Coined by author James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America, the "American dream" is described as,
"'[T]hat dream of a land in which 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."
Everyone's path to reach the American dream is different. Yet there's always some common ground -- namely, that through hard work we hope to retire comfortably and on our own terms.
Five basic principles to help you achieve the American dream
Unfortunately, as we've seen from a number of recent polls, Americans' finances aren't necessarily on solid footing. U.S. personal savings rates are pretty poor, debt levels among middle-class families are high, and distrust of the stock market still exists following the credit bubble and mortgage crisis that precipitated the Great Recession. Now more than ever the American dream appears to be on the brink of disappearing.
But it doesn't have to.
If you follow five basic principles, you too can achieve the American dream of a comfortable retirement for you and your family.
1. Get a degree
It's perhaps one of the oldest debates: "Should I go to college?" Not going to college means saving potentially five- or six-digits in student loan costs, but not getting a degree could constrain your ability to move up the socioeconomic ladder. However, as Pew Research showed in a study two years ago, not going to college could have dire consequences on your ability to comfortably retire.
Based on Pew's analysis, which looked at the median salaries of millennials ages 25 to 32 who were working full-time, those with high school degrees were earning $28,000 annually. By comparison, millennials who obtained bachelor's degrees or higher were netting $45,500 per year. Both of these figures are in 2012 dollars. This $17,500 difference could be huge over the course of four decades: Not only can this income difference be invested and compound many times over, but presumably the college graduate will have greater opportunities to move up the economic rungs to collect an even higher wage.
If you want to get your retirement savings off on the right foot, you need to seriously consider getting a college degree.
2. Save as much as you can
Secondly, Americans need to kick their loose spending habits and learn to live on a budget. A Gallup poll conducted in 2013 showed that only around a third (32%) of U.S. households kept detailed monthly budgets. Not keeping a budget makes it very difficult for you to understand your cash flow, and if you don't understand how money is entering and exiting your checking account, you'll have a tough time optimally saving for retirement and funding your emergency account.
Thankfully, the solution is easier than ever these days: budgeting software. There are countless choices when it comes to budgeting software, and all programs handle the grunt work of doing math. Many can even help you formulate a strategy to save money. But budgeting also takes resolve on your end. This is where some keen budgeting tips can come in handy. Make sure you're doing what you can to get everyone in your household involved so you all remain accountable for your spending habits, and consider having what you save automatically deposited into a savings or retirement account on a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis to reduce the urge to spend.
The earlier you start saving, the quicker your nest egg can grow.
3. Invest for the long-term
The next step would be to take the money you've saved and look to invest it for the long-term.
Although your investments could take on many forms, I'd strongly suggest considering putting at least some of your money to work in the stock market. I know what you might be thinking, and yes, the stock market does have its pullbacks from time to time. Since 2000, we've witnessed two separate 50%+ drops in the broad-based S&P 500. However, we've also witnessed all 35 stock market corrections of 10% or greater in the S&P 500 completely erased by bull market rallies since 1950. Over the long term, stock market valuation tends to rise at a rate of 7% annually, including dividend reinvestment. This means you could double your money almost once every decade, assuming this average holds true.
Additionally, you'll want to focus on buying solid businesses, because trying to time your buying and selling activity is almost assuredly not going to turn out well. A study by J.P. Morgan Asset Management, using S&P 500 data from Lipper, between Dec. 31, 1993 and Dec. 31, 2013, shows that investors who held throughout the entirety of both huge 50%+ drops still gained more than 480% over the 20-year period. By comparison, if you missed the 10 best trading days, your return dipped to just 191%. If you missed a little more than 30 of the best trading days over this approximate 5,000 trading-day period, your return would fall into the negative. That's the power of long-term investing and compounding in action.
4. Be tax-savvy
The fourth thing you'll want to do is aim to give back as little of your wages and capital gains as possible to the federal and state government. There's no way of getting around completely paying taxes (so don't try it!), but there are things we can do to reduce our tax liability.
One of the smartest moves you can make is contributing to a Roth IRA. Although there are numerous investment tools we can choose from, the Roth IRA is arguably the best, because investment gains within a Roth are completely tax-free as long as no unqualified withdrawals are made. In addition, there are no age contribution limits with a Roth IRA (unlike a Traditional IRA), meaning you can keep contributing well beyond age 70. There are also no minimum distribution requirements. This point is important if you want to allow your money to continue growing, or aim to have a hefty inheritance to pass along to your family.
Also, take into consideration where you're living, as well as how you plan to withdraw your money during retirement. All 50 states seemingly have different tax laws, with some states being far more tax-friendly than others. If you choose to live and retire in a tax-friendly state, you could wind up saving a lot of money over the course of your lifetime and during your golden years.
Having a withdrawal plan in place prior to retirement means that you'll have laid out exactly how much money you'll need each year when you retire. Having a plan in place can potentially keep you from withdrawing too much money from say a 401(k) or investment account each year, and having that withdrawal bump you into a higher tax bracket.
Making small adjustments can save you big bucks come tax time.
5. Understand how to use debt
Finally, it's important that you maintain discipline when it comes to utilizing debt, as high levels of debt can cripple your ability to save, and can crush seniors' budgets during retirement.
What you'll want to keep in mind is that there are different kinds of debt, and they're not all bad. Student loan debt can be a good thing since it allows you to get a better paying job, but what you may want to consider is not aiming for Harvard. In-state colleges can often be cheaper than the most prestigious colleges, and may even offer a better return on your investment.
What you'd want to avoid is racking up debt on credit cards because you wanted the latest outfit or gadgets for you home. Since nearly all vehicles depreciate in value over time, auto loans are another notorious source of bad debt you should try to minimize.
Long story short, the better you manage your debt, the less likely it is to keep you from being able to sock away a good chunk of your income for an emergency or retirement.
The American dream has, and always will, require hard work, so be financially proactive and go claim your piece of the pie.