The following was initially written for Sustainable Baby Steps but has been edited and modified to reflect our current attitudes toward the status quo. It is my own preface to an exciting article that will be published in the forthcoming Issue 14 of Tiny House Magazine (authored by Rachel Rowell).

American Eagle

“That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”

The first use of the phrase “American Dream” was in James Truslow Adams’s 1931 book The Epic of America. But what exactly is The American Dream? The authors of the United States’ Declaration of Independence held certain 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.  Is this sentiment the foundation of the American Dream? Is there still an American Dream? If so, is it a so much a dream as it is an illusion?

Those ideas are something that my wife and I battled with during the year it took us to understand our own desires for a life “better and richer and fuller.” Much to our surprise though we discovered The American Dream had somehow become a dogmatic statement at best and a nightmare at worst.

Were homesteaders who left the big cities of the east to find happiness and their piece of land in the unknown wilderness pursuing these inalienable Rights? What about those that crossed through the gates of Ellis Island looking for their stake in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Was that their dream? Or how about the WWII vet, crossing the Pacific heading home to settle down, have a home, a car and a family. Was that The American Dream? If so, was this dream attainable by all Americans?

Many would argue that the American Dream has become all about the pursuit of material prosperity. People work more hours than ever to obtain bigger cars, fancier homes, the tangible and visible rewards of prosperity. But at what expense? These same people have less time to enjoy their prosperity than ever before in history. And that isn’t even to mention the belief that The American Dream is beyond the grasp of most Americans (we call them “the middle class”) because they have to work two and sometimes three full time jobs just to insure the survival of their families.

Did You Know?

  • In recent years U.S. families have experienced an astounding decline in wealth.  According to the Federal Reserve, the median net worth of families in the United States declined from $126,400 in 2007 to $77,300 in 2010.
  • The United States was once ranked #1 in the world in GDP per capita.  Today we have slipped to #12.
  • Today, approximately 25 million American adults are living with their parents out of necessity rather than choice.
  •  48 percent of all Americans are either considered to be “low income” or are living in poverty.

If these few statistics represent The modern American Dream than perhaps it is the kind of dream you wake up from with sweat trickling down your hairline and your breath quickened.

I submit to you that there are Americans out there though who are redefining The American Dream. They are rejecting the status quo and literally rewriting their own history. Much like my family did several years ago, these new Americans are rejecting corporate careers, large homes, fancy cars, lavish resort style vacations, and lush retirements in favor of more immediate returns. They are downsizing their lives. They are assessing their need versus their want. They are working less hours for less pay and investing that time and energy into relationships, hobbies, and passions. They are replacing George Washington and Ben Franklin with Henry David Thoreau.

How Can You Wake Up From The Dream?

Reassess your current financial situation. For us this meant getting out of debt. It was no easy task either. When we married we were just north of $40k in the hole. To get out of that hole we didn’t turn to any professional or a life manager or even a book. We simply did what seemed most logical. We first quit spending. Then we consolidated what we could and started paying every penny we could towards debt. Much like the popular “snowball strategy” we paid off the smallest debt first and then worked our way to the largest. In 3 years we had conquered that mountain and along the way picked up some smart ways to live a more fiscally responsible life.

Need – vs – Want. It is a age old battle. What do we need to thrive? What do we want along the way?  Oftentimes are wants are whimsical and are soon forgotten about but have dried us of much needed resources. Avoid compulsive buys and irresponsible shopping trips. Think about what you need and then augment – when possible – from that platform.

Stay Focused. We live in a fast-paced world full of distractions. You want to watch a TV show? You have to put up with the commercials that are bludgeoning you over the head with buy, buy, buy. It is the name of the game in these parts. Celebrities vie for your attention to get you to eat this burger or wear this watch. Don’t give in. Stay focused. Remember the goals you have set for yourself. Turn off the TV. Shut down the computer. Even put down your magazine or book. Instead pour yourself into relationships and memories. Stay focused.

In short, you can dream a more possible dream if you take the time to evaluate, decide, and execute. There are millions out there now that are redefining this antiquated and dysfunctional dream. They are choosing a more sustainable life. Less overhead = Less needed income. And that equation allows for a life well lived and well played.