I refuse to give up on the American Dream

My American Dream, like many others who grew up in the “upper middle class,” was to continue living that lifestyle — maybe better — as I grew into adulthood and beyond. That meant a house with a lawn, a few bedrooms (with at least one extra for guests), in a neighborhood where you felt safe and could go for a walk down the street without worrying about being shot or mugged. And in that dream was a family — 2 or 3 kids — and the ability to have them take dance classes or piano lessons or attend baseball camp over the summers. And all of this was going to be my reality before I turned 30 (pre birth of the kids).

At the age of 27, I’ve revised that dream slightly, though likely not enough. At 27, I have ~$120k saved. $109k in investments, $27k in cash & cds – what I owe in taxes this year ($10k?)

And still, that savings feels like nothing compared to what I need to give my future family the lifestyle I had as a kid. That amount is pennies towards owning even a 1br condo here.
Around this area, 1brs are going for $599k or $335k or $459k.

Meanwhile, I’m paying $635 per month, or about $7650 a year to live in a small-ish room in a nice-ish condo. I have two roommates (one of them is leaving this summer so we’re going to have to find another roommate, but that’s a tale for a diff post.)

It just seems unreasonable to dream of owning property ever. At least not here.

The American Dream seems out of reach mostly because of my choice in significant other, and maybe in my choice of career. I’m not quite hitting six figures yet, but I’ve saved a reasonable amount of money each year.

My boyfriend still lives at home, so any money he makes he can save. But at 28, he still isn’t working a full time job, he’s making $20 an hour on contract because he doesn’t want to look for a different job and he’s planning on maybe going to grad school next year. I am very supportive of his plans for grad school but with that come loans that will hit when we’re in our early 30s, exactly when we’ll want to have kids. And he has very little savings and no IRA. And he doesn’t want to talk about it. After all, we’re just dating now. But as I’m approaching my 30s, the money has to come into play, a little bit.

I look at my friends who are dating men who are more stable in their careers. I look at my friends who are dating older men who already can afford houses. Some of these friends also work full time, others are working at jobs they love that would never afford them a house on their own.

In my life — I see myself as the breadwinner. The one who will bring home the soy bacon. And I don’t see myself as having the ability to be the same kind of breadwinner my dad was — the kind that could afford the house, the summer camp, the suburban lifestyle. So sometimes I wonder if I should have been more picky in choosing a life partner. I could have targeted men with full-time jobs, already established in their careers. Instead, I fell in love with a guy who isn’t going to push to make a lot of money in his life. And while I admire that about him, it also scares me enough that I’m coming to terms with the possibility that I will rent for the rest of my life and never have children. I just cannot afford them.

Still, I don’t want to give up on the American Dream. It feels about 10 years away right now, but by then it will be too late to have kids. My having children will basically eat up my entire savings — I’m figuring $40k a kid due to my PCOS and need for various fertility treatments, so 2 kids (with no guarantees it will work) and I’m back to square one.

How much of the American Dream should I give up on? Should I strategically place myself somewhere I can earn more than $100k a year? The odds of my stock options ever being worth enough to get me where I need to be at 31 (when they’d vest) are slim to null — even if my company does well. So I get depressed about this… I can’t comprehend how to get to financial stability in my life. Or, I can’t comprehend it where I’m the breadwinner of the story… where I can’t count on a reasonable dual income household. And that really freaks me out. Well, it makes me, again, accept that I’ll be renting a tiny room in a shared space with no kids my entire life. Maybe that’s not so bad. But that’s certainly not my American Dream.

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8 thoughts on “I refuse to give up on the American Dream”

  1. I enjoy your column, but I have one word for you. "Relax". You are 27 years old and have over $100K saved. I'm going to guess that puts you ahead of about 99% of people your age. If you didn't save another cent. That money alone will be worth over $1m when you retire. But if you have saved that much in such a short time, I am guessing that in the next 10 years, you'll probably put another 200 -300K away.

    A lot of women I know are faced with the exact problem you describe. I call it the "Cinderella complex". As you grow up as a girl, Disney tells you the handsome, strong prince will come and rescue you. You will be rescued and always have a safety net. On the other hand you are told your whole life that you are a strong independent woman who is successful and can do anything. And then we as a society wonder why women have difficulty reconciling those two things.

    I once had a friend who said she would never date a guy who made less than she did. I said to her "M, you make $160K a year. Do you realize just how small you've made the dating pool." If you love this guy, life is not about money. If he has no aspirations that's a different story, but a plan to go to grad school sounds pretty aspirational.

    Kids – You are 27 years old and you have calculated that you will need IVF and it will cost $40K per kid? Let's go back to my first word, "Relax." You really don't need to plan to that level of detail just yet.

    House – Buy now. Buy a foreclosure. Buy a fixer-upper. Put a little elbow grease in. Maybe you can't live exactly where you want. I am in the Bay Area where prices are astronomical, but there are nice places in nice areas, but you aren't paying Palo Alto prices. Try an area with schools that aren't great. You pay a premium for areas like that, one that you don't need right now.

    I have a multimillionaire friend who bought his first house right out of college with three friends in Oakland. They each put in $2 grand. (This was in the 70's) It was a small house, 2 bedrooms and 4 guys lived there while they fixed it up. They sold it for nice profit a couple of years later. He took the money and bought his next one. Did that a few times. His current house is worth $3 million which he bought when he was 50. (Yeah, I know that sounds really old, but believe me it's not. I haven't quite started using a cane just yet.)

    By the way, a common thread among people with ADHD (trust me I know) is not being satisfied and needing everything too fast. I had the same issues in my 20's. You'll be fine, but it doesn't all have to happen tomorrow.

    It's good to have dreams and goals, but don't put so much pressure on yourself that you can't possibly achieve them. We can't all be Mark Zuckerberg at 27.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I agree I need to "relax" but it's extremely hard as so many others my age in this area are already worth millions, or making $200k+ per year.

      The Cinderella Complex, as you put it, is exactly what I have! While I want to be a "strong independent woman" I also want my prince charming… as backup. 🙂 My mom was a "housewife" and my father worked his entire life earning ~$200k per year, so that's the sort of life I feel comfortable with, despite not wanting to be a stay at home mom.

      I also watch various reality tv shows and envy models and socialites who are famous for being ridiculous or slutty. Heck, porn stars have it made, as long as they're respected. I'm sure the grass is always greener, but I spend my life lusting after astroturf.

  2. I was just curious – how much better are the tech and interactive job opportunities in the SF Bay area?

    Currently I live in the Rust Belt, and while the pay in this industry is good if you can find a job, it seems like most of the opportunities are closely guarded and/or given to friends or friends-of-friends. I'm an outsider, so everything I've done to make it to the top has been through nose-to-the-grindstone hard work.

    We are considering a move to that area because by all accounts, I've heard the market is better. People actually get jobs by applying for them as well. However I've never lived there so I don't know if that's really true. I do know the COL is very high compared to my area but the salaries do seem to make up for it.

    Any information you could provide would be great. Thanks!

    1. They are good here. It depends what you do in tech and interactive, but jobs for people who can code are fairly easy to come by, esp if you're good. Pay is decent, and the only downside is cost of living is higher here… but you can balance that by salary usually if you're in tech. If you want to work in non-profit or teach, that's another story.

  3. I'm a newbie here and just love the openness and honesty of the blog and this post in particular–how says you don't have a lot to offer? I just got out of a relationship with a breadwinning lady and this one touched close to home–as someone who's committing to a life in public service the whole is this practical took a toll on the once burgeoning duo. Cheers to you for respecting the dude's plans and sharing your concerns early on.


  4. Hm. I admire A Viner's optimistic view, and second it. Where there's a will, there's a way (although it doesn't hurt to add a little bit of realism to the equation every now and then). Judging by what your describe your income to be – and assuming your boyfriend does grad school, although what he studies will make a huge difference in what his salary will end up being – you're looking at a combined salary of 1-200k (pardon me if I'm over/underestimating here)? With that salary and proper budgeting, the American dream isn't out of the question – after all, it's what you save rather than how much you make that matters (though some of the more recent finance gurus would say otherwise).

    I have no experience in purchasing condos or homes but I hear that 20% as down payment is the golden figure. With your 100k+ in savings, you could already afford to move into a 500k condo/home, but why would you spend your savings like that when you'd be forgoing 40+ years of compounding and 100s of thousands of dollars, potentially. I just wanted to mention that you could already afford the "house piece" of your American dream to place things in perspective.

    The other point I wanted to make was about the kids. Fertility treatments are expensive, and they aren't a guarantee, as you might have guessed. However, your diagnosis of PCOS is fortuitous – believe it or not – as many women with the condition have reported successful conceptions once placed on metformin (a medication for diabetes, which, for one reason or another enhances fertility in PCOS – the mechanism isn't well understood). So assuming you go on metformin and try to conceive for a year and succeed, you wouldn't necessarily have to shell out 10s of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments (you were right however, they can range between 25-45k).

    One last thing. This goes without saying but kids are expensive (I definitely was). With your knack for budgeting and saving however, I doubt a bambino (or two, or three) will hamper your plans at increasing your net worth.

    Love the blog by the way!

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