;s ok to buy things that you like if it is within your means to purchase.

    Where we go wrong is buying more house than you can afford, and racking up expensive credit card debt, and tapping house equity to pay for it all, banking on permanent home value increases. Sound familiar?

    Why have kids? They cost money, and provide almost zero return on equity. In fact they are a severe liability to one’s finances. Hefty price to pay for simple genetic reproduction.

    Seriously we have kids because we want to have them , and they provide a lifetime of “life”.

    You cant always do things or not do things simply for a dollar value.

    Full disclosure:

    I have no kids, I think Kindles are stupid, as are Iphones. I love my HD digital cable. I have free GPS (it’s called a map I got free from CAA), and i would rather die than not have a microwave.
    I love books, but I borrow them from the library because once they are read and the information has been extracted they become useless.

    Why die with millions in the bank? Pointless.

    My goal is to live within my means, and buy the things that make me happy.
    With any luck, I will die absolutely broke, and the very last check I write will be to the undertaker, and hopefully it will bounce!!

  36. I have to disagree about the Kindle. Even though they did not have these things yet, I think electronic readers are much more useful than books. Not only that, some are able to light on the screen in dark places, they can store more than one book with the book costing usually less than the physical book itself.. The idea of an electronic reader is portability and not having to buy tons of books that just flood your home..and taking time to sell each one.

    Because they didn’t have it back then, most houses like my grandmother’s are stuff with too many books that are wearing and tearing and they end up being tossed in the trash anyway. Just a thought<3

  37. Oh yeah, surprisingly I could live with almost everything on the list. The cellphone is the only one that is a different story.

    It wouldn’t be necessary now if society was like back then (where there weren’t too many muggers, thieves, robbers, murderers, stalkers, etc) Now that crime is high, a cellphone is usually good for emergencies. Other than that.. cellphones are usually reasons why people get jacked and beat up for…. unfortunately.

  38. Great post. I think we like to complicate our lives instead of simplifying.

    However, your reasoning on the iPod is a bit weak. The technology has changed, but buying an iPod is the same thing as buying a Walkman was. Before that, many people did have portable radios so the portable music phenomenon is far from new. As for buying music while it’s available for free on the radio, even during the Great Depression, people managed to buy records.

  39. I can definitely imagine a life without all these gadgets even today. I was born in South East Asia (not going to mention the specifics) – in a village and at that time there was no electricity. No one owned anything – at all. Imagine that – and I’m just barely 25 years old rt now. Here in America there so much and people become spoiled.

  40. Shouldn’t internet access and a personal computer top your list? Surely your grandfather lived without those…

  41. This is such an interesting thread, sometimes the comments section on this blog just takes a life of its own 🙂

    I remember being worried about a friend after not being able to contact her mobile for a few days. When she finally did contact me, she apologized and said she misplaced her phone but didn’t notice until a few days after. I liked that she isn’t as attached/dependent on it as I am.

  42. I enjoyed your post very much. I was wondering if you would mind my posting about this and using your ideas. When I published my post I would give you all the credit. I would like to do this very much and have my friends read about your wonderful grandparents and what they did not have. Thank you for any consideration, please email me and let me know, thanks.

    Margaret Cloud

  43. Interesting article. I agree that we can sometimes spend too much on technology. Many times, though, technology can be well worth it. If a dear senior friend of mine, who was incredibly healthy and incredibly frugal and lived alone, had invested in one of the simple cell phones for senior citizens or a medical alert device, she might still be hale and hearty today. Instead, she had a stroke in her bathroom, and laid there for 3 days until she was found!