The Downsizing of an American Dream

by Linsey Knerl on 23 January 2008 11 comments
Photo: Jeff Rhines

Adults with high-paying jobs, nice cars, pretty homes, and a house full of kids are said to be living the American dream. I was drooling for that dream when I headed off to college, scholarships in hand, and a decision to make between becoming a lawyer or a teacher. As adulthood set in, however, my dreams became fuzzy, and my ideals became more concrete. My American dream changed, for better or worse, due to these common factors:

Location – Location really is everything. A move from the small town I was born to a metropolitan city of almost 1 million, changed my view of “what a girl needs.” The dumpy car I drove to college wasn’t good enough anymore. Even my poorest friends had nice rides. My dream was going to require me to make much more money.

After my marriage, several successive moves put me right back where I started. My 10-year-old car was a common mode of transportation, and the brand-new company car that my husband drove attracted more attention than it was worth. Our dream shifted again to satisfy more conservative standards.

Priorities – With only myself to care for, working two jobs in college seemed like a great way to pass the time. Extra money came in and was spent quickly on CD’s, bar tabs, and highlights. Building equity was a foreign idea designed for folks much older than myself, and my income was gone almost before I earned it. I still held on to the hope of “making it big” someday.

After I became a mother, new shoe purchases made way for diaper duty and prescription medicine. With no time to work outside of the home, our suddenly one-income family found new ways to make ends meet. The American dream was put on hold until a week when we could get more than a few hours’ sleep.

Satisfaction – Believe it or not, it has been awhile since I could buy something just because I wanted it. What’s more amazing is that I prefer it this way! As our standards of living have sunk to an all-time low, the level of satisfaction I have gotten from my purchases has been record-setting. Frugality has spawned a joy from every little thing we indulge in.

Our five year plan would have been met this month. Our new car, new home, two college degrees, and one child could have made us happy. We would have been living the America dream we always wanted.

Instead, we sit in a downsized version of our original plan. Older cars, (barely running at times), a strange rental situation, one set of graduate classes, and four kids grace our lives with their unplanned presence. We dream of owning a small business in our even smaller hometown and raising our family in a quiet, simple way.

It isn’t the dream we wanted years ago, and at times I’m not always sure it is the dream we will want years from now. I guess that is why it is the American dream; on any night where you can sleep soundly, it may change.

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Will Chen's picture

Thanks for sharing that with us Linsey. =)

As someone who has seen pictures of your beautiful kids, I'd say you came up way ahead on the dream scale.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I like the fact that you point out the value of the flexibility itself. Cool post.

Guest's picture
Josh

Thanks for a very honest post.

I think a lot of people can relate to what you're saying. I know I can.

In college I had enough money to pay for school but still got "free loans", did I save? Hell no, I was going to "make it big" so I figured I should live it up while I could in school.

When I entered the workplace (computer engineering at the biggest chipmaker in the world) I saw it was for what it was, a rat race. I thought it was going to be like in Atlas Shrugged where people were being creative and coming up with new and exciting new ideas, changing the world. But it wasn't, it was a contest to look better than the guy in the next cube over. I quit and went with a smaller, but similar company where I do not get paid as much but am closer to family.

I think in school we all had a skewed view of what we really want in life. Heck, I think I probably will have a much different view of what I really want in 10 years from now.

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Justin

As someone who, even now, sees his American Dream morphing every day, this post was soothing. Definitely enjoyed it. Good luck you and your growing family!

Linsey Knerl's picture

Always bringing the sweetness, aren't you?

I think you are right, however!

Guest's picture

The American dream is having security, peace and less stress.

I feel that my family and I are living the American Dream!

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Terri

Of all the dreams I had for you I know I couldn't ask for anything more than to read such sweet words coming from my daughter in such an eloquent way. It brought tears, Babe. P.S. Hope this doesn't embarrass you too much :)

Linsey Knerl's picture

Thanks, Mom!

Myscha Theriault's picture

Now that's just too sweet, you guys! It really is a cool post, Linsey.

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Sal

I started college by paying as I went out of my own pocket and then dropped out due to my partner & put him through school under the agreement he'd put me through when he was done.

When I went back almost 4 years later as a single Mom I remember composing the grueling essays for scholarships and grants... I remember the elation of getting enough to cover my tuition. I remember my college councilor telling me I'd be making 60k out of college & that I should take out loans to fix my car, etc because I'd have more then enough after I graduated.

Reality set in hard after graduation & I thought it was just me that had been ill advised during college but a few months ago I was talking to some people at work & they all got the same spiel in college... "Take out the loans incase you need it for living expenses because you'll be making plenty to pay it back later."

Here I sit with 2 degrees & I don't think I've ever made more then 25k... although I admit the single parent thing doesn’t help – I’ve been passed over for things because I can’t stay till 11pm working on a project. I really wish I could go back & tell myself in college to not take out those loans. Wonder if the people in those college offices get a kick back or something on the loans… or do they just have no concept of reality & finances?

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Guest

I really wish I could go back & tell myself in college to not take out those loans. Wonder if the people in those college offices get a kick back or something on the loans… or do they just have no concept of reality & finances?

Colleges need students to bring in money -- people who don't enroll don't contribute any tuition, fees (bigger than you think!), room and board, etc to the operation. People in "those offices" are there to get students enrolled and keep them enrolled. There is NO personal or institutional incentive to discourage students from enrolling and/or borrowing. Some people might be better off working more, enrolling for fewer hours, and borrowing (much) less. People in "those offices" are NOT financial advisors - they are "selling" education.