Trade in the American Dream for a Better One

Balki Bartokomous was a character from the TV show Perfect Strangers. Balki was born and raised in the fictional Greek-like island called Mypos. He scraped out a living there as a shepherd and dreamed of a better life in America. So he traveled at age 22 to live with his distant cousin Larry in Chicago.

One haunting line came in an episode where Balki exclaimed: “I’m in debt. I am a true American.”

The phrase “The American Dream” was popularized in the book The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams in 1931. But in that book the American Dream held no promise or even suggestion of extreme success. As he traced America’s rise to prominence Adams recognized the dream that came to be as “that American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.”

In a Vanity Fair article entitled Rethinking the American Dream David Kamp traces how through the decades since Adams’ book the expectation of that “dream” kept growing. It wasn’t enough to have enough. Eventually successive generations came to believe that they needed to have more or better than the one previous to achieve the “Dream.”

As he so clearly illustrates the “American Dream” has turned into “American Debt.” As credit cards surfaced and Americans could finance their own purchases, consumer debt has risen to where 56% of cardholders carry a balance from one month’s bill to the next. By 1986 the United States had flip-flopped roles from once being the world’s biggest creditor nation to becoming the world’s largest debtor nation.

How can this picture change? Well, you and I probably cannot do much to change the debt the government has rung up. But you and I can make a difference by changing the way we “dream.” Here are a few places to begin.

  • Follow the counsel of Scripture. Of the many passages on money and specifically debt, the writer of Proverbs warns: “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” Unwise debt puts you in the position of a slave. Some debt, when managed wisely, can help you with your available cash on hand. But mostly debt tends to happen when we buy with money we don’t have assuming we’ll have it to pay back the debt tomorrow.
  • Instead of buying something on credit and then repaying save now until you have the money and then go make the purchase. That’s how the earlier generations, before credit cards, had to do it. My wife and I started that practice a number of years ago especially with vacations. At one time we’d take our vacation, put most of the expenses on our credit card, and then spend three to four months paying it off. We made a decision to save first and then use our credit card out of convenience. Once the trip was over we would then pay off the card and not carry a balance from month to month. (We also rack up free flight mileage so that the next time we want to go to Italy we’ll be flying free. That’s already a reality!)
  • Dream a bigger dream than the American Dream. You didn’t think there was one? Let me challenge you to think again. Look at the problems debt has caused in our nation and in personal lives. What would your life be like if you could learn contentment? The Apostle Paul said that he had learned to be content in whatever situation he found himself. He wrote: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Dream that dream. And let something else define you as an American rather than debt.

Question: What is your personal plan to get out of and stay out of debt?

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