Second Acts: Recession Success Stories

Laid low by a layoff? Worried about your prospects? Let these four reinvention stories inspire you.

By Adam Piore from Reader's Digest | November 2009

Small is Good

The Go-Getter: Sergio Santos, 40, architect

Got Started in: Delray Beach, Florida

The Goal : To turn a closet into a studio apartment

The Gain : Saved $350 a month, attracted new clients with his ingenuity

I was hard at work on a museum project when the client abruptly canceled it. In January, my boss told me I was no longer needed. I had just $1,000 in savings.

After trolling the Internet for architecture jobs, I landed one interview, but nothing came of it. Finally, I took a job as a waiter. I knew I’d have to find a place to live that cost less than the $500 a month I was paying.

I went to see a bedroom for rent. It was listed for $500, but the landlord said I could have it for $350 if he maintained control of the closet for storage. I told him later, “I don’t want the bedroom, but I’m interested in the closet.” I suggested that I pay $150 a month for it. He thought I was joking.

The closet measures just 5 ½ feet by 14 feet. With my design experience, I was confident I could make it into a great living space. I sketched for three days. I measured old pieces of wood that people donated. It was like putting together a puzzle.

In March, I moved in. It’s a legal rental. The landlord cut out a door so I’d have access to a kitchen and bathroom, which I share with three other tenants. I have a mini-fridge, a microwave, and a storage bin for dry goods. I made a loft for my bed, TV, and DVD player. My clothes hang on a metal rod.

I don’t really get claustrophobic. I’ve learned to be comfortable in small places. If I keep the window open, I can just about see over the terrace and into the street. Next to my window is a bench—I call it my veranda. I’ve entertained as many as 11 people at my place. I can seat seven.

On my website, I’ve posted pictures of my new home, and that’s brought in some freelance design work. A few more jobs and I’ll be able to afford a new place. That’s definitely a good thing: My girlfriend, Susan, and I are engaged, and once we’re married, next March, I’m sure I’ll leave my little closet behind.

But now I know that I don’t need much to live well.