I was six months pregnant, sitting on a beach in Huanchaco, Peru, with my husband, Tree, both of us struggling to make a decision that would change the course of our lives.
“So, what do you think?” Tree asked, as the last orange rind of the sun dipped below the horizon line.
I sighed, afraid to say my answer.
The dilemma vexing us was whether we should move back home to the United States to raise our baby as an American or to stay and raise her in our van, somewhere in South America.
On one hand, I wanted what most Americans want for their kids: a house in a good school district, extracurricular activities, and a generous college savings fund. But who was to say we could actually provide those things? Tree and I had lost nearly everything in the Great Recession – my corporate sales job and sporty Volvo; our beachfront apartment; his savings, investment property, and retirement fund.
Above all, after being forced to move into our van to make ends meet, we’d lost our faith in the middle-class bargain.
On the other hand, despite our financial hardship, we were living our best life. To stretch our meager income from Tree’s online business, we headed south to drive the Pan-American Highway from California to the end of the southern hemisphere.
Now that we’d been on the road for almost three years, lapping up freedom and adventure like stray dogs, we didn’t want to go back to the quiet desperation of 9-to-5 living. I pictured myself stuck in a cubicle all day, longing for my baby while pumping milk in a bathroom stall, just to collect a check that would barely cover our hyperinflated rent, insurance premiums, and daycare costs.
“I can’t decide. Why can’t we be successful and happy?” I said.
In our hearts, we both knew what we wanted, but part of what made that choice so harrowing was that, in 2012, there weren’t many role models for alternative living. To give some context, the vanlife hashtag had been conceived about the same time as our daughter; both were in their fetal stages.
Ten years later, however, in response to the pandemic pause, the ongoing cost of living crisis, school shootings, the climate crisis, and the seemingly infinite ways to monetize content on social media, the internet is filled with families exploring creative ways to bridge the gap between success and happiness.
As the author Courtney E Martin explains in The New Better-Off: Reinventing the American Dream, today, more than ever, Americans “are stepping off the hamster wheel, either by force or by choice, and examining the value of money with greater scrutiny – in the context of a life well-lived, not just well-earned and well-consumed.”
Yet, if a fat paycheck and a McMansion full of fancy stuff are no longer tantamount to the American dream, what is?
“The American dream was the ultimate dream for everyone. I thought, if you worked hard, you could have anything you wanted – that beautiful home, that expensive car,” explains Kay Akpan, 33, who immigrated to the US from Cameroon as a teenager.
By her own definition, Akpan and her family were living that dream. She and her husband, Sylvester, 44, who emigrated from Nigeria in his mid-twenties, owned a luxurious, five-bedroom home in Santa Clarita, California. They drove a nice car, owned a rental property, and traveled abroad to France, China and Cuba with their son, Aiden, nine.
Then Kay’s contract as a well-paid clinical research associate suddenly expired in 2019, and replacing it proved harder than expected.
“Everything is fine if you have a good job in America. You can continue paying those bills on a monthly basis and have no issue. But if something happens, you can lose it all as fast as you got it,” Kay says.
When the paychecks stopped, the Akpans struggled to pay their mortgage, car payments, student loans, and the personal loans they’d taken out to install a pool and solar panels.
In 2020, the typical American household carried an average debt of $145,000, nearly tripling from $50,971 in 2000. In contrast, median household income was $67,521, up from $42,148 in 2000. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see how our debt-to-income ratio has spiked significantly – or how a sudden job loss (or, say, a global pandemic) can quickly turn the American dream into a high-stakes nightmare.
“Super stressed out and broker than broke”, the Akpans sold their house and bought a RV in January of 2020 to slow their financial hemorrhaging.
Next, they needed to replace their income. Three years prior, Akpan had gone to a seminar on content creation to learn how to monetize her two hobby blogs – the Mom Trotter and Black Kids Do Travel. She figured now was the time to finally invest in her writing and photography skills to see if her family could make a living doing what they loved most: traveling and encouraging other Black families to do the same.
After making some adjustments to the RV, the Akpans hit the road in April 2020. Since Kay had always homeschooled Aiden, the transition was relatively painless. That first year, they traveled to 28 states and earned $40,000 – a respectable start but not enough to get out of debt. So, the second year, Kay bought a better camera and honed her skills. She began partnering with brands and tourism boards, and sharing not just travel tips and dreamy photos but also her journey toward solvency and better financial literacy. People connected with her struggle and candor, and her social media following surged. The family’s income has more than tripled.
Today, with a combination of insurance policies and maxed-out retirement accounts for Kay and Sly, along with a UTMA custodial brokerage account, a 529 college plan, and a personal Roth IRA for Aiden, the Akpans are creating the generational wealth they had originally hoped to achieve when they purchased their home in Santa Clarita. For decades, homeownership, subsidized through federal tax policy, has been the principal way Americans build wealth and pass it on to their children – though due to racial discrimination in housing and mortgage markets, this gateway to the American dream has been less achievable for Black families.
“Our goal for [Aidan] is to have at least a million dollars by the time he’s 30,” Kay says, with the relaxed confidence of someone who has done her homework.
To date, with money earned from their blog, ad campaigns, and the sale of their house, the Akpans have paid off over $200,000. They are 100% debt-free and have traveled to 40 states and 44 countries.
Kay says everything about their downsized, nomadic life is better: their finances, community, and mental health.
“It was impossible not to feel constant stress and anxiety with that much debt over our head,”she says.
The Akpan’s American dream is no longer about possessions and status. It’s about living free from the pressure of debt and hustle culture. It’s about traveling and bringing diversity to space historically denied to Black families. It’s about having time to be with their extended family, a common struggle for many Americans who, on average, receive only two weeks of paid vacation a year.
“My favorite thing to do is just lay in bed all day with my son and nieces and nephews and watch movies. I can afford to do that now,” Kay says.
For the Dürt family, the detour from conventional living came when Matt, 35, a school teacher on track to become an administrator like his father, and Elliot, 33, a hairdresser with his own six-figure business, suddenly found themselves in lockdown in Omaha, Nebraska with their one-year old daughter, Uma, in the spring of 2020.
“When you’re so busy, you don’t really have time to question what you’re doing. You just have to do it. I was working days, evenings and weekends, and Matt was working during the day and coaching at night. And we had Sunday, but there were all these family obligations. So I think there was this sense of discontentment and hollowness to it all, but when do we have time to sit and be with these feelings?” Elliot explains.
Before, as a “release”, Elliot would watch travel vlogs and van life videos on YouTube after work, but the inertia of he and Matt’s trajectory made stepping off the hamster wheel feel impossible. Their life plan was already set in motion.
“So, it was definitely when the pandemic hit, and we would put Uma in the stroller and walk for miles and miles, that we were able to scheme and dream and think about what we really wanted our life to mean,” Elliot says.
They realized the things they’d each been clinging to – money and security (Elliot), professional status and prestige (Matt) – weren’t what brought them a true sense of joy. Being creative and spending quality time together and with their daughter did.
Also, like my family and the Akpans, they came to realize the fragility of the system.
“This shit can crumble so easily. I mean, we’re living in a near apocalypse with climate change. So we were like: let’s go find a new fucking way. People have to be out there doing it. We just have to go find them and connect with them,” Elliot says.
They devised a quick escape plan: sell their house, rent a cheap room, save every penny. Then, in June 2021, with a decent nest egg in hand, they each confronted their biggest fear: Elliot walked away from his lucrative business, and Matt quit his respectable career, and they set out with a budget tent in their Subaru (and later in a van) to camp in national and state forests across the country.
“What we wanted in the beginning was just space to unlearn what we’d been taught, and time in nature to sit with the unease of being still, just to see what would come up,” Elliot explains.
What came up was the kind of revelation people usually pay thousands of dollars for in therapy.
“I guess I just realize now that no amount of security could make me feel as good as it feels to live my life truly,” Elliot says.
Before, Elliot says, his anxiety about money was so powerful that, no matter how much he made, he felt like he could never take time off, “not even while my mom was dying”.
Matt reached a similar realization. Following his inner voice and living his heart’s desire, he says, has given him more confidence than approval-seeking and people-pleasing ever did – an epiphany that reaches its full expression in their YouTube post Why You Should Run Away and Destroy Your Reputation. The title says it all.
While sometimes the zeal of the newly converted can feel superficial or exclusionary in its moral superiority, Matt and Elliot share their fears and discoveries in a way that feels earnest and relatable. Like the Akpans, they’ve quickly garnered a loyal and sizable social media following.
But after a year on the road, Elliot tells me their “wandering retreat” has come to an end. They have found home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
While searching the Woofing website for an opportunity to volunteer on an organic farm, they came across the profile of a small intentional community that intrigued them – two families of musicians and artists, living sustainably on 100 acres of land in Brevard.
In a stunning video of their time on the homestead, we see Elliot and a young boy with earth-caked fingernails foraging in the forest; Matt and Uma kneading dough in a wood cabin; an afternoon hootenanny with parents and kids strumming, plucking, fiddling, and singing; the adults and all six kids building a greenhouse. In fact, the kids help do everything. They garden. They fish. They catch and kill and prepare a snapping turtle for dinner.
Elliot says that when he and Matt were dreaming, scheming, and fretting over world affairs on their long quarantine walks, this was the tangible education they imagined for Uma – far from the confinement, abstraction, and rules of the classroom, learning how to have a “reciprocal living relationship with the earth”.
“We’ve all been convinced that we need a lot more to be happy, when exactly the opposite is true. What we need is a lot less to be happy. What we need is to feel a sense of groundedness and connectedness within a web community, to have our actions feel intentional and for ourselves, and to be a part of something bigger than ourselves,” Elliot says.
In the end, my husband and I chose to have our baby in Peru and carry on in our van, discovering our own way of bridging the gap between what worked for our parents’ generation and the reality of today. That journey took us through 17 Latin American countries along the Pan-American Highway over the course of five years, where we saw, first-hand, the true cost of the American dream to people south of the US border, and the benefit of reinventing it for ourselves.
And despite the many differences between the Akpans’, the Dürts’, and my own story, we share a narrative through-line with each other and thousands of other families: our American dream is changing.
For decades now, our cultural values and personal aspirations have been rooted in self-gain and materialism, but the dream of a McMansion on an exclusive hilltop isn’t just unattainable for most of us, it has put us on a path toward eco-suicide and widespread despair. It has made us and the planet equally sick in our constant pursuit of more.
We can dream better.
So, with increasing frequency and fervor, families like my own, the Akpans, and the Dürts are spreading the gospel of less. We’re tooting the horns of time and freedom over the soul-crushing cycle of debt and consumption. And, most importantly, rather than encouraging our children to rise to the top of a cruel pyramid scheme at any cost, we’re prioritizing mental health, interpersonal relationships, community building, and the preservation of our ecosystem.
As Elliot says: “We don’t have to cling to what’s dying. We can dance on the ashes of this crumbling empire. We can be part of imagining what is coming.”
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