USA Today recently produced an article—along with a very nifty infographic—about the “Price tag for the American Dream.” Their conclusion was that you need at least $130,000 to live this dream, but if you take some time to browse through what they deemed necessities, as well as the cost of those necessities, I think you may disagree. I sure do.
What’s the Cost of the American Dream?
The article splits the costs of their version of the American dream into three broad categories:
- Essentials at a cost of $58,491, including line items such as housing, transportation, and groceries.
- Extras at a cost of $17,009, including vacations, entertainment, and the ever-elusive miscellaneous expenses.
- Taxes and Savings at a cost of $54,857, including taxes, college savings, and retirement.
What’s amazing about these figures is the assumption that you can put a price tag on happiness and contentment. Most of my life I’ve heard the idea that home ownership is an integral facet of the American Dream, and the article’s author seems to agree. Therefore, you’ve fallen short of realizing the dream if you don’t live in a $275,000 home.
You also can’t be happy driving anything less than a four wheel drive SUV at a cost of $11,039 per year.
I guess I must be miserable living in my home that cost less than half his $275,000 figure while driving my paid-for-with-cash used minivan that cost little more than his projected yearly transportation expense. (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)
But oh, if you read the quote from Cornell professor and author Thomas A. Hirschi, you learn that, “It’s not about getting rich and making a lot of money. It’s about security.
Moving on past the essentials on the article’s list, you’ll find that “security” includes spending over $4,000 per year on vacations, more than $7,000 on entertainment and eating out, and $2,000 in miscellaneous expenses.
At least when you move on to the taxes and savings category you find some sensible wisdom in stocking money away for college and retirement.
Redefining the American Dream
Rather than head off into a diatribe of some sort, let’s take a moment and breathe deep.
Does the American Dream really cost $130K per year? Is it a given that you need to live in a certain size house to feel secure? In fact, do you have to live in a house at all? Do you need to drive a particular kind of car, or one within a certain price range? Do you need to be entertained and eat out all the time to be happy?
Yes, I agree with the reality that some neighborhoods are more safe than others. I agree with the reality that a new car is often a nicer car. I agree with the reality that going to movies and baseball games and eating Chick-fil-a all the time is really fun. I agree that having the latest iPhone and the fastest internet money can buy is pretty cool.
The article’s author sums up his findings by saying, “Nonetheless, it’s clear that though the American dream is still alive, fewer and fewer of us can afford to live it.”
Is that true? Do all those things equate living the American Dream?
When I look around find families who fit this article’s description of the American Dream you know what else I find? Debt and stress—lots of both.
No, not everyone who lives this lifestyle is in deep debt, and I know you’ll find just as many people who live below this lifestyle who are in debt as well. But there are so many people who’ve bought into a definition of the American Dream that’s similar to this article’s—that to be happy and feel secure you have to live as high a lifestyle as possible, and that anything less than the best leaves you insecure.
Unfortunately, so many Americans pursue this dream by taking the short cut of debt to get there, meaning they’re one lost paycheck away from a crisis.
What if we redefined the American Dream? What if we decided that our happiness has nothing to do with how much money we make, the size of our home, or the kind of car we drive? What if we began to understand that security can be built by getting out of debt and saving for the future? What if we learned to be content with—and thankful for—the amazing blessings living in America already affords us?
For a really brilliant analysis of this article, head over to Becoming Minimalist and read more.
Also published on Medium.
I’m Jeff M. Miller, and I help ordinary people who are stuck in a rut change their behaviors so they can be extraordinary. I’m an entrepreneur who retired from my full-time job in my early 40s to work from home. I’m a financial counselor, life coach, graphic designer, and passionate believer in helping others improve their lives a little more each day.
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