Middle-class Americans have become less optimistic about their chance of ever achieving the American Dream compared to how they felt just six months ago, according to a new study from CUNA Mutual Group. In the company's survey last fall, respondents on average graded their odds at a B-minus. In the recently completed survey, the average fell to a C.
About half of those surveyed blamed their pessimism on fears that the economy will falter after years of strong growth. By some measures, the respondents -- Americans over 18 making more than $35,000 a year but less than $100,000 -- generally felt stable on the personal finance front: 88% said their job is either somewhat or very secure over the next year. But only 61% described themselves as somewhat or very confident about their own financial stability.
"The middle class is mired in uncertainty. We're seeing stagnating job growth, limited wage growth and increasing market volatility attributable to headwinds from tariffs and unfinished trade negotiations," said CUNA Mutual Group Chief Economist Steve Rick in a press release.
What should you do?
Before you can achieve any sort of dream, you have to assess where you stand in reality. Whether your long-term goals are to own a home and someday being able to enjoy a comfortable retirement, or it they are more outside the mainstream, a good first step would be to take a personal financial inventory.
Run the numbers on how much money you have coming in each month and how much you have going out. If there's usually a surplus, your first concern should be paying down debt, followed by building an emergency fund big enough to cover six month's worth of your expenses.
If you're running a deficit, it's important to correct that, and there are really only two options: Either cut your expenses or increase your income. But when it comes down to it, no matter what the state of your financial health, both of those moves are almost always a good idea. Anything that helps you build a bigger cushion brings your version of the American Dream closer to reality, and should also ease your anxieties over the possibility of a pending economic downturn.
"This should be a wake-up call to families to start shoring up their finances now, whether that takes the form of cutting spending, reassessing their savings to avoid having to cut into their retirement to stay afloat, or even refinancing a mortgage if that'll put them in a better position," Rick said. "If there's one thing 2008 taught us, it's that you can't afford to be caught on your heels if a recession hits."
Where does America stand?
Among those surveyed, 53% said that if a recession were to occur, they would cut their discretionary spending, while 52% said they would make lifestyle changes. But that's a bit like buying an umbrella after it's already pouring.
The best time to build financial stability for a rainy day is when things are going well. Make changes and sacrifices now, and regardless of when of if that rainy day comes, you will be in a much stronger position when it comes to achieving your personal version of the American Dream.