Being upside down on two houses is daunting. If you’re an entrepreneur or a side hustler, looming financial burdens can really mess with your plans. They’ll stop you from launching products, making investments, or (finally) quitting your day job. Whatever reason you want to reduce your spending, I get it. I get the stress, the headaches, the praying, and the permanent indentation of crossed fingers. However, I also know there’s a way out. Here’s how we recovered years after the real estate bubble of 2007.

Before the Bubble

Raised the eldest of five kids (I have two older siblings, but they lived out of state), I fell into the traditional role many first-born kids do. Google calls us Reliable, Achievers, Controlling, Cautious, Conscientious or one who takes great care and effort. We want to excel at “everything” too, which is why I don’t play video games. I’m awful at anything but Ms. Pacman, but I digress.

Lucky or unlucky for him, I married another first-born. (More on how we make that work some other time.) So while we both spend “conscientiously,” I wouldn’t call us frugal. We don’t clip coupons much, and we’re not buying clothes at the thrift store, or driving a moped to save gas money. All great ways to reduce your spending btw, but if you want that type of inspiration you’re reading the wrong blog. Instead, I can offer a few ideas on insurance, purchases, and a living situation that might make you cringe.

In 2006, before we got engaged, we bought a fixer-upper. We added a 300 sqft addition all by ourselves. (Okay, my dad helped. A lot.) We spent every weekend there. When I say, blood, money, sweat, more money, and tears went into this house—it’s not an exaggeration. Kyle even proposed to me in the kitchen after a long weekend of painting. In June 2007, we got married and bought our first home and rented out the now-remodeled fixer-upper. That’s right, we had bought two houses at the tippy-tip-top of the market — all months before it collapsed.

After a few years of hanging on and hoping the market would turn around. It didn’t. My achiever’s heart was broken.

After ten years of two house payments, we just wanted to break even. We wanted to start a family, and that meant moving and moving meant selling both houses. If we couldn’t fix our local housing market, something else had to give. But what? Our spending was the only thing we could control.

Finding the First $20K

Changing health insurance providers was our first big move. On the surface, this seems like no simple task. You’ve got to have a “change of life”, “change of job”, or you need wait for open enrollment. You’ve also gotta compare all the details. (Yawn, am I right?) Comparing something so complex can make you want to put your head in the sand. Don’t! This all gets easier when you realize the amount of cash you could be leaving on the table.

Through Kyle’s employer, we were paying $4,300/year plus 10% of any medical bills. Before taking my marketing business full-time, my employer paid 100% of the insurance premiums and gave $200/mo in contributions to my HSA. By the end of the year, we had transferred $4,300 to our savings account and $2400 towards our medical expenses and prescriptions for a total of $6,700/year.

Remember wanting to break even? Well that didn’t happen. Selling that investment property did. Even though we had to bring thousands of dollars to the closing table, selling it meant we gained back $1103/month or 13,236/year plus utilities, lawn service, and other we-own-a-vacant-house expenses.

Being the eldest sister also means letting your siblings borrow your stuff. So when my sister got in an accident the insurance company totaled the extra car we had insured. So we canceled the policy and gained $60/mo x 12= $720/year. She was bummed, but it pushed her to buy a brand new car.

By this time we reduced our spending by $20,656. Our goal was $12,000, and we zoomed right past it!

Then our home sold faster than we anticipated making this next idea a bit radical and it isn’t doable for everyone. I know that. But even if you’re not up for it, I have a few ideas that turned into a savings snowball for us.

The ‘Rents and Not Paying Rent

When our home sold over the holidays, we didn’t have time to find an apartment in snowy January. So we moved in with my in-laws or The ‘Rents as I affectionately call them. (The word in-laws sound so ‘meh’ to me.) While not in our initial plans, this decision added up to significant savings for us.

It was just the two of us, so we rented a storage unit for the big stuff and moved everything else, our bed, our dresser, and my home office into my husband’s old bedroom in the basement. Cozy to say the least, but having interviewed home builders for years, we found property and chose our builder the first month we squeezed in. The builder told us to expect 6-8 months for the entire build. Living with family for that long seemed doable.

It took 11 months.

While living with your in-laws isn’t an option (or even a good idea) for everyone, it worked for us! We cherish the time we got with The ‘Rents, and to my surprise, it flew by, and it meant a savings of $1100/month or 12,100/year. Oh right, the ‘Rents? They didn’t charge us rent, not a dime. (And they made dinner every night!)

Super grateful because the offer we accepted on our house required us to bring (surprise!) more money to the closing table. This time $9,965 of our savings. Side note for extra savings: we refinanced this house the year or so before we moved out. If you haven’t done that yet, review your options before rates climb any higher. If your credit isn’t in shape to refinance, pay everything on time for 6 months and re-check your scores.)

We did have a storage unit for $100/month. And we chipped in with $300/month for groceries and other stuff that comes with living in someone’s home. I won’t deduct that here because we would have had those grocery or eating out expenses regardless. And we didn’t have any other bills like electricity, gas, cable, water, garbage, or even our TruGreen lawn care—yep, we were still coming out way ahead!

Remember I mentioned a snowball of savings? This living with family-thing affects so much. I have three more ways we cut our spending that you could use even if you don’t live with your version of The ‘Rents.

Getting to $35K

Let’s start with lunches. My husband works in Chicago, where all things delicious are a few steps outside of his building. When living with his parents, dinner was made every night — making it super easy for him to pack his lunch and take it the next day. Remembering his lunch, on the other hand, was hard. So I won’t give him credit for every lunch, but at least 1/3 of all of his lunches were a doggy bag from dinner. (And he’s continued this Leftover’s-for-Lunch thing even after we moved out.) $20/week x 52 weeks = $1060/year.

I heard a statistic once, that gyms survive by the population of people within eight miles. Now that our gym was an extra 25 minutes away we rarely went. I replaced my workouts for a couple mile walk/jog (with lunges) in the morning or after dinner, saving us $30/month x 12 months = $360/year.

Living a longer distance from my usual watering hole (25 minutes is a big deal!) put a cramp in my style for a weekly girls night out too. It turns out, I would have ditched the Friday tradition when we found out we were pregnant anyhow. (Yep, got pregnant while living with my in-laws. Unreal.) Twice actually. Miscarried and then our little guy was born, so those margarita nights ended even earlier than a normal 40-week timeline. And once out of that routine, the savings continues to this day. $30/wk * 52/wks = $1560/year. Good thing too because diapers are expensive!

Grand total $35,736.

Secrets of a First-Born

As a big sister, I’ve shelled out a good deal of advice over the years. But the thing my siblings have taught me is the advice they really hear — comes from lessons that are delivered in a heart-moving, here’s-what-I-learned story. So as you deposit money into your savings, I’ll leave you with an unexpected money lesson from my sister’s car accident.

Letting your kid-sister borrow your favorite sweater is one thing. A car is a whole other thing. You don’t even realize it until something awful like a head-on collision happens. As I ran down the emergency room hallway that night, my only thought was, ‘how badly is she hurt…I mean,  head-on collision, what will her face look like, what am I walking into? Keep it together, Nicole.’

First, I’m thrilled to report my sister wore her seatbelt. Not a bruise or a blemish on her pretty face. She broke her wrist and only had minor injuries. So days later when the insurance company called to offer to total the car, I couldn’t believe it. After every penny-scrimping moment this year, it felt like a double-blessing. Thank you, God, for keeping my precious sister safe. Thank you, Mazda for holding your value!

But see that’s the thing. Life is gonna come at you. How will you react to it?

Second, being committed to a savings goal and then getting an unexpected bonus of money like that, could feel like: Whoohooo! Time to splurge! We could have spent the money. We could have bought little sister a car. We had some stress, we could have justified spending it on a vacation or a teeny bit on something. We didn’t. We stayed committed to the big goal and deposited the $7300 into our savings. Giving us a grand total of $43,036 in deposits for that year! Months later, with a baby on the way, this one choice was such a good decision for us.

So if you want to know my secret it’s this, you don’t have to be the eldest to reduce your spending. You don’t have to be overly cautious or controlling. It only takes a commitment to three things:

1) Make a plan, we just planned to find $12K, not 35K!

2) Choose the best option you can day-by-day. HINT: Deposits to your savings account is often the answer.

3) Wear your seatbelt. Okay, okay, not a money-saving strategy, but as a big sister…will you just click-it already? Your savings goals are far more fun when you and your family are safe.

How have you reduced your spending lately? Tell me about it in the comments below!