The “American Dream” costs far more than most people will ever earn

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The “American Dream” costs about $3.4 million to achieve over the course of a lifetime, from getting married to saving for retirement, according to a recent analysis from financial site Investopedia. 

Meanwhile, median lifetime earnings for the typical U.S. worker stand at $1.7 million, earlier research from the Georgetown University has found. 

Such figures underline the financial pressures that many families face trying to afford a middle-class life as expenses like child care, college tuition and buying a home continue to climb. The Investopedia analysis tallies the average cost of achieving other aspects traditionally associated with the American Dream, such as owning a house and raising two children to age 18. 

Another analysis, from USA Today, found that funding the American Dream costs about $130,000 a year for a family of four. Median household income stands at about $74,450, according to the Census Bureau.

To be sure, the Investopedia analysis covers some costs, such as paying for college and family health care costs, that could be shared by parents in a two-income family. But the financial burden of covering the basics underscores why single-earner households are more likely to struggle financially than those with two working adults.

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Single-earner households are more likely to be poor than those in families with multiple job holders, and also more likely to have slid down the income ladder between 1971 to 2021, according to Pew Research Center.

Still, there are a couple of groups who can still afford a middle-class life: people with doctoral or professional academic degrees such as MBAs, who earn $3.3 million and $3.6 million, respectively, according to Georgetown’s figures.

Here’s how much Investopedia estimates a family must spend to afford some of the hallmarks often associated with the American Dream. Some costs might be lower or higher, depending on a family’s goals. For instance, some might pay for more than one-year of college for their children, while others might buy fewer cars.

  • Hospital birth, average out-of-pocket costs for people with health care: $5,708

  • Wedding and engagement ring: $35,800
  • Raising two children to 18 years old: $576,896
  • 10 car purchases over a lifetime: $271,330
  • One year of college for two kids: $42,080
  • Average cost to buy a home, including lifetime mortgage payments: $796,998
  • Pets: $67,935
  • Health insurance from ages 26-65: $934,752
  • Retirement: $715,958
  • Funeral costs: $7,848

Aimee Picchi

Aimee Picchi is the associate managing editor for CBS MoneyWatch, where she covers business and personal finance. She previously worked at Bloomberg News and has written for national news outlets including USA Today and Consumer Reports.

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