In a new survey, more than 80% of Americans who were asked to define the American dream said "financial security for themselves and their family." But there must be a lot of pessimism out there, because more than half said they believe that dream is unattainable. So maybe it's no surprise that a third of those surveyed believe the American dream could, in fact, be disappearing.

The survey, commissioned by life insurance company MassMutual, covered more than 3,200 adults nationwide.

"Americans believe financial security is at the core of the American dream, but it is alarming that so many think it is beyond their reach," Mike Fanning, head of MassMutual U.S., said in a press release accompanying the survey. 

Change stacks sit near a plasitc house as someone writes on a notebook.

Home ownership is considered part of the American dream by some. Image source: Getty Images.

How do people see the American dream?

The American dream is rooted in the idea that in the U.S., you can start with nothing and work your way to financial success. The definition of success varies depending upon whom you ask, but there were some clear answers in the data from the survey. Besides the 82% who listed financial security for their family, other leading choices were:

  • "Owning a home" (75%).
  • "Achieving financial independence" (71%).

Those answers are all sort of related -- home ownership has often been a path to financial security and a symbol of achieving the American dream.

But more than half (54%) said they don't believe they will be able to achieve long-term financial security.

What can you do?

If you agree with that majority, maybe you should revise your approach to financial planning. Because if anything, the survey indicates that there is a clear disconnect in those results. 

For example, most of those surveyed (82%) were confident that they could pay their bills and meet their budget in the short term. Almost three-quarters (74%) felt they could afford a big-ticket purchase while, as noted above, 54% did not believe they could achieve long-term financial security.

But long-term goals require long-term thinking. In reality, you can't afford a big-ticket item now if you're not properly saving for the future.

Think of it this way: If it's Monday and you have $1,000 -- the exact amount of your rent, which is due Tuesday -- you can't afford to go out to eat. Yes, you have the money. But if you spend that money, you won't be able to meet a more important obligation down the road.

Achieving the American dream requires discipline. And that means short-term sacrifices. The first step in most cases is building an emergency savings fund that will cover around six months of expenses should disaster strike (like illness or job loss).

After that, you need to figure out what your goals are and what they will cost. To achieve financial security, you need to be able to define what it means for you (the survey results indicate most Americans can check off that box, at least). Once you have done that, it's important to create a savings/investment plan that rewards you for diligently working toward your goal.

Achieving financial security means creating a budget, sticking to it, and adjusting it as your circumstances change. It may also mean some tough choices like buying a smaller house than you want or sending your child to a state college.

For many Americans, this will mean having less now in order to have what they need later. That's not fun, but in your financially secure future, you'll look back and probably won't regret skipping that vacation, forgoing that big-ticket purchase, or working all those hours in a side hustle to achieve your American dream.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.