The American Dream? No, Thank you!

I took a film class where a whole section was on the American Dream. We talked about how, in film (and other mediums), the American dream is represented by a working father, children, a cute house with a yard and a white picket fence. Even after identifying those symbols and how they are a ridiculous representation of the American Dream, I still had those ideas ingrained in me as the symbols of success.

After being unemployed during the Great Recession, we were able to move to Alaska and buy a small house (thanks to our unemployment game). The house we purchased was literally the only one on the market that fit in our price range and had the amount of bedrooms we wanted. We finally felt much more secure than we had before and we loved our new area, but things didn’t feel settled. It was the first time we had to ask ourselves “now what?” We had the job, the house, the family. What’s next? We felt stagnant in our finances. We were saving, but no more than basic retirement savings. I wanted to figure out how to motivate us to change and save more. At this point, I defaulted to that oft-portrayed vision of the American Dream.

You would think that moving to Alaska would be enough to break me of the “American Dream” mentality. We just moved to this amazing place, bought a house after being unemployed for nearly a year, and we were comfortable. Also, the stereotypical vision of the “American Dream” is nearly impossible in Anchorage. There is a housing shortage, but also, the houses that are here aren’t arranged in classic neighborhood formations. There are a few of those around town, but most are just smashed in wherever there happened to be an open lot. New constructions are often in shady neighborhoods. And the houses are weird looking. You can find a standard, cute house that’s up to lower-48 cuteness standards, but they aren’t the norm. And the white picket fence? Those are even harder to find! A moose can jump right over those! But, guess what? I found a house that fit the specs perfectly! I drove Mr. T over there and he was on board, too. It was adorable. No, it wasn’t for sale, but I just needed to know it existed to motivate me toward it. I printed off a picture of it and put it on our bedroom door with a thermometer-type savings chart. I was ready to save!

A funny thing happened during the next year. Mr. T and I didn’t talk about that house and we ignored the savings chart. We let our finances stagnate. I thought about that house a lot because I saw it multiple times a day, but it didn’t motivate me to save. Every time I thought about moving there, I felt trapped. A bigger house would mean more time maintaining it. It would mean more chores, more stuff, and more responsibility. But that was all good, right? Everyone wants more stuff and more responsibility!

This past year, when Mr. T’s company started threatening lay-offs, we took the time to have a real discussion about what we would do. We admitted we didn’t want to be tied down. We want to pay off the mortgage we have, build a savings, and do our own thing… whatever that may be. As soon as we realized that’s what we really wanted to come next, our behavior changed. We’re motivated to save and we’re motivated to make daily choices that lead toward that future because we want it so badly!

The American Dream is not about a big house with a white picket fence; it’s about freedom! I recently came across the non-profit The Center for a New American Dream that strives to change that ingrained idea of ridiculousness. Founded in 1997, New Dream “seeks to change social norms around consumption and consumerism and to support the local movement of individuals and communities pursuing lifestyle and community action. We want to cultivate a new American dream—one that emphasizes community, ecological sustainability, and a celebration of non-material values, while upholding the spirit of the traditional American dream of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. New Dream envisions a society that pursues not just ‘more,’ but more of what matters—and less of what doesn’t.” How awesome is that?

We only changed our behavior once we defined what mattered the most to us. Someone else’s idea of what our dream should be didn’t work. It even made things worse. Neither of us wanted to admit that we didn’t want what we were “supposed to” want.

Consider your dreams. Are they just visions of what you’ve seen in films? Are they dreams society tells you are the ones you should be pursuing? Or are your dreams YOURS? Have you figured out what matters and tried to seek more of that instead of the stuff the matters less? That’s what we’re attempting. Let’s redefine this American dream and seek what matters most.

new american dream

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28 Comments

  1. Kim from Philadelphia

    Maggie- I share your vision for an “alternate” dream. Money means security and freedom to me, as well as being able to bless others who need help. That’s about it.

    I save best when working toward a goal. Before we married I worked hard at paying off my large grad school debt. Once we got engaged we both worked hard to save for a very modest wedding and a nice house down payment. Then we knocked off the rest of my loans, car payments, and bulked up our savings. Then when we chose to adopt internationally we squirreled away for that. Once our son was home with us ( and our savings were depleted) we focused on building savings up. Then we focused on mortgage payoff (which happened 3 years ago, yeah!)

    I mention all this because I’m currently feeling a little adrift with our savings. Sometimes it feels strange just to keep adding with an early retirement in mind. I’m such a concrete person I have to get over this concept, because it’s a real goal, not an abstract one.
    We have helped out a friend and a family member who have been going through rough times. Actually that made me even happier than continuing my money “stockpile”!!

    We’ve made quality of life improvements; I now work 3.5 days a week and no longer work additional nights and weekends like I did in the past. My husband has a 9-5 job and he says he doesn’t quite feel ready to downshift and just freelance.
    So maybe the best plan is to be content with what we’ve done so far, enjoy the fact we have no money stress, and just continue through this”phase”, realizing all of our blessings.
    However the goal oriented saver in me feels a little stagnant!I feel very ungrateful when I say that- just wanted to put that out there!!

    • MaggieBanks

      Kim – Your journey has been awesome so far! Now is the time you form your concrete ideas for your future self. Where do you actually want to be in 20 years. If you already have the “stockpile” to get you there, give money away. Or maybe you want to build up a “give away fund” so that in ten years, or five, or whenever, you can focus on where you want to spend that money. We stagnated when we got comfortable. Sure, our mortgage wasn’t paid off yet (congrats on yours!), but we just felt like we arrived and didn’t know where to go next. Figure out a future that excites you. And plan for that. Saving for a concrete future is always better than just saving. That’s my two cents. 🙂

  2. The American Dream is shifting. The days of working for a single company for your entire career are a thing of the past. Loyalty is not a word that is common is business today. It’s important that we follow what we value and not just join the herd from generations past.

    • MaggieBanks

      It’s true. Back in the days the company’s offered excellent pensions for sticking with them, that was the norm. Now, those are no longer really around, so there’s no incentive to work until 65 or stay with one company. It’s time to decide what FREEDOM means for each of us and work toward that instead of following the crowd like lemmings.

  3. This is such an important point. When I started my first full-time job out of school, I thought my dreams were aligned with the traditional “American dream” you describe, and I spent accordingly, buying a relatively expensive car and renting a fancy downtown apartment (one that I would deem “too expensive” today, even though I make twice as much now). A few years later, I got dangerously close to upgrading my vehicle again — but thankfully found the FIRE community online and reassessed my long-term goals and plans.

    • MaggieBanks

      Some people are legitimately happy on that path… I don’t deny that. But more people need to realize that it’s not the only path and reassess what they really want from life. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  4. We love New Dream! They do the So Kind Registry that we’ve mentioned a few times. And what’s crazy, is their “new dream” isn’t actually new, it’s throwback. If you talk to grandparents or great grandparents who grew up during the depression, their dreams were very modest: they wanted *a* house, but not the mcmansions of today. I remember my grandmother telling me once how they felt like they’d made it when they moved into this “big” house in the town where they lived, and then we went to see it, and I couldn’t believe how small and modest it was. (850 square feet, maybe? For a couple and three kids.) But they felt like that was the cat’s pajamas. Somewhere along the line, we as a society let lifestyle inflation run away with us, and now the American Dream is much closer to the Kardashians than it is to the modest homes of yesteryear. So I think it’s great that you guys have deliberately right-sized your expectations to match your own goals and values, rather than staying with the herd.

    • MaggieBanks

      They’re an amazing organization. And I agree with you… the “new” dream is the old dream. I’ve actually been obsessed with looking at the floorplans of early homes. They were all squares or rectangles and made such excellent use of space. All of today’s floorplans are such dumb wastes of space.

  5. Maggie – I love this. First of all, of course another matching thing! I took a course in college called “Myth in Film.” A lot of it related to a concept called Heroes Journey, but oftentimes this journey revolves around the theme of ‘The American Dream.’ When we are consistently bombarded with these themes through cultural stories, entertainment, arts, we begin to get programmed to believe they should be true. Then, when people think beyond the norms of ‘The American Dream,’ they’re seen as outcasts (not necessarily outliers). I am SO for redefining the American Dream and I definitely need to check out The Center for The New American Dream. When I reflect back on my younger years, whenever people asked what I wanted in life – my answer was always “to be truly happy.” From before the age 10, I hoped to seek & discover what discovering true “happiness” meant to me in life – not things, not stuff, not a big house, or a white picket fence. In doing so, I have learned overtime that “happiness” has a different definition for everyone! Some of my happiness could be cookie dough & reading, while someone else’s happiness could be rock climbing & making homemade soaps. The best part is that finding your happiness & evolving your ‘American Dream’ isn’t set in stone, it can always be revamped! 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      My happiness is much closer to the cookie dough and reading than the rock climbing and soap making… maybe I’m lazy? But you know I Love a good dance party! But figuring out what makes us truly happy is tough… we are bombarded with so many messages as to what “should” make us happy. Figuring out what actually does is awesome and changes everything. And the American Dream isn’t supposed to be about acquiring more stuff. It’s supposed to be about finding happiness and freedom in your own circumstances.

  6. I have to say, that our version of the American Dream may be a little similar to that mentioned above, it’s more about freedom than things. Yes, we want a house, but we will definitely downsize from our TX abode. When we were looking to buy here, the houses in the smaller size we wanted were in a hot real estate market, so they were $100-$150k more than what we ended up paying, and they also needed about $50k-$100k renovations/updating. Think Aluminum wiring, nothing updated since the house was built 25 years ago or more, type issues.
    Going thru layoffs and layoff scares all around us, we even more decided what our American Dream was. Our plan to get there is the shortest path which means staying in our current situation until we get forced out of it or hit our FI goal and enact our Lifestyle Change.

    I still like checking out homes and land for sale in our relocation area, because it helps keep me focused on where I want to be in a few years. Even though it sucks at times seeing “the perfect place” and knowing it probably won’t be on the market in a few years. 🙂 Our American Dream is ours and is probably different from yours, and everyone else in this community, but they’re probably similar in that they’re nothing like the “mainstream dream”.

    • The image that comes to mine for ‘what is your American Dream?’ is just being able to sit on a porch next to Mr. SSC and have a peaceful view (hopefully mountains) just having idle conversation while sipping on some coffee… hence the blog name.

      Honestly, when I think of the “American Dream” I think of the Declaration of Independence – ” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

      • MaggieBanks

        Defining what your American Dream is what inspired your journey. And that is the real definition of American dream… we can all pursue Happiness in our own ways. Isn’t it great?

    • MaggieBanks

      Breaking away from the herd dream is what makes your path worth walking! I spend my time coveting small, well utilized space in home designs. 🙂

  7. YES YES YES! The “American Dream” will haunt you even when you don’t realize it! I’ve been feeling this way about buying a house recently. I feel like it’s something I *should* do in order to be a successful and fully-functioning adult, but the truth is that the mere thought of home ownership stresses me the f*** out. But recently, I’ve been realizing that my subconscious fears about success are just that, fears. I’m not sure what my future will hold with renting, but I do know that I want to buy a house because it’s what I want and not because it’s what I feel like I *should* do.

    I’m so glad that you were able to make these discoveries for you and your family. It sounds like life is already so much richer, in every possible way 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      Dreams shouldn’t stress us out or be the root of fears. I realized when it wasn’t motivating us, that it wasn’t our dream. A dream should get you out of bed in the morning to get it! It shouldn’t be some unattainable vision created by someone else. It should be YOUR dream. I don’t regret home ownership. I love our current home. And I don’t need to feel like it’s inadequate because there are better ones out there. It works perfect for us, and that’s all that matters.

  8. My American Dream was to own a house on a lake. Notice the “was”. I just recently let go of it this year when I really sat down and contemplated what was most important to me. What helped was to look at houses for sale on lakes and realize nothing fit .The dream would cost more, require more maintenance, or was a house that didn’t make me feel good. My husband was always so so about it anyway.

    • MaggieBanks

      Yeah, it’s easy to picture yourself on a carefree day in a house on a lake… but when you actually take reality into consideration, the standard dream becomes stressful and unattainable. Much better to create your own dream and pursue happiness in your own way. Excellent example, Lisa.

  9. Very cool story, and one that I most definitely share – but only after learning the hard way. Moving out to Arizona, I very much followed the traditional American Dream nonsense. I bought a home in the suburbs and commuted into work every day. I had a couple cars and bought a motorcycle, too. I had the big screen television and HD TV service. I conformed as perfectly as I could to the American Dream.

    But like you, one day I finally asked myself…why? Who cares whether I have a house in the suburbs, or the two cars, or the expensive television service. What was all this “stuff” truly for, anyway? It may have made me temporarily happy when I first spent money on it, but now it’s just…stuff. I hardly notice it any more, but yet, I keep paying for it. Ugh, I can’t be doing this right.

    The sad part is I WAS doing it right – “right” as defined by the traditional American Dream crap that we keep telling ourselves. It didn’t matter whether I truly got enjoyment out of all that stuff or not. The more important part was that I HAVE IT, and that I am “living the American Dream”. It’s all mine. I made it. I’m living like everybody else who has well-paying full time jobs. This is what I’m supposed to be doing, I guess.

    Of course, all that stuff is pure, fluffy B.S. I’m thankful for the early retirement community that showed me that there is, in reality, a different way. A BETTER way.

    A much, much better way. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks for sharing your story, Steve. I’m grateful we realized it was not our dream before we actually threw money at it! Buying stuff is super exciting… for a day. It’s sad that bigger, better, faster is still the prevailing theme in American mentality. We need to change the American dream back to the main idea – the individual pursuit of freedom – INDIVIDUALLY. Your freedom is not my freedom and your happiness will look different than mine. And isn’t that AWESOME?! I’m thankful for the early retirement community as well that helped us challenge our dreams and align them with our actual goals.

  10. I don’t know if it’s maturity, or age, or my personality but as I get older, I care less about other’s perceptions and cultural “norms”. I’m more concerned about what makes me happy, and my friends/family.

    • MaggieBanks

      I agree with you, but sometimes we get confused about what truly makes us happy. I’ve never cared about what other people thought of me… that’s not my problem. I’ve never cared to keep up with the Joneses, but I was guilty of thinking the standard “dream” was my dream when it wasn’t.

  11. I couldn’t agree more with your take on the American Dream. We’ve taken the concept of self-sufficiency and radical self-actualization and let it become about one-upsmanship. The idea of the white picket fence was about what you can achieve from nothing, not the “stuff” itself!

    We’re very glad to be off the beaten path, and very glad to be in such good company as in the FIRE community. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      YES! Self-sufficiency is NOT the same as competition! An excellent point. We’re also glad to be among such great people. 🙂

  12. This post really hit home with me. About a year ago, we nearly committee financial suicide by buying a large home that we couldn’t easily afford (one of my first posts was about it). Thankfully that house had mold at inspection time and we were “forced” to walk away. Since then, we have embraced our smaller (but really nice and artsy fartsy home) with a small mortgage and even smaller utility bills. Our goal is to pay this off and invest (big time) for our future to gain financial freedom. That never would’ve happened in the larger home. We would’ve been stuck on the old American consumerism hampster wheel. Can I get a woot woot for mold?!

    Mrs. Mad Money Monster

    • MaggieBanks

      Sorry… I can’t ever give a woot woot for mold. 🙂 But in this case, I’ll definitely say I’m glad it helped you find your true dream!

  13. B

    The American Dream is what nost Americans envisioned but they are not the most perfect. We are build to become a machine and to drive America greater, at the expense of our very ownself desire.

    • MaggieBanks

      But I also think if everyone was actually free to do what they wanted to do, the entrepreneurial spirit of America was flourish even moreso!

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