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The American Dream is Still Alive…You’re Just Not Doing It Right

“The American dream is dead…” I’m hearing this more and more recently, and I honestly can’t understand it. From my viewpoint, the American dream is still alive – and not only is it alive, but it seems to me that pretty much anyone from anywhere can earn millions of dollars during their lifetime!

the american dream is still alive

The American Dream is Still Alive…You’re Just Not Doing it Right

My name is Derek Sall. I grew up in a middle-class family.

My dad spent his days at the wood-working factory and then worked nights as a car dealer. My mom worked as a church custodian when I was young, and when I was older she took on a new part-time job as a hostess of a retirement home.

I think it’s safe to say that they didn’t earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Yet, they were still able to retire in their early 60’s.

Liz and I are on the same track. We’re middle-class income earners, but I figure we could easily retire by the time we hit 50 (probably much earlier, but that’s a story for another post…).

At this point, you’ve probably got a few questions:

  1. “What is the American dream anyway?”
  2. “Why are people saying it’s dead?”
  3. “And, how is it that you’re able to experience the American dream while so many others can’t?”

Love it. Let’s hit it.

What is the American Dream Anyway?

The Google dictionary defines the American dream as this (wait…there’s a Google dictionary? Apparently. It was news to me too!):

“The ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.”

In my opinion, the epitome of the American dream was displayed soon after WWII.

Men and women returned home after the war,

  • they found jobs,
  • bought a brand new house,
  • purchased a new car,
  • got married,
  • had kids

…and had the money to do all of those things! They worked, and they prospered – easy as that!

Today, the process is a little bit different.

It goes more like this.

  • Kids go to college
  • Some graduate, some don’t, but all seem to rack up student loan debt
  • They move back home with their parents because they can’t pay their bills
  • Finally, they get their feet under them and get a crappy apartment, but they still have student loan debt, car debt, and credit card debt
  • They might meet someone, move in together, but they keep their finances separate and hold onto their debts for decades…

Well…that sounds pretty crappy, but unfortunately it’s the new norm.

Why Is The American Dream Dead?

So what’s the root cause? And why are people saying that the American dream is dead?

We highlighted student loans above, and those are certainly a factor, but the issue is bigger than just that. According to a PBS discussion a couple years ago, many are saying that the American dream is dead because:

  • Wages for the middle class have been stagnant since the 1990’s
  • The ratio of household debt to income has risen from 64% in 1977 to over 100% today.
  • 19% of Americans 55-64 have no retirement savings or pensions
  • 63% believe their children will be worse off than they are

Stagnant wages, student loan debt, car debt, credit card debt, and the lack of pensions have all lead to a pretty dismal future in America….that is, for some. But not all…

The American Dream is Still Alive for Those That Believe

Strangely enough, at the same time we hear the doom and gloom stories of life in America, the growth of millionaires in our nation is shooting through the roof.

So what’s the deal?

Are these people becoming wealthy because they inherited it from their parents?

Nope – it turns out that only 6% of millionaires inherited the money.

So how is it that so many people are becoming millionaires in this “inopportune country”? 

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak for the track that I’m on that is working amazingly well.

(Reader beware: the plan outlined below is absolutely boring and uninteresting…but it works…and pretty much anyone can do it, which should put you on the edge of your seat. Am I right?? :))

The American Dream is Still Alive – How I Did It

The nice cars, the house, the fenced in yard, even the beefy retirement fund…I’ve got all of it. And you know what? I did it without a six-figure income.

How in the heck did I do that?

Here goes – I told you it’s boring….

That’s it.

Seriously. That’s our financial story.

Super simple.

With this simple plan, Liz and I have been able to live debt free for the past 3.5 years. By saving 70% of our income, we’ve been able to buy two rental houses with cash and stash another $100k or so into investments. If we invested in nothing else for the rest of our lives, we’d still be worth $3 million by the time we’re 65 years old.

I’d say the American dream is still alive, wouldn’t you??!

How Can Others Experience the American Dream?

Okay, so we’ve proven that it can still be done (and to be honest with you, plenty of other personal finance bloggers have done it too! It seems like every other week I hear about couples retiring in their 30’s!!), but how can everyone else get on track to experience the American dream with us?

First, you’ve got to believe it’s possible.

There are far too many people that assume debt is just a part of life. They take on student loans and ignore the balance until they graduate. Then, for some reason they think they deserve a new car and buy one with credit because ‘everyone else does’ (obviously not true…but they willingly believe the lie to get the shiny car).

At 23 years of age, most kids have racked up $30k+ in loans, mainly because they think it’s normal. That crippling belief keeps them shackled well into their mid-30’s.

If only they believed that a debt free life was possible – and not only that it was possible, but that it would propel them to great financial success!

Second, you’ve got to be willing to be different

Nobody wants to be singled out, pointed at, laughed at, mocked… So what do we do? Simple. We do what everyone else does.

We do it in high school with our hair style and our clothes. And in adulthood, we subconsciously do it with our debt. Not on purpose of course, but we (along with everyone else) take out student loans, rack up car debt, and even over-extend ourselves into a house that was probably out of our reach financially. We buy and spend because everyone else does and we don’t want to appear like we’re behind. So, we get that college education, the new wheels, and the picturesque house…all with debt.

Life would be great if everyone that followed this model ended up rich, but unfortunately that’s just not happening. Most will end up broke with nothing to show for their lifetime of earnings. It’s the reason so many people think the American dream is dead – and it’s because they’re doing it all wrong!

To get a dramatically different result from everyone else, it’s going to require you to take dramatically different actions.

  • Stop eating out all the time
  • Sell your expensive cars and drive beaters
  • Find a way to make extra money

Finally, just get rid of the debt, people

Stop trying to convince yourself that your debt is smart. With focus and drive to do away with all the debts, you’ll pay them off in record time – far faster than your nerdy calculations will show you – which actually makes the math work in the favor of the debt-payoff.

Related: How the Debt Snowball Really Works (Free Tool Included for YOUR Debt Snowball!!)

Please don’t try to re-calculate this, just trust me:

I paid off my $54,500 mortgage in one year with a $60,000 salary. Would I have ever thought this was possible based on a calculation? Absolutely not. But did I do it? Absolutely.

Throw your calculators away, tackle your debts head on, and knock them all out as quickly as possible. You’ll never regret it, and you’ll finally experience the American dream.

So, Is the American Dream Dead?

Is the American dream dead? Not even close. You’re just doing it wrong. To make it a reality, all you have to do is avoid debt like the plague, work hard at what you do, and save up and invest some money for the future.

It’s still possible, so get out there and start making it happen!!

The American dream is still alive in my household. How about in yours?

Battle of the Mind Money


My name is Derek, and I have my Bachelors Degree in Finance from Grand Valley State University. After graduation, I was not able to find a job that fully utilized my degree, but I still had a passion for Finance! So, I decided to focus my passion in the stock market. I studied Cash Flows, Balance Sheets, and Income Statements, put some money into the market and saw a good return on my investment. As satisfying as this was, I still felt that something was missing. I have a passion for Finance, but I also have a passion for people. If you have a willingness to learn, I will continue to teach.


  1. Derek, great post. The dream, as presented was attainable post WW 2, but for those after not so much. The original model must be modified. Housing, and education costs have skyrocketed. Pre-schools have waiting lists now and may cost more than an AS from the local community college. Having the biggest and “baddest” of everything and being in debt, sadly, is the norm.

    PS wrote about this on my blog.

    • Thanks Javier! Yup – most people want the best everything, and you’re right, that means debt. And, just like I learned with demo on my recent project house, it’s way easier to get yourself in a hole than to get out of it!! ie. It takes far longer to fix up a house than it does to demo it – the same is true of your finances.

  2. Hi Derek. I stumbled across your site today from a Google images picture on your Make a million in 10 years with Real Estate post. This article was a really good read, and it put a smile on my face. These days it’s easier to focus on the negative than the positive, rack up debt for appearances than save, and my ultimate favorite do what everyone else does because peer pressure is a…(rhymes with itch). I turned 25 this year and my girlfriend and I have been aggressively saving to buy our first home with the goal of renting out. My goodness is it challenging and takes discipline, but I must say you can get USED to saving and saying no just like you can be USED to spending and always saying yes. Awesome story and motivating! Enjoyed your site.

    • Glad you loved it, John. And glad you found us! Keep coming back. We’ve got some interesting reads coming your way!

  3. Hello derek,
    I was wondering if you could take a less intense approach to this and still live a debt free life. Do you think I could live off of 60 percent of my income, and invest the other 40 percent and still live a financially healthy life? This would include only having one debt which is a mortgage.

    • Ha, for sure! If you save and invest 40% of your income, you should still fair quite well in your retirement years! Most financial advisors recommend 15%… If you do 40%, you’ll be pretty safe. 😉

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