Blowing Up the Fallacy of the “American Dream” – Old School Style

Our nation has a happiness fetish…much of economic misery we see today is due to the unbridled pursuit of bigger houses, fancier cars, and more exorbitant trips. The lure of consumer culture and an obsession with more is precisely what keeps so many from contentment – Alexander Green, Beyond Wealth.

In the last post, I spent time imploring my kids to cut their own path. To not mindlessly follow the siren song of excessive consumerism – which is an advanced skill for many Americans. But how, you may say. How do we go without the necessities of life?

Well, you can start with the realization that they’re really not necessities at all. Just part of this overly comfy, cozy world that you’ve grown accustomed to.

I stated that my grandparents’ generation had it far tougher than we do presently, and they “made do”. Our country is far richer and loaded with more opportunity now than in their day. That statement proved to be a lightning rod, prompting one commenter to label my post propaganda and a “total load of crap”.

Here’s the real propaganda: Marketing geniuses are at work 24/7 to separate you from ALL of your money, to convince you that happiness is found with things, and not with people or shared experience.

I will, no doubt, be taken to task for comparing the sophisticated modern American to Depression era immigrants in taste and consumption. That’s the way it goes. I grew up observing these amazing people as happy and satisfied, and not deprived. I figure if they can do it, we can to.

Don't they look happy? My grandparents at our wedding, with my Uncle Mario (standing). Exemplified success without needless luxury.
Don’t they look happy? My grandparents at our wedding, with my Uncle Mario (standing). Exemplified success without needless luxury.

So, kids, if I haven’t lost you yet, put down the iPod, and read along. I have a list for you (it’s the format web readers like the most) that you will enjoy looking at.

Disclaimer: First and foremost, nobody’s perfect. We’re human. I can still be tempted by the latest and greatest, just like everybody else. And I am not deprived by any definition. In my house there is an opulent new (albeit small) kitchen. I like expensive beer/wine, typically spend summer weekends in a boat on a lake, and I’ve grown enamored with the heated leather seats in my wife’s VW. Yes, I’m a little fancy.

With that said, here’s a few things that your average neighbor deems absolutely necessary, but your great grandparents’ generation would see as frivolous and pointless:

1. Oversized House / Oversized Mortgage – This may not be much of an issue, as it seems more and more people are smartening up and realizing they don’t need a 4000 square foot house with 2 fireplaces and a hot tub. And you have the great experience of growing up in 1,200 square feet and being creative with your space. You also spent time growing up in your great grandparents’ house, a modest brick ranch that they built and (gasp!) paid cash for. While it’s not entirely possible to pay cash for a house these days, you can still do yourself a favor by thinking “small house/big down payment”. You’ll thank yourself when you’re sending a tiny payment to the bank each month, instead of taking out a loan to pay down your loan.

2. Luxury Car. Or A Massive Car Payment – My grandparents were immigrants with little education. But they never drove or owned a car, preferring to take public transportation or, believe this, actually WALKING to get to where they had to go. I know, crazy right? But think of the thousands of dollars they saved never paying for gas, insurance, maintenance, or a ridiculous monthly obligation to the bank. Looking smart now, aren’t they?

In this life, massive car payments are NOT a requirement, despite what you’ll hear. At 18, I bought my first car with $1,000 cash, and although I’ve done the payment thing since then, the trick is to keep it small and then keep driving your car without the payment.

And those BMWs and Mercedes that everyone is fooled into thinking are the best cars? Mostly bought on credit by people that can’t afford them. Trust your Dad on this one. The Chevy, Honda or Ford does most of the same things. Cars = transportation (not status). Period. Point A to Point B.

3. Gigantic TV with 10,000 Premium Cable Channels – One of the advantages to owning a small house is the lack of room to squeeze a 92 inch television screen. Which to me, is a good thing. Do I really need any more incentive to sit on my lazy ass?

Again, this is American over consumption at its finest. Kids, its totally unnecessary to own a TV that can crush and kill you if it tips over at an inopportune time. Don’t bother. And that $200 monthly to the cable company for the privilege of watching multiple channels filled with garbage? If you must have cable, at the very least don’t subscribe to 300 channels and become a couch crashing sloth. The “premium” service is a premium rip-off.

4. All The Latest Gadgets – Yup, I know you love your iPods and the laptop (both of which are becoming old-school themselves). But when the iPad 10 comes out and dopes are standing in line at midnight to get one, I know you won’t be one of them, because you will have read this. The new will be obsolete in no time at all. Repeat after me: The latest and greatest is a scam. I can be perfectly happy paying much less money for last year’s model.

There. That felt good, didn’t it?

5. Restaurant Take Out – Here’s another disclaimer: I love restaurants. My grandparents’ owned two, and I grew up and worked in one for decades. I like going to restaurants now. But what I can’t fathom is getting lunch at a restaurant every day. That’s at least a couple thousand dollars out of your pocket at year’s end. Sweet!

At my office, I garnered the nickname “Joey Leftovers”. You probably know why. Because I was bringing my lunch from home. Every. Single. Day. Will I occasionally take a trip to my favorite import store to grab a nice Italian American lunch? Absolutely! However, it’s a treat. Not a daily requirement.

Give me all your money

6. Fancy Coffee – This one could fall under restaurant take-out, but I feel it deserves its own category. Again, I like fancy coffee. My grandmother always made it. But she would have keeled over if she ever had to go to Starbucks and pay $7 a cup for it! I highlight this just to show you how ridiculous that price looks. Starbucks has great product. It’s not that good.

You can make great coffee at home for pennies a cup. You don’t need a mortgage to support your caffeine habit. Baristas should be lonely once in a while. Make your coffee at home!!!!

7. Outrageous Vacations – After sending my daughter on a school trip to Italy, I had second thoughts on including this one. However, that trip was a deal (and an opportunity) that could not be passed up. In the age of Facebook, it certainly seems that we are all trying to “one up” each other when it comes to our luxury vacations. That’s where things get dangerous. The keeping up with the Joneses mentality.

Kids, I think you should travel. See as much of the world as you can. And keep going to your favorite beaches long after your parents prefer to stay home in the rocking chair.

But here’s something to think about. Nonna and Pop went back to Italy – once. As far as I know, it may have been their only vacation in 60 years. And I don’t think the lack of vacations really mattered to them. Do travel, but know it is a luxury and a privilege when you do so.

8. Convenience – There are many other facets of luxury that your great grandparents had no or little use for. They worked their asses off, so a gym membership wasn’t required. Nonna used the clothes dryer more as an end table than a dryer (she preferred drying racks). And there was no recreational shopping. Unless it was at the aforementioned import store and she decided to splurge on cheese.

There were a myriad of ways they shunned convenience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Making a practice of that will save you money, keep things simple, and make you happy. Advancements are cool in terms of medicine and technology, but don’t make your life so convenient that you never have to actually move to change a channel or turn off a light.

They did many things the hard way. Once upon a time, that’s what the American dream was all about.

OK, fire away. I know I’ve pushed some buttons here, especially if you’re what I like to call a “new-schooler”. Am I right? Have we become too fancy and accustomed to luxury? Or am I stuck in the Dark Ages, with not the sharpest torch in the shed? Start a conversation in the comments section.

19 thoughts on “Blowing Up the Fallacy of the “American Dream” – Old School Style

  1. Always great thoughts Joe. I hate to say this, but owning a blue collar business while also thinking a lot of my 12 year old sons future I think that “college education” may be dangerously close to making this list. While I’m a huge believer in education, the school I went to is now pushing 65k per year and by the son reaches college age it will push $100k, yikes! Meanwhile the nation has 3mm fewer people needed than the trades (blue collar, electrician, plumbers, welders etc) require. 1.6 trillion in student loan debt, I think the fallacy of college education as an American dream is borderline reckless.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Mark. Totally agree. My kids are attending community college and SUNY schools, which for me is a smarter choice to start. May have to write an update to this post!

  2. Hi Joe,

    “Well, you can start with the realization that they’re really not necessities at all.”
    – Yessir!

    “I like expensive beer/wine,”
    Like you, this is my vice too 😉 Seattle has turned me into a beer snob.

    1. My wife and I are already downsizing and my youngest son is 13. I’m sick of the monthly payment and property taxes. My oldest son is out of the house. So we are losing the view and the larger house for a practical small house in the same area. I want to save to travel … and be like a 20-something globetrotter … 😉

    2. My grandmother never got her license. My wife and I have 10+ year-old cars and they’re still going.

    3. I’ll admit, I have a 50 inch Samsung, but I bought it about five years ago and certainly won’t by another til this one craps out.

    4. I buy my computers/gadgets after they’ve been discontinued. Nice discount.

    5. We hardly ever eat out … COOKING is one of the joys of life!

    6. We buy killer beans at Costco. Way better than Starbucks.

    7. Looking into traveling on the cheap in the future. I hear Spain calling.

    8. My wife and I are worker bees, nuff said.

    LOVE this!!

    1. Hey Craig,
      This is just an awesome list, thanks for adding to the depth of this post. I also have a flat screen, one that’s 42″, plenty big enough for the room it’s in. We bought it recently after our old tube TV quit although we repaired it a couple of times. It was a wedding gift from my sister – almost 20 years ago. I doubt the new TV will last that long.

      We were on vacation the last couple of weeks, and when we go to the Cape, we break our rule of meals out. We have a couple of favorite restaurants that we have multiple dinners in. We try to do all breakfasts and most lunches in the hotel room to try and keep costs down. But we do love the vacation splurges.

  3. I think we are doing it right for our family. Our children know that “things” will never equal long term happiness. We know way too many people who “have it all” but still feel empty. Our mix of Old School and New School is about 70/30 and it works for our family. And yes we have the cool gadgets but like most people these days, BUT we are not a slave to a screen that constantly distracts us from the actual flesh and blood person sitting next to us. Relationships and experiences are what our kids will remember when they think back on the life they live now . Its not a popular way to be these days but in the long run it pays off.

  4. I completely agree with it all, Joe. Although, if money were not an issue, I would travel the world and feel grateful for the opportunity. Downsizing is the way to go and simple is good enough. 🙂

    1. Me, too. European travel is a definite on my list. That’s partially the reason why I like to be ruthless with other expenses. We need to save for trips like that!

  5. Another thing your grandparents and my parents have always had – a total commitment and love of Our Lord Jesus Christ – together with many, many prayers and devotions to Our Lady and the myriads of Saints for whose intercession they always sought. It was as natural to them to carry on a conversation, say with St. Anthony, as it was to carry on a conversation with you.

    1. Yup, Nonna involved me in more than one of those three way conversations that included St. Anthony or St. Jude. I laugh thinking about those memories. It’s one of the many things I miss about her being here. And don’t get me started on the “rosary competitions” between her and her sister… 😉

  6. No buttons pushed here Joe. This post is superb and spot-on. I’m 51 and of mostly German decent, but have the same old-fashioned, old-country values as you brother. When my kids were younger, my wife and I preached these ideas to them gently but regularly. I think we’re now seeing the fruits of our labor and it’s very satisfying.

    You are Mensch Joe. Keep up the good work.

    1. Hi, Scott. Thanks for stopping by. Hopefully, I’ll have the same impact on my kids you had on yours. Fingers crossed!

  7. I agree with the friend who said “freaking awesome”. By the way, I love that picture. My dad (laughing Mario in the picture), was/is always a happy guy. Much, if not all, of what you say applies to my parents. I believe it’s nonno and nonna who have instilled in my children – through their example – what you want to pass on to your children by your comments. I would just be repeating everything you have said if I comment any more, let me just say “ditto, ditto, ditto”. And it is ever so refreshing to know there are others out there I can relate to! That, right there, is the hardest part for my children, and myself, not having anyone to relate to. You are right, a lot of people think your way and my way of thinking is pretty much screwed up. Stick with it, Joe. We are very happy families.

    1. That is a great photo, one of my favorites. Your Mom and Dad have, without question, shown your kids how a life can be exquisitely simple just through their example. They are truly amazing people. We’re blessed to have them in our lives.

  8. Love this post. Sean and i are pretty much as pared down as it gets but…we are guilty of the Starbucks disease. Its painful to hand over a ten and get back two coffees and not enough change to pay for 15 minutes at the meter. But we recently started putting money in a jar everytime we got the jones for starbucks and are saving up for an espresso machine. We’ll see how far that gets before we crack it open and go nuts on frappacchinos.

    1. Starbucks is great, I do love it. We are actually not extremely frugal all the time when it comes to coffee. We love the Illy brand which can run upwards of $15/lb. It is an indulgence, but good coffee is worth it, right? 🙂

      Give the kids a kiss for me.

  9. Ah, Joe. We’ve never met, but we share so much history. I used to feel I was fighting a losing battle with my kids. Both my husband and I grew up in modest homes with little to no extras with parents who had been raised by Depression-era parents, so there was no waste, no extravagances. We thought we’d give our kids more than we had, so we overcompensated and wound up with spoiled kids. Shame on us. Now we’re trying to reverse the process. The trip we just took home was eye-opening for the kids. They heard first-hand stories from my 95 year old grandmother, plus stories from their own grandparents. I think hearing accounts from people other than their parents made a big difference. I’m not ready to give up my DIRECTV, because that’s the only way I can watch Steeler and Penguin games where I live, but I can definitely cut back on some luxuries and set a better example for the next generation. And that’s probably something we should all do. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Doing this with kids is extremely difficult. It seems that all of their peers have new iPads, smartphones, and ridiculous cell phone data plans. I have a young relative who is extremely spoiled, and I have to deflect questions from my son as to why he doesn’t have the same level of possessions as this other kid. A friend recently bought his teenager a brand new SUV… brand new!! How can you compete with this level of crazy??

      I never want my kids to feel deprived. But, when the day comes when they are no longer living with us and need to survive from their paycheck, I would think it a good idea to know the difference between necessity v. luxury.

      A couple of months ago, I canceled cable, and now have access to a few local channels. The problem with that is now I can only see a few Yankee games, and I’m going through withdrawal. So I may reinstate that service before long if I find I want to see the games down the road. Adjustments to finances and expenses are a grand, ever evolving experiment. Some will succeed, some will fail. The cable savings may be in the latter category. 🙂

      Thanks for the great comment, Staci!

      1. A brand new SUV? Crazy. My first car was so old, I think Moses was its first owner.

        I love this post, Joe, and your commenters are as good as you are. Maybe if we all do our parts, the next generation won’t be as lost as everyone expects them to be.

        Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply to Isabella Corina Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s