The American Dream is Within Reach, But It’s Not What You Think

What is the American dream? 

The idea of a white picket fence in suburbia with 2.5 kids, a dog, and a cat reigns supreme in our collective version of the American dream, but is that what you want?

Is the dream real, or is it a wild fantasy spun by marketers to get more and more of your hard-earned money? 

Our idea of the American dream is a marketing ploy. And the crazy thing is, it’s working.

A Dream Based on Endless Consumerism

US companies spent more than five billion dollars on marketing in 2023, and they got a hefty return for their investment. Consumers spend over 17 trillion dollars a year. 

A company’s entire goal is to keep consumers wanting more and more. They sell the dream that their products can help us live a happier life, and we gobble it up. 

How Captilism Crafted the American Dream

Marketers honed in on the human desire for security and connection. They filled our airspace with advertisements screaming that we wouldn’t be happy until we had giant houses filled with stuff. 

They showed happy couples in comfortable houses using their products, making it seem like their products would make us desirable friends and partners. 

The message is clear: buying this shiny thing will bring you happiness. It will bring you friends and family, safety and security, everything you need for a full life. 

Acquiring more and more stuff became the benchmark for success. 

Relying on Credit to Fund the Dream

That stuff isn’t free, and it’s barely affordable. 

People lock themselves in mortgages, car notes, student loans, and trillions of dollars of consumer attempts in failed attempts to live the dream

It’s just a facade. These folks portray an impressive image, hoping everyone thinks they’re living the dream, but in reality, they’re drowning in debt. 

They don’t have time for anything but work. Vacations are a pipe dream, as they can’t afford to take time off. They have no energy to pursue their passions. They’re trapped in a nightmare of their own making, an endless cycle of working to pay off the debt they took out to have the things society told them they needed for happiness. 

Was the American Dream Ever Achievable?

“The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

-George Carlin

We like to think it wasn’t always like this, that there was a time when the American Dream was achievable for most people. Today’s younger generations decry society, claiming the American Dream was snatched from their clutches. 

But comedian George Carlin pointed out its elusive nature over 15 years ago. Was it ever achievable?

When we think about the dream that once was, we look to America’s most prosperous decade, the post-war 1950s, with nostalgia-tinted glasses.

Here, we see an idealistic life. Families could afford homes on a single income. Fathers worked eight-hour shifts while mothers raised the kids. Weekends were filled with neighborhood BBQs, pick-up sports, and family activities. Smart kids went off to college, which they paid for with part-time evening jobs. 

But nostalgia fails to tell the whole story. 

Only white families led by men could afford the dream. Women couldn’t own property or have bank accounts. Employers could discriminate on the basis of race and gender. Mortgage companies refused to lend to black families. Boys were groomed into college, while girls were groomed into marriage and housework. 

The “American Dream” allowed a small portion of society to stay on top at everyone else’s expense. 

A Dream Based on Falsehood

The American Dream has another glaring false premise. It’s predicated on the idea that everyone wants a single-family home, kids, and to work until they reach full retirement age. 

Society’s ideal life is filled with an endless barrage of stuff designed to impress people that don’t matter. Does that stuff genuinely lead to happiness?

The fancy outside layer hides a sinister secret: the stuff doesn’t make us happy, but we’re trapped by the time we realize it. So we pretend it does while dying inside. We turn to self-destructive behaviors to fill the empty holes inside of us. We spend our time vegging out in front of games and television to avoid the reality of our daily lives. 

Is this really the American Dream? 

It sounds more like a consumeristic trap, and once you fall in, it’s nearly impossible to dig out. The cycle repeats, fattening the pockets of big corporations while turning citizens into mindless drones who lack the energy to care. 

Is it any wonder that society and depression run rampant in our society when this is the life people strive to achieve?

The Real American Dream

We let advertisers control the narrative of the American Dream, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. It exists, but it’s not based on debt or stuff. 

Freedom is the real American Dream, and although we scream and shout about how much we have, it’s only an illusion for most of us. 

We can’t truly be free if we’re trapped in an endless cycle of work and debt to pay for things we don’t need. 

How To Achieve the Real American Dream

We don’t have to buy into this consumeristic culture. We can opt-out and return to the basic, fundamental American dream of freedom and opportunity. 

We can live our lives on our own terms, rejecting companies’ pleas to buy more and more. We can work for ourselves rather than for the debt collectors. 

Imagine what you could do if you weren’t held back by financial obligations you thought you needed. 

What would you do with your life if you didn’t have to work 40+ hours a week just to survive? How would you spend your money if you weren’t putting most of it into debt repayments? 

Imagine your ideal life. That’s the real dream. 

Here’s how you can break free from the nightmare and achieve it. 

Determine What You Want

The first step is deciding what you really want. From birth, we’re inundated with messages telling us what we’re supposed to want: the home (and accompanying mortgage), fast cars, prestigious job titles, marriage, children, etc. 

Do you really want all that?

It’s okay if you do, but it’s also okay to want something different. You can pursue all of it or none of it or pick and choose what works for you. 

The only important part is ensuring it’s what you really want. 

Discover What’s Holding You Back

What is stopping you from living your version of the American Dream? Why are you trapped in a life that doesn’t serve you?

Many of us bought into the propaganda, so we overburdened ourselves with debt, desperately trying to achieve someone else’s dream life. Others feel held back by family obligations or societal expectations

To overcome the barriers holding you back, you must understand what they are. 

Break Free From Debt

Most of us can’t achieve our dreams because we’re stuck in an endless cycle of debt. 

To live the true American Dream, you must break free. 

Examine your budget and cut expenses that won’t bring you to your dream life. You may need to give up bad habits, stop buying new clothes, or trade-in your car for something cheaper. Put all your extra money towards paying off consumer debt to get that load off your shoulders. 

You may need to increase your income to dig out. You can start a side hustle or take extra shifts at work. Keep in mind that these are short-term solutions to help you break free from debt—don’t fall into the trap of spending the extra money on more junk. 

Let Go of Expectations

Sometimes, it’s not money that holds us back but unrealistic societal expectations about what you’re “supposed” to do. 

Shrugging off other people’s ideas about how we should live is necessary for achieving your version of the American Dream. It may not be what your parents wanted or expected, and it’s hard to go against what you were raised to believe. But it’s your life, so you must live it how you want to. 

Develop an Action Plan

It’s time to turn your American Dream into an American reality. You must create an action plan to get what you want. 

While crafting your plan, ask yourself these questions:

  • Where will you live?
  • How will you fund your life?
  • How will you manage your responsibilities and obligations?
  • What specific steps do you need to take to get from where you are to where you want to be?

Your plan should include short- and long-term goals and the steps you will take to achieve each. 

Do What Makes You Happy

The true American dream is the ability to pursue your version of happiness. Society tries to tell us it comes from having the coolest new gadget, biggest house, and fastest car, but that’s not true. 

Everyone has a different idea of what makes them happy. When you live your life according to your own definition rather than someone else’s, you’ve truly achieved the American Dream. 


9 thoughts on “The American Dream is Within Reach, But It’s Not What You Think”

  1. I’ve been told that, back in the day that housing prices were sane (like, the ’50s/’60s/maybe ’70s), someone making minimum wage could afford a house payment. So the American dream wasn’t always about drowning in debt. It’s just that homeowning is so integrally tied to the American dream and housing prices have inflated so ridiculously that now the American dream equals serious debt.

    I will say that there are a few things that I do think could make me happy. A new iPhone, when I eventually get one to replace the 4S I inherited from my cousin, will have me over the moon. But no in general filling your house with stuff won’t fulfill you. Then again, neither will freedom unless you use it wisely. I think the trick is to position yourself so that if you are working, you’re not doing so just to finance your current lifestyle; and if you’re not working, you’re doing something meaningful with your time — even if it’s only meaningful to you.

    • Yeah thats true. I guess it’s just been that way for the majority of my adult life, and the “dream” hasn’t shifted with the new reality of over inflated housing prices. I also think it’s fine to find some happiness in material positions. I wasn’t trying to say we should all throw everything away and be minimalists haha.

      I love your key takeaway though – finding something meaningful, whether that’s paid work or not, is what will lead to happiness.

  2. Home prices and college tuition are two huge items that have increased in cost at a rate above inflation. And both are an integral part of the marketing of living the classic American Dream.
    It seems there has been a slight shift to fulfill an alternative American Dream, where these aren’t needed. Like Abigail says, that’s dependent on combing a solid financail plan to live the lifestyle that fits your dream today, and for your future, with meaning. Also key, being able to switch it up, freedom of choice.

    • Thats very true. Those two things have skyrocketed in my adult life alone. I do agree that a shift is happening, and I think it’s starting with us (and the fact that people just can’t afford it anymore). Understanding that we have freedom of choice is the most important part I think. thanks for the comment!

  3. Yes, I believe that much of our consumerism is due to marketing. The image of fat Santa Claus in red was largely made popular by Coke, the diamond ring is very much a DeBeers campaign. Sadly many of us believe that getting into debt to fund our spending is how we’re supposed to live life because that’s all we’ve seen on TV. If everyone can take a step back, we’d realize that we could have happiness with much less material possession. Oh well…

    • I totally agree! It’s hard to step back when we are surrounded with the message that it’s what we are supposed to do though. It isn’t easy to figure out that we don’t need to do it, and then to go against what everyone else says.

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