The particulars of the American Dream may have evolved a bit over time -- fewer millennials are aiming to own the proverbial home with the white picket fence, for example -- but in broad strokes, it has been fairly consistent. It boils down to having the opportunity to work hard, earn a respectable living, and put our kids in a position to do better than we did.
These days, if you ask people what it means to them -- as life insurer MassMutual did in a recent survey -- the top items that will make their lists are attaining financial security, a comfortable retirement, and the ability to help their children get an education.
And members of the middle class have some confidence today that they can achieve the American Dream, according to a new survey from CUNA Mutual Group. Overall, the 1,268 survey respondents -- people earning between $35,000 and $100,000 -- rated their chances as a B-.
That's actually an encouraging result, and it's somewhat backed up by other responses in the survey: 62% reported that they "feel somewhat or very confident about their personal financial situation, and 46% believe it's very unlikely that they'll miss a loan payment during the next couple of years.
That "confidence" number is strong, but it's harder to see how the more than half of respondents who see a fair possibility of missing a loan payment soon can legitimately feel confident about meeting their financial goals. All this optimism, in some cases, may not be justified.
Middle-class warning signs
"The middle class continues to experience stress from the long-term impacts of the 2008 recession," said CUNA Mutual Group Chief Economist Steve Rick in a press release. "Markets may be rebounding and unemployment at historic lows, but we're still seeing middle-class families struggle with sticky wages, inadequate liquidity, high debt, insufficient savings and difficulty building wealth. This population is among the most exposed to an eventual downturn."
The survey also revealed longer-range fears: Only 28% of respondents said the believed they'd be able to retire with financial confidence. In addition, only 38% expect to be able to buy a new car in their lifetime, and just 37% said they thought they'd ever be able to travel internationally.
That low retirement confidence number is particularly troubling, and it may be due to a lack of financial education, the CUNA Mutual Group press release noted. That would be in line with an earlier survey of retirement plan participants which showed that "understanding available tools and resources and learning how to budget and manage debt are key areas" when it comes to meeting one's retirement goals.
"A vibrant middle class is essential to a healthy, functioning economy and nation," added Rick. "But we're seeing a troubling picture emerge as their ability to manage their finances in the near term is coming at the expense of the long term. No one can control the economic winds, but the financial industry can provide the resources the middle class needs to break out of the cycle of economic insecurity."
Know where you stand
Some of the confidence display by the survey respondents likely comes from their belief that they'll continue to climb the career and economic ladders. They may be right (particularly the younger ones) but it's important to make your plans based on where you are now. You can always adjust later if your income increases, but don't rely on that.
It's important to review your finances regularly, and understand the strengths and weaknesses in your situation. Maybe you have a solid emergency fund, but are short in retirement savings. Or you might be deficient (or doing great) in both.
It can be tempting when you have financial issues to try not to think about them. (Who wants to focus on something so stressful, after all?) Don't give in to that urge. If you force yourself to stay on top of matters, it'll be much easier to make the adjustments needed, and put yourself on track for the whole American Dream.