The American Dream: Not What Most Americans Think It Is

american dreamAccording to a recent “expert analysis” done by USA Today, the American Dream carries a price tag of $130,000 a year. I’m not going to go full-snark mode into the details of each of the listed expenses because I think my friend Holly at Club Thrifty did a great job at it, but one of the expenses listed in the analysis that I just can’t get over is $12,659 for groceries.

Listen, I’m a Mormon. I grew up in Utah. My dad has 11 siblings. I can fathom high grocery costs. But with an average household size of 2.59 people in the US, what in heaven’s name are these people buying at the grocery store? Sadly, that’s just one of the many ridiculous “necessary” expenses if you want to be living the American Dream.

Anyway, what is the American Dream? Sometime last year I posted that question on my wall. Of course, I got a few schmuck responses:

  • “Living in Europe”
  • “Not living under the tyranny of Obama and Reid,”
  • “Universal healthcare and wealth redistribution.”

I also unintentionally started a fiery Internet argument (which are always so pleasant) about entitlements, people with disabilities, and all that fun political stuff (enhances the unpleasantness). But then I got some thoughtful responses that weren’t overly stupid or political:

  • “Working hard resulting in prosperity. The opportunity to earn a comfortable life.”
  • “Having the opportunity to live your life freely, to give yourself and your family any kind of life you want to have.”
  • “Working hard for the things you want.”
  • “Equality in opportunity not outcome. Everyone having the change to pursue the life they want to become what they want so long as it does not take away the freedom of others.”

The Real American Dream

The biggest thing I got out of those responses was that the American Dream is all about opportunity, not money or things. I also found the original definition of the American Dream by the guy who first coined it, James Truslow Adams:

That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the American Dream I believe in, and I find it ridiculously insulting to attach a price tag to it. Since when is material wealth the one thing Americans care about so much that we label it our dream?

There are other parts of what have become the American Dream that drive me nuts as well. For example, buying a home. People want it so badly that they’ll jump into debt up to their eyeballs for it. And it’s not just the idea of buying a house. All of the sudden, we have to have the biggest house we can possibly “afford”. Honestly, from what I’ve experienced living in Europe, there’s no shame living in an apartment or renting a house. In fact, there are quite a few benefits to it.

And the list goes on and on. Why do we do this to ourselves? Does any of it really even matter? Why can’t we just go back to the original American Dream. You know, the one where 7 out of 8 Americans haven’t failed to achieve it (which is the number if you believe USA Today).

Let it Empower You

Personally, I don’t ever remember a time in my life where I haven’t lived the American Dream. Even back when I was an unemployed college graduate, living with my in-laws, and watching my wife go to work every day while I applied to as many jobs as possible. That episode of my life lasted 6 months. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but when you’re in the thick of it, it’s torture. No, I wasn’t happy about it. But I still had an opportunity to better my situation. I just had to take it, so I decided to start this blog. And here, less than a year later, I earn about as much from my freelance writing as I do my regular job.

You see, the American Dream is supposed to empower us as people. How many of you feel empowered by reading that article from USA Today? 1 out of every 8 of you, probably. But how many of you feel empowered when you recognize that you live in a country where there is always a way to better yourself, to live a life of achievements that can never be taken away, and to even live a more full and wealthy life by helping others reach that goal as well?

That’s the American Dream that makes me proud of where I’m from. It makes me feel empowered to know that with hard work, I can make my life into what I want it to be.

Of course, we’re not perfect. There are people who are still at a significant disadvantage because of the system that’s in place. But things have gotten better and things will continue to get better as long as we fight for the true American Dream. That shallow one isn’t going to get us anywhere, so forget about it. Let’s focus more on the opportunities and less on the results. Because honestly, who cares about the results as long as you’re genuinely happy?

What are your thoughts about the American Dream? Should there be a price tag? Or is USA Today a bunch of money-hungry yuppies?

(photo cred)


10 thoughts on “The American Dream: Not What Most Americans Think It Is

  1. I think that the American Dream is a mindset. I felt as if I was living the dream when I was poor and I still feel it today. My "dream" has never had anything to do with material possessions. It's always been about opportunity and having the freedom to fail or succeed.

    1. You sure you're American? 😉 Material possessions are where it's at! Although I am glad there are things like the minimalism movement going on. I think some of it's a little too much, but it's getting people thinking about putting happiness before owning crap.

  2. I think a big part of the American dream is enforcing control in your circumstances to improve (no matter what those circumstances are) instead of letting them control you. Yes, there are things that my husband and I want to do to improve our finances, but to do so we live very frugally and work hard for what we want.

    1. I agree! I see a lot of people who blame their failures on their circumstances and it drives me up the wall. We're all adults now. It's time to learn how to take control. I'm grateful we live in a country that allows that.

  3. You hit it right on the head. The opportunity to have a better, richer, fuller life is what I think the American dream is. Unfortunately, people confuse opportunity with entitlement. Yes, we all have the opportunity to earn money, buy what we want/need, but that doesn't mean we are all entitled to it – you have to work for it!

    1. Hey friend! Thanks for including the entitlement piece. I think that comes a lot with the territory of materialism–kids grow up having a lot of stuff so they start buying it before they can afford to because they're special snowflakes and they deserve it.

Leave a Reply