From Flat Broke to Netflix Fame: How Dream Home Makeover’s Syd and Shea McGee Risked It All

Years before they had become an Insta-famous design company or landed a Netflix home makeover show, Syd and Shea McGee were a young, broke couple with a big dream. 

In their new memoir, the New York Times bestseller Make Life Beautiful, which was released on October 27, the stars of Dream Home Makeover share the real story of the years of financial struggles, relationship woes and self-doubt that came before their rise to the top of the interior design world. 

In the book, which is part memoir, part design guide, Syd and Shea share their sometimes harrowing experience: starting with Shea quitting her PR job and taking design classes at the local community college, then Syd leaving a career in tech he hated to run the business side of Studio McGee, and eventually, the couple deciding to sell their home in California and move to cheaper Salt Lake City, Utah, to start again.

In an excerpt from the book, below, the couple shares how they felt at one of their lowest points, still living in California and struggling to make ends meet as they tried to grow their business and provide for their two young daughters, Wren, now 7, and Ivy, now 4.

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Syd

We canceled cable. We canceled gym memberships. We stopped going out to eat. We cut out everything that wasn’t mortgage or food, and even with that we had a strict grocery budget. I started selling off my bikes and surfboards and anything else I thought we could live without to give us a little breathing room. I sold a table we kept in the garage and a sofa I didn’t think we needed anymore. It came down to the question: Could we live without it? If we could, we sold it.

But no matter how much we cut our expenses, something always came up. We started using the credit card for emergencies, which turned into using the credit card for anything we couldn’t cover at the end of the month. We were losing ground quickly, making my lack of contribution even worse.

After Shea walked the beach trail every morning, she spent every other moment tending to Wren or her business. The sound of Wren giggling as Shea blew raspberries on Wren’s chubby belly almost physically hurt because I knew that minutes later Shea would have to shift her attention away from their precious time together to keep up with her design projects. I’d hang with Wren while Shea met with clients, but she was always juggling phone calls during nap time, Instagram posts while Wren jumped in the bouncer, and e-designs until all hours of the night. 

Shea

A few months earlier I’d never had to think about what I bought at the grocery store. Now I stood in the middle of the cereal aisle comparing the prices of generic brands before I put one in my cart. My cheeks would flush as the cashier rang me up. More than once I had to put things back to get the total under our weekly budget. The worst weeks were when I had to pay for groceries with a credit card.

I was angry at myself for failing to provide basic necessities for my family. I was ashamed that I cared what other people would think. I felt sick knowing we would have a safety net if I hadn’t been so focused on spending all our money to build my portfolio.

I wanted to support Syd, but some days I felt like too much was placed on my shoulders. I began to feel resentful he’d put us in this position. I was frustrated when I drove by moms at the park in the middle of the day while I toted my baby to an upholstery shop. There was guilt when I checked emails while feeding her cereal puffs and sadness when I sat in her room and rocked her.

Wren’s room, with the hummingbird wallpaper and sheepskin rug, was my escape. I could shut the door, rest my head on the back of the glider, and let the tears fall. I’m a fighter, but I couldn’t see my way out of this situation. I examined our circumstances a million different ways. We could take out a loan to fund my business and go into even more debt, ride out the storm and hope Syd figured out what he wanted to do with his life, take on more projects to fill the few hours I had left in the day, or sell our house and move back into an apartment. We wanted to solve our own problems, so asking our parents for money wasn’t an option for us. All our choices felt either unsustainable or like giving up.

Taken from Make Life Beautiful by Syd and Shea McGee Copyright © 2020 by Syd and Shea McGee. Used by permission of Harper Horizon

Now, the McGees can truly say that their early hardships made them stronger as both a couple and as business owners. In addition to their show and book, their design firm is a huge success with projects in Utah and beyond. They have a home collection at Target as well as their own decor line called McGee & Co.

The pair also finished building their own dream home for their family in Salt Lake City from the ground up and moved in earlier this year.

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