Rethinking the American Dream

The American Dream now costs $130,000 a year. At least that's the figure USA Today came up with. Rethinking my money-based version of the American Dream helped me discover there is more to life than checking boxes.
07/16/2014 04:06 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2014

The American Dream now costs $130,000 a year. At least that's the figure USA Today came up with in its recent article, "Price Tag for the American Dream." USA Today derived that figure based on a family of four, taking into account items such as the cost of home ownership, groceries, a car, health insurance, taxes, retirement and education. The article puts a price tag on what it takes to achieve the dream.

And yet, $130k is beyond the reach for 7 out of 8 Americans, where the median salary is just $51,000. Does that mean the American Dream is on its way to extinction?

The article was written in response to the new book Chasing the American Dream. In it, social scientists-turned-authors take an in-depth look at the origins and dynamics of the American Dream and what it means in our current economic climate. "The American dream has served as a road map for the way we often envision the course of our lives," they wrote.

But that road map is not based purely on achieving financial objectives. When you examine the origin of the term American Dream, it was more about opportunities and achieving fulfillment than making money. James Truslow Adams coined the phrase in his 1931 book, The Epic of America, in which he described the American Dream as:

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 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.

Many of us picture the American Dream largely in monetary terms, and it took me a lot of years to rethink my own ideas about it. After graduation from school some 30 years ago, I eagerly began pursuing what I then considered to be the American Dream. I made it my mission to work hard and earn enough money to own my home, drive a nice car, send my kids to college, travel well, and retire comfortably.

I did it all. I checked all the boxes: home, car, college, vacation, and nest egg. And then, when I reached my fifties, I started to wonder, Is this all there is? Is life really about the things money can buy?

Of course not. Virtually all of us value our closest relationships far more than our stuff. We understand the joy of helping someone else often trumps the pleasure of a shiny new purchase. We love participating in activities that engage us and make us feel fulfilled.

Yet, our unrelenting pursuit of our idea of the American Dream often leads us astray. The irony is that our pursuit of more money, so we can buy more stuff, often takes us away from what really matters to us.

We know this, yet we continue to chase that version of the American Dream. Why? Because we get a burst of happiness when we buy the new thing. It feels good, but the pleasure quickly fades. We are left longing for more, for the next luxury purchase hit.

Maybe it's time to rethink your version of the American Dream, as I had to do. It may help to remind yourself about who and what provide you lasting satisfaction, and focus on the pursuit of those relationships and experiences.

As the authors of Chasing the American Dream wrote:

The American Dream has ultimately been about the manner in which our lives unfold and the ability of the individual, no matter where he or she comes from, to exert considerable control and freedom over how that process occurs. In a sense, it is about being able to live out our individual biographies to their fullest extent.

Rethinking my money-based version of the American Dream helped me discover there is more to life than checking boxes. So even though temptations to slip into old patterns abound, I'm sticking with the American Dream defined by Adams in 1931, and reinforced in this new book, a version that envisions every one of us having the control and freedom to live a life of fulfillment based on our capabilities. I'm optimistic enough to believe that version of the American Dream will never be extinct. We may just need occasional reminders that it's not just about "motor cars and high wages." You really can't put a price tag on the American Dream.

David Geller is the author of Wealth and Happiness: Using Your Wealth to Create a Better Life. He is the CEO of Atlanta-based GV Financial Advisors and is available for professional speaking engagements.