By Gabrielle. Photos by Ashleigh of Red Aspen Photography.

Natalie lives in Portland, Oregon — she happily admits she moved there after it was cool, which reminds me of a friend who lives in Texas who always says, “I wasn’t born a Texan, but I got here as soon as I could!” — with her husband and their four children. Debt-free. No mortgage, even. I had to hear more!

She is an absolute delight to read, and I truly found myself nodding vigorously as she extolled the virtues of a debt-free life. It sounds so appealing!  Come see.

Welcome, Natalie!

Hi, everyone! We are a family of six. Comprised of a ballerina-rope-climber, robot-building-racecar-driver, gymnast-collector-of-interesting-things, a magician-filmmaker, HGTV Property Baron Personality, and a one-year old baby. Yes, I’m embellishing, but hyperbole aside, we are a family with diverse interests that celebrates individuality.

Zach’s 9-to-5 is at Portland’s own Columbia Sportswear. He is the best magician inexpensive gimmicks from Amazon can buy. His magician alter-ego, The Great Shahrivar, shows up for all our kids’ birthdays. His interests are as long as his attention span is short, including: podcasting, novel writing, songwriting, blogging, filmmaking, and a solid foray into a t-shirt business — that is to say he adheres to the long lost art of working to live rather than living to work!

I’m Natalie, a realtor licensed in both Oregon and Washington State. I daydream more than anyone I know – too bad I can’t get paid to dream! I am always coming up with new plans, ideas, and house renovations. My latest dreams have led Zach and I to start a new project making our own show on YouTube. We’re hoping to show what it’s really like to buy properties while at the same time dispelling myths and giving advice on how to make a good investment. I love real estate and personal finance, and Zach loves making stuff, so with our powers combined we hope to make some entertaining stuff and have fun in the process.

Our offspring, in order of appearance, starts with Jane, at seven years old. As the oldest child she has the most pictures of herself and the most saved pieces of art. We’re not sure if this has anything to do with her hoarding tendencies, but we sneak into her room when she’s not looking to throw away her ever-expanding collection of anything she gets her hands on. When she’s not collecting things she’s dancing, doing cartwheels in the kitchen, pirouetting in the hall, or balancing on top of the couch.

Up next is Michael at five years old. Give him a cardboard box, a bucket of crayons, scissors and tape, and you’ll have a race car/robot in no time. This one has no volume control and after listening to a song one time can sing all the words — on repeat, mind you. We’re excited to get him into choir — or anywhere out of earshot. We’re also thankful for the prestigious title Michael carries with him in our home of being The Good Eater.

Olive is four and doesn’t see the nuanced difference between monkey bars and our stair banisters. Some parents are proud of their kids’ artwork or their prowess on the soccer field — our Olive is really good at hanging off of stuff! In an age of parenting one-up-ism, we’ll take it. Seriously though, my mom is constantly timing her and she will hang for, like, five minutes! It’s really bizarre and also entertaining.

Nolan is almost one! As the youngest of four we plan on letting him get away with everything. Once he was born we knew our family was complete. And if we didn’t know it then, we definitely knew it when we tried to get four kids in and out of a van for the first time.

We moved to Portland, Oregon after it was cool to live here. (Sorry Portlanders for adding to the housing market and traffic!) They say the most important thing in real estate is location. That’s true, but it’s important to realize that location means different things to different people. Location for us means the ability to spend the most time together as a family. We are squarely in suburban Portland, but despite its suburbia feel we have everything close by.

The elementary school is in our neighborhood, a totally decent athletic club is behind our house (Literally…we have a gate out our back fence, which unfortunately limits our excuses for not getting to the gym!), Olive’s preschool is right behind the athletic club, Zach’s office is only two miles away so he bikes to work rain or shine. (Note: He is also fond of saying that misery in life is directly proportional to the amount of time spent in traffic commuting to work.)

So our unsolicited advice to you? Instead of the biggest house or the most valuable house, pick the house that is in the location that lets you walk your kids to school, ride a bike to work, and spend less time getting to where you’re going. Home is where you live and you don’t want to spend too much time getting there.

We were a two-income household when I became pregnant with Nolan. We were already pulling our hair out attempting to meet the demands of three kids ages six and under while working so I knew that the time had come for us to move closer to family and a full-time grandma — my mom. Zach considers himself a Coloradan, plus deciding to move meant deciding what to do with our current home and three rental properties. We went on a trip to Mexico with just the two of us to be alone with the topic and came back in agreement. We’re moving!

Fate was on our side and a job opened up at Columbia Sportswear for Zach that was a perfect fit. All of a sudden our timeline for moving had sped up exponentially. I was determined to rent a place first, get the lay of the land, find the perfect neighborhood, and then purchase. Then one night, I got a call from my mom, then a text because she just couldn’t wait — she was more excited than anyone of our decision to move closer — saying she found the perfect house for us online. It was a fixer upper and it needed a lot of work, but it was four bedrooms and really close to Zach’s work.

I didn’t think much of it. But when I got home, Zach, who doesn’t get excited about houses easily, came out and said, “Natalie I found the perfect house for us.” It was the same one my mom had just called me about!

We had my parents do a FaceTime call with us as they walked through the home. Based on our past experience of fix-up’s, I didn’t feel threatened by the idea of buying a fixer-upper without walking through it first; I know how to make a house my own, I just really hoped the neighborhood would be a good fit.

It was listed at $315k and we found out there were two other offers already on the table. Without seeing it firsthand we crossed our fingers for good luck, made an offer with an escalation clause, and got it for $325k. On top of that we’ve put approximately $50 to $60k into renovations.

Living debt-free is a lifestyle choice as much as it is a consequence of financial choices. There is such a thing as feeling satisfied from buying nothing. This approach is obviously not represented very often in advertisements and the media. But arriving at the other end of a gift shop with both hands still empty can be exhilarating. Analyzing extra payments on an amortization schedule to see the years evaporate from a 30-year mortgage is thrilling. It’s one thing to show up to the ski resort feeling cool in the latest, most expensive gear — a similar if not equally satisfying feeling is to show up wearing the stuff from many seasons past and having just as much fun.

Our interest in getting out of debt came to a head when we decided to move to Portland. We had, for the previous seven years, bought three rental properties and were living in our fourth purchased home. Each property was bought as a primary residence to avoid big down payments. (If you’re buying as an investor, you need to put down 20% to 25%. If it’s your primary residence, you can get standard 30-year loans for as little as 3% down.) Which means we had been moving every two years.

With the market soaring high, we decided that rather than being distant landlords from another state we would sell all four. So the decision needed to be made: what to do with the profits from the sales of our four properties? Ask any financial advisor and the rational decision would have been to roll the profits from the sales into more rental properties to avoid tax and take out another mortgage for the primary residence in Portland. With interest rates still at record lows in the 4% to 5% range, money doesn’t get any cheaper and the tax savings would have been considerable.

But for us, the value of being debt-free was worth more than the extra money. Instead of getting another mortgage we took our profits and bought our 1,800 square foot, four bedrooms and three bath house with cash…and swallowed the bitter tax pill. You may be shaking your head at me right now but for us, it’s a lifestyle — not a race to accumulating more. And quite frankly, it’s the nicest, largest house we’ve ever owned! We also have money left over for some down payments on rental properties, which we are excited to get back into.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” If you can internalize that quote you’ll get out of debt and stay that way. Being smart with your money isn’t just about gritting teeth and self-deprivation, but leads to a higher self esteem. It’s also fun. If using a library card was an Olympic sport, my husband would be a contender for the gold.

We’ve learned there are two ways to be rich: earn more or want less.

Since Zach and I have never paid for TV, I often go to the gym solely to watch HGTV. I LOVE HGTV. One Saturday I was walking on the treadmill watching Flip or Flop for the first time. I was blown away by the risk they were taking — buying homes at auction without seeing them beforehand! It was on a Saturday and Zach and I were on a date when I got a notification for a house that had just come on the market listed for $300k only a couple blocks from our current house at the time. I knew it right when I saw it that the price was at least $50k lower than it should have been, even as a fixer-upper.

I immediately requested a showing and became the worst date-night participant ever, checking my phone every minute to see if we got in. Then I couldn’t handle waiting anymore and ended up calling. I learned that they weren’t allowing showings until Monday. Since I was still on a Flip or Flop high, I had it my head that I didn’t need to see the property before I could make an offer. So I called the listing agent, asked if their client would entertain a full price offer without us seeing the house…and we got it!

We spent the next six (sweaty) weeks fixing it up before moving in. This was by far the best real estate transaction I’ve ever had. It felt like we were stealing! I can’t remember how much we put into fixing it up — I want to say between $30 to $40k – but we sold it a year later for $416k.

The best lesson learned (the hard way) is that before buying a house, you should ALWAYS talk to the neighbors. They know a lot about the house you are about to buy and have a lot of valuable information! We bought our current Portland house in June, completely remodeled it, then on Halloween night it down-poured and our house flooded! Turns out this house had known flooding issues that no one had ever fixed. Our neighbors knew all too well about these issues but we never bothered to meet them before buying. So, it cost us a new driveway with a french drain leading to the sewer line. We’re nervously waiting rainy season again to see how the new setup fares. That was a hard one to swallow.

No matter how much we try to make the basement the designated play-room, they have a tendency to migrate to the space within a three foot radius of wherever I’m standing. The kitchen counter, the coffee table, and the living room couch are all play areas from their perspective, and the furniture is constantly covered with their notebooks, crayons, coloring books, and handmade crowns and masks.

As much as the mess in the main living areas can drive me crazy, I try to remind myself on a regular basis that these are the good ol’ days. I love seeing out of the corner of my eye the kids playing house, re-enacting their parents’ conversations, and (occasionally) sharing. I know that the days they spend at the counter while I’m trying to make dinner and the hours spent huddled around my feet while I’m sitting on the couch are someday going to be some of my fondest memories.

Whenever we go on vacation we rent out our entire home on Airbnb. It helps subsidize, or in some cases, completely pays for our vacations/weekend getaways. The first reaction we get from people who learn we do this is, “Aren’t you worried about all your stuff?” We respond with the following:

1. We keep a closet locked where we stash anything really valuable (there isn’t much) or dangerous (old tax forms, prescription drugs).

2. Airbnb allows you to vet anyone who requests to stay in your place. You can see reviews from other places they’ve stayed at and ask them questions before you agree.

3. Did we mention it helps subsidize, or in some cases, completely pays for our vacations/weekend getaways?

Recently, we found out our friends are renting out a bedroom and bathroom in their basement and making over $1,200 a month. That’s crazy! Anyone can do that! So, we decided to give it a shot. We got the room all ready to go, posted on Instagram that we were going to list our bedroom on Airbnb, and then shortly after we got a call from my sister-in-law. Her nephew had lived in Portland with his family and then just a couple weeks ago relocated to Arizona. He was just about to start his senior year and wanted to be able to attend college in Oregon with instate tuition…so she asked us if we’d consider renting the room to him. We talked about it and a few days later he moved in!

So, we now have a 17-year old roommate. He is actually really great. Our kids love him, and he is a hardworking kid. We are renting it to him for $400… which is less than we could have gotten for a full time Airbnb, but that’s ok. When he moves out we’ll give renting out a room in our house on Airbnb another shot.

By the way, a lot of people think that only places downtown or in really neat and unique locations are worthy to be Airbnb rentals. Not so. People are looking for places to stay all over. So, if you are thinking about renting out a space, just do it! If you don’t like it, stop. It’s as easy as that. (Oh, and tell us about it!)

I am about as frugal as you can get. Only in the last year or two have I bought things that are a little nicer and pricier, but to this day I don’t think I have a single item in our house that cost more than $500.

Our leather couch in our living room is a $3500 couch that I got used on Craigslist for $500. Our dining room table was $300 from World Market and was an item they were closing out so it was super discounted. Our nightstands were hand-me-downs that my brother and his wife never liked. Our coffee table is a $60 Target table that was the right size for the space. I mean, everything we have was either used or we got it for a steal. But they are all items I really like and fit my aesthetic.

Everyone always says, why have nice things when you have kids? They’re bound to ruin everything. Which, let’s be honest, is totally true. I used to think that one day, when my kids are grown and out of the house, I would finally get nice furniture. Then it hit me, oh wait, by then I will start having grandkids. And I want them to feel comfortable at my house and be able to play and not be worried about breaking something. So, I’ve decided that I want to live in a place NOW that feels the way I want.

I’m not going to go out and spend $10k on a sofa, but I’m also not going to just have furniture that I hate for fear of it getting ruined. Clearly we don’t spend a lot of money on our furniture, but I do want each thing that’s brought into my home to bring me joy.

And if it gets ruined, I say, it’s better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all.

When we moved into this house in July of 2015, our tradition of Fancy Brunch was born. Every Sunday for the last year I’ve made fancy brunch. It’s always delicious but sometimes it’s something new and other times it’s a family favorite.

We get out goblet glasses for the kids to drink out of and we all eat on glass plates and have silverware and fabric napkins and play fancy music. It’s such a fun tradition that we’ve created and it’s something that our kids absolutely adore.

When the weather is nice it’s the rule that we have to eat out on the back deck. When we sit out on the back deck as a family during these times, Zach and I just look at each other and say “It just doesn’t get any better than this.” And we really believe that. This tradition, the time we spend with our kids and being out in the beautiful weather is truly what our dreams are made of.

I wish I had known that motherhood wasn’t always smiles and sunshine, that it’s one of the hardest jobs that you can ever have, that sometimes you want to crawl into your bed and hide the second your husband comes home from work. That each kid is an individual and as much as you you’ve figured it out, you haven’t. Because their needs are constantly changing.

Luckily there are enough wonderful moments to make it all worth it. No matter how hard it is, I would never undo any of the choices I’ve made that has landed me exactly where I am right now.


Loving the idea of Fancy Brunch, and totally on board with the concept of enjoying your decor now: “And if it gets ruined, I say, it’s better to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all.” You’ve got the cutest way of thinking about living with kids, Natalie; you’re really speaking my language! Thank you so much for being here today.

So, debt-free? How many of you enjoy the same sort of lifestyle? How does it make you feel to not owe any money? How did you train your mind to stop consuming more than you actually needed? How do you leave Home Goods with not even one. little. pillow. You know I love your stories!

P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me knowWe love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.