Published on February 12, 2019

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photo by Jacquie Johnson

Five years ago, Lauren Mochizuki and her husband came to a bold decision: They were going to make their dream home a reality. The only thing standing in their way? Nearly $266,000 of debt.

“Our mortgage balance [alone] was $233,346,” shares Mochizuki. “We had also made some big newlywed money mistakes like purchasing brand-new cars (we have since learned that new cars depreciate in value 20% in the first year after they are purchased).”

Over the course of the next 33 months, the couple would (literally) work to see their way out of it—Mochizuki picking up a second job as an ER nurse, working multiple 16-hour shifts a week, and her husband pulling double time at his job as a firefighter. After three years of saving, the pair was able to pay off their condo, sell it, and put the proceeds toward purchasing and renovating their dream fixer-upper.

“We told ourselves that we wouldn’t go into debt to afford our renovation, which is why we lived in it for three years,” says Mochizuki. “We started budgeting the money by writing down a list of the things we wanted to get done in order of importance, taking note of the things that would be more expensive, things we could save money on, and projects my husband could do.”

A few smart money-saving hacks and clever DIYs later, the duo was able to transform just about every room in their sunny abode (bathrooms and backyard included). Ahead, Mochizuki looks back on the everyday budgeting moves that made a difference. Aspiring homeowners, take note.

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photo by Allison Richter

Start with an actionable plan

Step one? Nail down your finances for the down payment. “Figure out what you’d like to save for the down payment (I suggest at least 20 percent to save on interest) and any renovations you’d like to do,” suggests Mochizuki. “Budgets are clear, mutually agreed upon, and provide a map for one’s savings.”

Along with setting aside money for a down payment, make sure your wallet is prepared to handle renovation delays, extra labor costs, municipal fees, and any other unforeseen expenses that can arise during a remodel.  

Get to know your spending habits

“I would start by writing down all the different budget categories you can think of (utilities, housing, savings, kids, car maintenance, etc.). Then, gather receipts to see how much you’ve been spending in these different categories. It’s powerful to see how much money we spend on paper,” suggests Mochizuki.

Mochizuki and her husband were ultimately surprised to find how much of their money was going toward dining out and utility costs. No matter how cringe-worthy your spending addictions are, addressing your past habits will help you determine how to cut down costs.

“Stick with it, log your expenditures, save and plan your money, have a budget buddy, and you will see results,” she says. “It’s not how much money you make, it’s how much you keep.”

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photo by Allison Richter

Schedule a monthly check-in

With transparency and accountability top of mind, Mochizuki and her husband would sit down at the end of every month for a budget meeting.

“He’s the president, and I’m the vice president of our budget meeting. We tell every dollar what we want it to do for the following month,” she shares. “The goal is to be able to budget at the end of the current month for the following month.

Be prepared to work for it

When Mochizuki and her husband first sat down with their debt, they had a mortgage balance of $233,346, a balance of $7,264 for her car, $23,946 for his car, and a credit card bill of $1,871. The two picked up side hustles, worked over time, and hosted garage sales to free up their finances.

The biggest challenge during the 33 months was learning to be grateful for what I had,” recalls Mochizuki. During this time, the pair lived off 30 percent of their income. “We weren’t spending much, and our time with each other was limited. I went from dining out to making meals at home and from being on my phone while I was with my husband to being present in the moment.”

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photo by Allison Richter

Pick luxe-looking swaps over the real deal

Instead of compromising on their big wish-list items, the couple opted for materials that only looked luxe—like porcelain tile that runs throughout the downstairs. “Many people think it’s real wood when they first come in, and since we have young children, I didn’t want to worry about messes. It’s a total budget win,” says Mochizuki.

Splurge according to function

The biggest items the pair splurged on were the oven, refrigerator, and accordion windows and doors, which were three worthy purchases that would make a difference in their day-to-day.

In the summer, we spent a lot of time outside and we host parties, so we knew we wanted our kitchen and dining room to have a seamless transition between the inside and backyard patio,” explains Mochizuki. “I cook 99 percent of our meals, so I knew I wanted a range that had more stovetop and oven space.”

Now that the family hardly dines out, having a spacious refrigerator that could meet all their leftover needs (and keep produce fresh) was crucial. They landed on a 48-inch Subzero fridge.

“My strawberries can last at least a week in the fridge without mold. Our amount of food going to waste has gone down considerably with this fridge,” she says.

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photo by lauren Mochizuki

DIY your way to deep pockets

“My husband did everything he could to save money on construction costs,” says Mochizuki. “He did things like demo our ’70s-style mantel, demo our concrete stairs with the help of my brother and father-in-law and install recessed lighting in our living room among other things.”

From installing the subfloor upstairs to building out the shelving for the master closet, the pair estimates that they saved at least $30,000 in added labor expenses. Though, that’s not to say their DIY journey wasn’t without its setbacks and surprises (several hours after kicking off demolition, Mochizuki’s husband was rushed to the ER with appendicitis).

“This happened three days before we needed to pack up the rest of our home,” recalls Mochizuki. “Talk about a crazy weekend.”

Think of money in terms of hours worked

Smart money decisions come easily now for Mochizuki. A trip to the grocery store, for instance, is now preceded by a meal prep plan and determined shopping list. For bigger purchases that are $50 or more, Mochizuki will sleep on it.

“Now when I go shopping, I think, How many hours do I need to work to afford that? That will usually tell me if it’s worth it or not. I also realized that I don’t need as much stuff, in general, and that, as cheesy as it is, the best things in life are free: catching up with friends, spending time with family, exercising outside… all these things don’t cost anything and they mean the most.”  

Money-minded readers and wanna-be homeowners can keep up with Mochizuki’s home budgeting tips and tricks on her blog, Casa Mochi.

See more budgeting stories:

Money Secrets of Designers Who (Rarely) Go Over Budget

Where Interior Designers Shop for Affordable Decor

The Best Budget-Friendly Design Blogs to Follow ASAP