Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without – Frugal inspiration from WWII

Frugality has deep roots, especially in times of scarcity. People have a way of finding ingenious ways to stretch their budget, pantry and wardrobe.

After a friend of mine attended a WWII LARP (Live-action role-play). The tales she had to tell when she came back from what had clearly been an intense even was more than a little inspiring.

WWII hit different people in different ways, but for those who were affected it was pretty clear that the scarcity they endured left lasting impressions which they brought with them for the rest of their lives. 

My nan’s story

My grandmother was only a child when Norway was occupied. She talks little about what she experienced, only uses it as an explanation for why she now loves pink, girly things and collects dolls. It was something she was denied as a young girl, and now she is “catching up”.

One story, however, she would share quite openly.

It was a simple story about how every neighbour in the street would feed their food scraps to this one, stray dog. For weeks they fed this dog collectively, ensuring that it was better fed than any of the children. One day, the dog mysteriously vanished, only to make room for a sudden influx of meat.

You didn’t speak about it, and you did not ask. Other stories were of her walking the two hour hike to get to the next grocer to see if they had any food left for which they had rations. Most of the older generation I’ve met still can’t stomach the sweetness of a potato that has been frozen.

Keeping what’s valuable

While we are very lucky that times are not as tough as those, there is still plenty of inspiration to be gotten from those forced frugal times.

Cook simple, hearty dishes

During WWII, spices and exotic ingredients were hard to come by. You had to make do with the staples, such as carrots, swede, potatoes and oats. My friend relates how she would boil and mash carrots for “marmelade” to give people something to put on their slice of bread. Or she could boil some swede and give that the same treatment for a slightly different flavour.

In other houses, people were complaining afterwards that they had nothing to put on their bread. Thinking outside the box did not even occur to them.

Another recipe my friend related to me was that of mock sausages. Knowing my interest in plant-based historical food, this one was of particular interest, and they’re tasty too!

Cut up some onion (if you have, onions were a valuable commodity during WWII) and fry them in a skillet. Add oats and stock and boil to a sticky paste. Add seasoning, if you have (she used tried mushroom when she made them for me, amazing). Plain salt and pepper works surprisingly well here.

Let cool enough that you can handle the dough. Roll into sausage shape (we started making balls instead, it was easier). Coat in breadcrumbs and fry in a pan. Serve hot.

It sounds so simple, but they are surprisingly delicious!

This would be a rather labour intensive dish. More common were the one pot dishes. Soups and stews. Hearty and easy to give lots of flavour with very little at hand. Plus, no flavour goes to waste when you boil it. It all stays in the pot.

Stock up on long shelf-life staples like pasta, beans and canned goods

Pete Seeger, removed from production
A friendly frugal reminder from Pete Seeger.

While it might have been difficult to stock up on certain items, having some ensured food on the table. While hoarding might have given you a sour look in times of war, there is no reason not to stock up in modern times.

Previously, Mr. E. and I would go to the shop more than twice a week. We lived in a small flat and storage space was precious, so we convinced ourselves it was necessary.

The truth, however, was that we usually had something in the cupboards. We just didn’t fancy it.

Back in Norway with a glorious pantry, we no longer have this excuse. We try to go to the shop only once per week and do larger stock-ups in shops that are further away as needed. We always have ingredients to whip up a simple curry, fried rice, soup or lentil loaf.

If we didn’t plan our week well enough in terms of shopping, well, that is just too bad. Those are the staples we fall back on. Even if we want something else, it’ll have to wait until next week and a new grocery list.

Share with friends and neighbours

Shopping on credit was not something the average Joe could do in the 1940’s. It would be another 20 years before we saw the rise of credit cards and their associated debt. Credits was much harder to come by, so lending from tomorrow was not much of an option.

Instead, you could barter and trade with your neighbour. If you had a neighbour who liked to fish, you might swap some fresh catch for apples from your garden. You could swap babysitting with your friends so you could catch that late shift.

I love that, at least in our close circle of friends, food gifts are coming back as the gift de jour. You get new flavours, you get something you can use up, and you can regift the glass jar or bottle it came in with something of your own next time. If you have a patch of land or know your way around foraging in the forest, it needn’t cost you much either!

Sharing doesn’t just keep costs low for the frugal fan, it also sets down building blocks for a more resilient local food system. If you have a steady supply of food from garden, forest and sea with only some supplement from the globally traded food industry? Well, you’re that much more prepared if anything was to happen to that huge yet surprisingly fragile system.

I’m a nervous person in that regard. I like to have an emergency plan if my plan B fails, and preferably a plan for that too.

Close off the parts of your home you don’t use on a regular basis and turn down the heat in those rooms

snow covered frugality
Days like these, while beautiful, really make me appreciate our warm flat.

If you spend any time in houses more than 50-100 years old, you’ll notice one significant change in trends, at least in places with cold winters. They have a lot of doors.

There are doors to the stairs, to the basement, to the living rooms, to the pantries, to the hall, etc. These days, we are all about open solutions and big windows to let lots of light in.

We have big windows in our flat, and I really enjoy the spacious feel they lend to our living room, but large windows do mean heat loss, even with well insulated ones.

There are not a plethora of doors in our flat, but there are two we make sure to close. The bedroom is kept at a couple degrees lower than the rest of the flat, so we keep that closed unless we are working there. The bathroom is on the other end, we like it warm, so we make sure to keep that door closed to keep the heat on the inside.

Just like how there are ongoing campaigns about shutting off the light in rooms you do not use, I think there should be campaigns about closing the door to rooms you do not use. Turn the thermostat down in the guest room when not in use. Make sure you don’t leak a lot of your precious heat into the attic or basement.

Heat is precious.

Repair and reuse garments.

Far too many people are too comfortable with the idea of just donating their old garments when they tire of them. That way we can purchase new ones guilt-free, right? It goes to the needy, after all.

Not entirely true. Countries in East Africa are actually putting a stop to the truckloads of used clothes they receive from charities.

Instead, we should get better at reusing what we have. That synthetic glitter top might make a poor rag if torn up, so how about perhaps looking for a natural fibre option next time, if you can? It releases less microplastics too.

It saddens me when I hear that people threw their jeans out because they lost a button. How quick a fix is that? Most people won’t darn their socks either, they just buy new ones.

While I can appreciate that me being able to repair my clothes is a privilege, there are a lot of resources online that can help a lot of people learn the same skill. It is fun too! And gives a feeling of mastery and accomplishment.

While I am on a semi-rant about clothing anyway, can I encourage people to keep using their clothes for longer? I lost some weight after I started walking to work. Enough that previously tight trousers now hang about me much more loosely. But I have no fear or suddenly becoming undressed in public, because I know the awesome power of… the belt!

Same with my shirts and tops. I am a loose and comfy type of woman, so I haven’t really noticed much change there.

Please use up your clothes folks. Then you can mend them. And if they can’t be mended they can be used as patches for repairing other clothes, or torn up into rags to use around the house.

Clothes are incredibly labour intensive to produce, even in our industrialised society. We are getting more aware of food waste, but resource waste in other areas is equally important!

back to basics


12 Comments on “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without – Frugal inspiration from WWII

  1. This was a fascinating read for me. I too eat up this kind of thing and would love to get back to the local food resiliency people used to be forced to have. Grocery stores are wonderful only until you can’t get to one to restock for any reason.

    Darning socks…definitely something on my list to learn, but I haven’t yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, and yeah for sure. And it’s not just when you can’t get to the grocery store, sometimes the grocery stores simply cannot restock because of shortages or workers protesting or weather or a whole range of other things. I think the system we are so used to is more fragile than we like to think.

      Darning socks is fun! Start with thick woollen ones for sure, thin ones are more of a patience project. 🙂


  2. I found this a fascinating read, having long had a fascination with WW2 social history. One of my favourite recipe books is a wartime one. Did you see my post a while ago that showed the old photo in our local paper about a VE day party that took place on the street outside our house?
    I agree about repairing clothing. I tend to gather up items until I have several to mend and fix them all in one evening whilst watching TV.
    We have become very wasteful as a society, our great grandparents would be horrified just how much so. If things don’t start to improve, I dread to think what state our planet will be left in for future generations.


    • Yes, there is so much to learn from previous generations, and books makes it easier than ever to access that information, if you can find one!

      I too enjoy mending while watching TV or having friends over for a crafting night, I find it rewarding to make garments last longer. Though, to be honest, the thought of buying new clothes almost feels a little alien at this point.

      I think we can just keep doing the best we can .

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s right, we can only try. Here in the U.K. knitting and sewing has had a resurgence so hopefully more people will have some mending skills to mend rather replace for simple things.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I definitely plan on trying that oats and onion recipe soon! Thanks for sharing. My Grandma instilled my love for gardening and frugality. Hers wasn’t a chosen frugal life (with six kids), but she learned to embrace it and loved nature. I’m glad I learned many things from her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Grandparents are awesome! I have a good friend who also learned a ton from her grandma. Definitely try the oats and onion thingies, they’re surprisingly delicious! 😊


  4. We practice a lot of these! We just got back from a restocking run at the grocery store – I’ve been cooking from the freezer and pantry for two weeks straight and proud of it.

    We close off the rooms we don’t use regularly and shut off the vents for heating those rooms, too! We also don’t run the heater above 68 degrees, we wrap up in warm clothes and use small electric space heaters to take the chill off the coldest rooms in the house only when we’re in them for longer periods (our bedrooms, ironically).

    I try to resell all my clothes that are in good shape that I don’t fit in anymore. Luckily for me, I’ve only changed sizes a couple times in my life (pregnancy related) so I’ve been able to wear clothes for 20+ years until they completely wear out, and I patch and mend our little one’s clothes even if they were hand me downs so that we can hand them down to the next little. We have clothes that have been worn by 9 kids before zir! We’re trying to keep the chain going.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great job on hitting a lot of these already! I think it can be a lot of fun to cook from the freezer and cupboards for a while. It’s an added challenge.

      Our bedroom is also the coldest room in our flat. I just can’t sleep if it is too warm, so that fits me perfectly! I’m the same when it comes to sizes. I haven’t changed much, so I still fit into a lot of my old clothes. It does make life easier!


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