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RISMEDIA, July 14, 2010—(MCT)—Courtney Zinter doesn’t have a big house with rooms full of stuff, a fancy car or a manicure habit. But she still has it all. Just not how the Joneses next door would define it. With a well-paying job, Zinter had no problem paying the mortgage on her 1,600-square-foot townhouse in Chaska, outside Minneapolis. But at 29, she sold it and moved to a $590-a-month studio apartment that overlooks a freeway on the outskirts of downtown Minneapolis.

She could have certainly afforded a rental that had at least a bedroom and separate living space in a hipper part of town. But she didn’t because she’s realized something that it takes many people decades, if not a lifetime, to figure out: Money and stuff don’t equal happiness.

Growing up in Silver Bay, Minn., with a dad who worked as a financial associate for Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, Zinter was schooled early on about the value of a dollar. And when she graduated from college in 2002, she followed in Dad’s footsteps, starting as a financial representative for the company. With a job in place, she checked off the next thing on the ‘you’re an adult now’ to-do list: homeownership. “I thought the thing to do was buy a house as soon as I could. You grow up thinking that’s what you do,” she said.

The townhouse she found was spacious, complete with a wet bar and patio. But over the years, her two-hour bus commute to downtown Minneapolis gave her plenty of time to think “What am I giving up for this place?”

Then a trip to El Salvador in November 2008 for a Habitat for Humanity project made her realize just how many things she owned and how little most of it meant to her. “I decided I had to make some changes in my life,” she said. So she sold her townhouse last fall for a bit less than she owed, found a good family for her piano and gave away a lot of her things.

Zinter set a goal to find an apartment for $500 per month—$1,000 less than her old mortgage payment. (The new place isn’t quite that low, but she no longer needs a bus pass). And that’s on top of her already impressive savings habits. She has more than $130,000 in retirement accounts, despite starting to invest during a decade when the stock market hasn’t been kind to aggressive young investors like herself. Her emergency savings is fully funded as well.

Many of us only realize after we buy the big house and the closets of clothing and toys that we have too much stuff and too many financial obligations. Unwinding ourselves from the financial burdens of a big house payment or car lease can be difficult, especially in this economy.

If you’re inspired by Zinter’s decision to downsize at a time in life when most people are trading up, how should you start?

-Make incremental changes. Zinter didn’t chuck all of her stuff at once. “I would often take laps around my house and ask myself ‘what I could get rid of without regretting my decision?’ If she realized she was only keeping something for sentimental value—like that large collection of T-shirts from high school that she never wore—she took pictures before chucking the stuff. She admits that she sometimes misses the oversized chair that went with her couch. “But I can only sit in one place at a time,” she said.

-Think about what you want, not what you think you’re supposed to want. When she decided to sell her townhouse, “It felt like in society’s eyes I was going backwards. I went from owning a nice place to renting this very small space.” Even today, she feels as if she needs to explain herself. Otherwise, people assume she’s forced to live below her means because she’s deep in debt.

-Save your money. “Even if you earn little interest, at least you saved it.”

-Fewer fixed expenses equals more freedom. “In my mind, if I get dependent on spending money every week or two on something, it becomes a fixed expense and I try to minimize those as much as possible. I guess it’s the freedom issue again. I’ve minimized what I have to spend each month, and the rest is mine for whatever I want to do with it.”

(c) 2010, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.