How I Survived the Great American Dream

By Susan Harvey

How I Survived the Great American Dream

Today, we face tough situations and accept them as a way of life. We live and work under stressful conditions in which worry and insomnia are constant companions. Some of us lose our jobs, creating more stress and worry, which lead to health issues, which lead to more stress and worry. And the cycle goes on in the name of the Great American Dream: work hard, save money, buy a house and happiness will follow. We’ve bought into this Dream for decades.

Recently, I faced a tough situation that caused me to go against the basic principles of the Great American Dream. My goal after college was to make money, save it and buy a house. My mantra became work, save, buy home. And I did just that through goal setting and persistence. When I moved into my first house, purchased with my own money, I thought I was the luckiest woman alive.

The only problem with this Dream is deciding when enough is enough. How much money do I really need? How large a house do I want? Each year I made more money, saved more money and eventually bought a bigger house and filled it with more stuff until I needed a larger salary to buy a bigger home to accommodate more stuff, most of which I never used. I mean, how many purses do I really need? How many plastic food storage containers? How many wooden spoons?

I’m ashamed to admit that I became addicted to making money. I worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. I paid someone to clean my home and care for my lawn. I ate take-out, yogurt, cottage cheese or peanut-butter and crackers in front of my computer. I rarely read a book, walked on the beach or socialized. My only exercise was walking from my desk to the refrigerator.

After several years of this regime, I developed health problems. Imagine that! My doctor, who has warned me for years that I work too many hours, finally put it in words I couldn’t ignore. I had to cut back on my workload to reduce my stress or get my affairs in order. For a few seconds, I actually calculated which choice would take the least amount of time and money. Time and money, always my greatest concerns, were the basis for almost every decision since I began my career.

With the mention of death, time takes on a different meaning; money and belongings seem meaningless. I want to see my grandchildren graduate from college, to dance at their weddings, to celebrate the birth of my great-grandchildren. I am not ready to die. My choice may seem obvious, but it was one of the toughest decisions of my life: retire and live on less.

Since I believe in setting goals to accomplish any task, I immediately set new goals; the first is to stay alive. The remaining goals fell into place: retire, downsize, simplify. My new mantra – borrowed from Thoreau – is “Simplify, simplify!” This mantra keeps me going through the difficult transition from working life to retirement; from the Great American Dream of homeownership to apartment dweller, from the complications of home maintenance and repair to calling the landlord.

By goal setting and persevering, I survived a tough situation and learned valuable lessons: 1) I am not defined by my belongings. A purse from WalMart carries as much cargo as one from Coach. 2) I do not have to keep an item just because someone gave it to me. 3) Hoarding sale items such as twenty-seven cans of diced tomatoes does not equate to saving money. Kroger stores them for free and I can buy one 24/7. 4) The more belongings I keep, the more effort required to maintain them. Whether it’s watering, polishing, repairing, storing or dusting them, it’s still work. 5) Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies are the only things worth storing in the freezer. I cannot buy those 24/7 at Kroger.

Simplify, simplify! Thoreau’s mantra. He lived a simple life and spent his time writing while living in a cottage on Walden Pond. I’ve found my Walden. Perhaps I can now find time to finish the book I’ve been writing for several years. Find time to read, to cook, to sit and ponder life and the universe. I don’t know how many wooden spoons Thoreau had, but I now have only one.

I enjoy life in my second-story apartment where every window overlooks either water or moss-draped live oaks. Unlike Thoreau, I’m not ready to break out the window panes and remove my front door. I still prefer air conditioning to the heat and humidity of coastal South Carolina, but I do feel as though I’m living the Walden Pond life.

I live a simple life in a natural environment. I no longer have a garage or the clutter that goes with it. I let go of many items that I thought I couldn’t live without. I walk up and down a flight a stairs to enter or leave my home. I survive by focusing on my goal of staying alive. I persevere through the doubts of letting go of the Great American Dream. Now, a de-cluttered woman stripped of excess baggage and stress, I know I’m the luckiest woman alive – lucky to be alive.

About this writer

  • Susan Harvey Susan Harvey is a humor writer who teaches college English. She lives in Murrells Inlet, and in her spare time enjoys cooking and reading mysteries.

You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

2 Responses to “How I Survived the Great American Dream”

  1. Shirley Dilley says:

    Love your story and premise. I, too, am a simplified retiree, live in a 2nd story apt. overlooking the pool and live oaks in Florida. Love the no yard work, no maintenance and owning only one of just the necessary items for daily living. Life is so much more serene without stuff.
    Great article.

  2. Cindy Link says:

    Wonderful article!! I feel very cluttered right now! Perhaps I should log off and go clean out some closets.
    Seriously, I think what you have done is wonderful. More people should be attracted to the simple things in life and not the rat race. I have a wall hanging in my home which reads, “Remember this, that very little is needed to make a happy life.” (Marcus Aurelius) How true it is!

Leave your mark with style

Comment in style

Stand out from the crowd and add some flare beside your comment.
Get your free Gravatar today!

Make it personal

avatar versus gravatar Close