In another section of the survey, in fact, we see just how important debt is to consumers. When the poll asked what financial goals are most important to respondents right now, being free of debt/credit card debt was at the top (33.4 percent of responses). The runners-up weren't even close: Retiring at age 65 (11.6 percent), buying or paying off a car (11.3 percent), sending a kid to college (8.1 percent), buying a home (6.8 percent), paying off student loans (6.2 percent), paying off a mortgage (5.6 percent ) and buying a vacation home (3.2 percent). (And 13.8 percent had no response, for those of you doing the math).
Finally, the poll found that nearly one in six respondents felt that it was unlikely that they would ever be debt-free in their lifetime. That's a troubling number and one we're going to have to watch over time.
Are We in Denial?
This is all sobering news, but there's further evidence in this study that most of us aren't really grasping. An interesting contradiction in the data lies in the fact that the latent pessimism described above is not reflected in any age group when it comes to the question of whether the American Dream is within reach. In the study, 78 percent of respondents said that the American Dream was either within reach or they had already achieved it, compared to 17.7 percent who said that it wasn't within their reach. Meanwhile, 55 percent said that the American dream wasn't within reach for most Americans. That means a good portion of us are either overly optimistic about our own prospects, or overly pessimistic about the prospects of others. My bet is the former.
Here's my takeaway: Most of us still believe in the American Dream — but the nature of that dream seems to be changing. Debt is now woven into the fabric of our society. While some debt is absolutely vital for a healthy American economy, the way many of us experience debt is anything but positive. We've all seen the statistics about record-breaking credit card and student loan debt. Those numbers are troubling for some and sources of enormous personal stress for others. Many of us don't take the time to consider how this new financial reality has changed our expectations of what's possible for each of us to achieve. Even though we call these things dreams, what's always been special about the American Dream is our ability to make them come true. When we've lost that, we've lost a little bit of what it means to be an American.
Adam Levin is chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.