DIY and Real Estate Investor Profile – Maria from Handful of Thoughts

DIY and Real Estate Investor Profile – Maria from Handful of Thoughts

Long-time readers of this blog are well aware common stocks that pay dividends and low-cost, diversified Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) make up the one-two punch for what I’ve coined our “hybrid” approach to investing.

This approach to financial independence continues to work rather well albeit there are always a few surprises on our road!

Financial Independence Update – October 2020

But like I’ve mentioned in other investor profiles, there are other ways to invest.

Location, location, location – investing in real estate

Unless you’ve been living under a rock – real estate values in Canada are up. Way up in recent years. In a pandemic in many locations no less!

Which means, if you are or have been a real estate investor for some time now, you’ve probably faired rather well.

Enter in Maria from Handful of Thoughts.

I’ll let her answers speak for themselves below of course but by executing a long-term plan to be more mindful with her money, after paying off her sizeable six-figure mortgage in less than five years, she and her partner now own a very impressive real estate rental portfolio. A rather large one in fact.

I suspected Maria had more than a handful of thoughts about money to share, so we took some time to understand her relationship with money, how she amassed so much wealth as a millennial to date, and what advice she has for other investors on their financial independence journey.

Maria, welcome to the site – thanks for doing this!

Thanks Mark and it’s great to be on your site. I enjoy your articles and your journey!

Maria, understanding money seems to come naturally to you. Can you tell folks a bit about yourself before we get into some details?

Sure Mark.

By day I am a high school teacher and by night I am the founder of Handful of Thoughts, a resource dedicated to helping moms take control of their time and money. I live in Alberta with my husband and toddler and have been interested in personal finance for as long as I can remember.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer so I started a blog as a way to write about what I’m interested in – money. As a new mom, I quickly realized that a lot of my mom-friends did not have a good understanding of their own personal finances. So I’m writing for all the moms out there who want to be better with money.

In 2009 we bought our first home and made a plan to pay it off as soon as we could. In total, we paid off our $342,000 mortgage in just under 5 years before I turned 30. This helped us set our investing foundation and put us on the path to financial independence.

Geez, no doubt. Well done. So, how did you get started with investing? What do you invest in?

 The first investing that I ever did was in mutual funds through the bank.

(Mark – me too! I wrote about how and why to ditch any expensive mutual funds here.)

I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had a job and heard that I should be investing in an RRSP so that’s what I did.

Eventually, I moved that money into segregated funds on the advice of a financial advisor who turned out to have her interest in mind over mine. Then, my husband and I moved our RRSPs out of segregated funds and into some managed funds with lower management fees.

I’m still not 100% sure that I’m happy with that decision but it is one we plan on reviewing at the end of this year. That money has now been actively managed for a few years and has stayed that way due to complacency on our part.

How did you learn more about investing over time? What is in your portfolio now?

When I first started investing I knew nothing about investing. I invested in mutual funds because that is what my parents did and was the thing to do at the time. As my interest in investing evolved so did my knowledge.

I always thought I needed a financial advisor because it felt prestigious to brag that I had enough money for someone else to manage it. But the more I learned the more I realized having someone else manage my money was not the best choice for me. 

I’ve learned so much from blogs, books, and podcasts. Now I am a self-taught DIY investor when it comes to investing in the markets. 

Currently, we have part of our RRSPs actively managed and part is self-directed by us in ETFs. We don’t have a lot invested in our TFSAs now but plan on eventually topping them up. The majority of our portfolio is invested in rental properties that we self-manage.

Our current investment portfolio is a real mixed bag of investments: rental properties, private equity, actively managed, self-managed, ETFs, it seems like we have a little bit of everything.  And that doesn’t include my defined benefit pension and my husband’s defined contribution pension.

Although our portfolio seems a bit haphazard, we do have a plan for our investments. The more we learn the more strategic we are becoming on our journey to financial independence.

Wow, a lot going on and impressive. How much of your portfolio is in real estate? What made you gravitate to real estate as your preferred choice?

The majority of our portfolio is invested in real estate. We own 9 rental properties that we self-manage.

(Mark – whoa…that’s quite a few..)

Even though we have investments in the market, our real estate is our end game.

Because of this, we plan on withdrawing from our investment accounts before we reach the traditional retirement age. By the time we reach 65, we will be in a higher tax bracket because our rental properties will be paid off by then.

We plan to leave our “day jobs” and withdraw from our investment accounts to pay for our daily expenses while our rental properties continue to get paid down by our tenants. This creates a marginal tax rate gap which is a huge advantage to the RRSP.

(Mark – your readers may already know this but a marginal tax rate gap is the difference in tax rates from when you contribute to your RRSP to when you withdraw from it. That is really the power behind the tax-deferred RRSP.)

(Mark – yes, when it comes to the RRSP vs. TFSA vs. other debate I’ve shared some thoughts with readers for years on that.)

Managing the refund well is the linchpin in the RRSP vs. TFSA debate

Real estate was our preferred choice because it is tangible and at the time something that we understood.

Before buying our first rental property we had taken an online course on investments and the market and it completely confused me. 

If I didn’t understand it, I didn’t want to invest in it.

We feel understanding rental properties is simple – buy a property and rent it out – but it’s far from easy.

No doubt. We used to have a rental as well – just one – but sold it almost 10 years ago and never looked back.

How has COVID-19 impacted your financial independence plan when it comes to real estate – anything keep you up at night?

When the pandemic first hit there was a lot of uncertainty. We didn’t know what the long term outlook was for our jobs. Because of this we halted paying down debt and investing and put all our extra income into savings and to beef up our emergency fund.

We had 5 properties turn over this year which is more than a typical year for us. Thankfully we were able to rent out most of them without any vacancy. 

One tenant just up and abandoned the property so that created some stress for us. We had to empty the property, clean and fix up the property, and then scramble to get it rented. We did have some vacancy with this property which is something that never feels good.

Thankfully we have a built-in buffer with our rental properties. Even though rents have come down from when we bought the properties all except 1 are still cash flowing. The property that is not cash flowing is a unique case and will not be cash flow negative forever.

What have you learned about yourself, as an investor, or as a person during these trying times?

My first instinct was a bit of panic in wanting to increase our emergency fund. But as time went on I wasn’t comfortable having all that money just sitting there earning next to no interest (high-interest savings accounts have taken a hit lately).

So we were faced with a decision on what to do with this extra money we had saved. After talking about it, my husband and I decided to pay down our mortgage again.

Even though we were mortgage free for 5 years we now have a mortgage again after buying a new home last year.

The math may say that investing in the market is the better long term plan, but paying our mortgage off is the right choice for us. 

(Mark – you’re right of course, I wrote about the definitive answer to paying down your mortgage vs. investing here.)

The definitive answer to paying down your mortgage or investing

Without a mortgage, our monthly expenses drop dramatically. This gives us more options in terms of transitioning away from our day to day jobs.

In closing Maria, what advice do you have for other investors on their financial journey?

Do what works best for you but have a plan. 

There are so many different ways to achieve financial independence that there is no one size fits all.  Having a clearly defined plan can help you stay the course when times get tough as they inevitably will.

Sometimes it can be appealing to do what other people are doing but that may not be the right choice for your situation. Before getting caught up on what to invest in, it’s important to have a plan of where you want to go.

For people further along their investing journey – like you Mark – I would say don’t feel like you have to wait for things to be perfect before making a transition to work optional. Those few extra years that you are waiting for perfection in your plan or investments are years you can never get back. (Coincidentally this is something I’m often reminding my husband of too!)

A big thanks for Maria for sharing her insights.

I second her comments about creating your own plan and charting your own path. The genesis of this site is all about that.

While many paths to financial independence will always exist, the common themes that will apply to you and me are to have a plan, save and invest the difference in assets that accumulate in value over time, and continually revisit your plan to ensure you’re meeting your objectives.

I’m looking forward to sharing the elements of a financial plan this week actually. Lots of great information coming so stay tuned!!

Thanks for reading and I look forward to sharing more investor profiles to help you tailor your own get wealthy eventually approach.

Other investor profiles definitely worth reading:

DIY and Private Equity Investor Profile – Matthew Wilson

DIY Investor Profile 2018 Update – Susan Brunner

There are also a host of retirement and early retirement success stories on my dedicated Retirement page.

Read on, enjoy and fire me any questions including those to Maria in the comments section.

Happy Investing!


My name is Mark Seed - the founder, editor and owner of My Own Advisor. As my own DIY financial advisor, I'm looking to start semi-retirement soon, sooner than most. Find out how, what I did, and what you can learn to tailor your own financial independence path. Join the newsletter read by thousands each day, always FREE.

32 Responses to "DIY and Real Estate Investor Profile – Maria from Handful of Thoughts"

  1. Interesting post, Mark, as always.

    One thing that struck me as I read was that we REALLY need to work on terms used for people in the financial service industry. Maria thought she had a financial advisor (rightly so, that’s likely what their business card said and what they called themselves), but what she actually had was a (commissioned) investment salesperson. At best, anyone selling products should call themselves an investment advisor (at best) and an investment salesperson (for more accuracy).

    This is why it is SO important for people to ask their ‘financial advisor’ or prospective advisor, some very key questions, like how they get paid, whether they receive commissions, what their background is, what kind of service you should expect to receive, how many clients they have, etc.

    There is some good work being done on clarifying terms as we speak, but it is a tough slog and unfortunately, the onus is on the client to figure things out at this point. Caveat emptor!

    1. Oh indeed. There are many in sales out there that can call themselves financial advisors – doesn’t mean that is correct and could be very misleading. I’m been writing about that for 10+ years…so very tough slog indeed. I mean, just on that, I get emails from Ken Kivenko every week reminding me/the industry about it 🙂

      I look forward to sharing your post with me soon – stay tuned!

  2. Hi Maria,

    What a story so far. Awesome discipline paying for your home so fast, doing some investing that you are evolving for the better, and having a commitment to your rental properties. Very well done and best wishes with your plans and dreams.

  3. Love the interview Mark,
    Maria and her husband did extremely well with 9 rental properties for sure she’s set for life.
    Real estate was great for me since i knew nothing about investing when i was in my 20’s and now with two rental properties that generates a juicy income here in Vancouver me and my wife we still debating on wether to sell them and invest the money for ease of liquidity and headache free ( although we’re so lucky with tenants so far problem free ) but yeah if i knew then that i can invest my money in REIT i would never buy an actual property but like Maria said there’s no one size fit all .

    1. Gus – it sounds like we were somewhat similar in our 20’s, we knew nothing about investing so got into real estate. It is not a get rich quick type of investment and is much better as a long term buy and hold. Sounds like you and your wife have done quite well for yourselves.

      1. Not complaining at all Maria , Infact I feel so blessed , paid off the two properties in 5-6 years with double payment and 10% down at the end of each year , now I have a 400k left on my mortgage that I’ve decided to take a different approach what some people call it hybrid I guess 🙂 I raised my payment by 50% and I’m still investing aggressively , I feel that now that I have enough equity in real estate+investment there’s no need to go nuts and pay it off to quickly, beside I learned a lot from sites like yours and Mark’s and Ben Felix’s video on how inflation works regarding your mortgage payment .
        At the end I believe as long as you save a chunk of your income and invest it you’ll be fine if it’s real estate or investment.

    2. Definitely no one size fits all. Many ways to financial independence via investing in stocks, private equity, real estate, being an entrepreneur and growing your own business or corporation, the list goes on.

      With 2 rentals in Vancouver you sound more than fine Gus with problem-free tenants! 🙂

    1. AnotherLoonie – we are definitely getting close to the work optional point of our journey. I haven’t been paying into my pension for too long as it was a later career change for me. It will be a nice bump but nothing crazy. My husband is also very conservative and wants to leave a financial legacy to causes that are dear to us.

  4. Mark – new subscriber here. Great content on your website and thanks for sharing investor profiles.

    Maria – thanks for sharing your story. Do you have any post where you share your approach to picking up rentals and how you get to a positive cash flow?

  5. Hey Maria 🙂 great post! We too are in the pay off the mortgage ASAP camp even though the math might not say so. The peace of mind combined with lower monthly expenses is an amazing feeling. We had a rental that we sold in 2017 thinking we would never be landlords again but here we are with a rented out townhouse again as of this October. It’s more of a short term play for us. Kudos to you for figuring out how to reach FI through real estate 🙂 Have properties appreciated for you in Edmonton over the years? Things have been a bit stagnant here in Calgary.

    1. Hey Court:) I remember reading that you did quite well with real estate when you sold. Sometimes it all comes down to timing. Properties have not appreciated much here if at all. But we have no plans to sell them in the short term. Now if all of a sudden there was massive appreciation we may consider liquidating our portfolio.

  6. Sounds like they are doing well and are able to manage their investments. Me/we, never had any interest, probably because I didn’t want to take on the debt or have the time/ability to manage real estate. Thankfully, we achieved our modest income goal without taking the debt route.

  7. “don’t feel like you have to wait for things to be perfect before making a transition to work optional. Those few extra years that you are waiting for perfection in your plan or investments are years you can never get back.” Absolutely, totally, 100% agree! I have come to believe it is the risks in life we don’t take that we will come to regret. With a bit of planning and some flexibility you create options for yourself and can reduce those risks. Thanks for sharing Maria and all the best on your journey.
    I have some questions. What is your timeline for work optional? Why are you not using a property management service? You have a total of nine rentals. Are they individual properties (house), apartment style buildings, or a combination?

    1. Thanks Gruff.

      My timeline for work optional is very flexible right now. We are trying to grow our family so a lot depends on that at the moment.

      We aren’t using a property manager because we wanted to learn and keep the extra cashflow to ourselves. As our properties are all newer the management is pretty low key for the most part. We also enjoy getting to know who is living in our properties and they appreciate working directly with us and not a company.

      All of our rentals are individual properties, 9 properties, 9 doors.

    2. Thanks for reading Gruff and well put by Maria I thought as well. Life is short. Gotta set some goals and get after them if you can! Goals often mean some risks!

    1. Congratulations on your success. I never dared to be a landlord myself but many of my friends are and they are doing very well.

      Echo on your suggestion to have a plan. As I said here before, our life became much less stressful once we took a serious look at our finance and made a clear plan. Without knowing where we want to go and how to get there, we can never get anywhere.


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