The couple's solution is strict financial discipline and delayed gratification.
Their older-model TV cost $50 on Craigslist. Both Lance and Jen give themselves $50 a month in allowance, or "fun money."
Jen and Lance have significant savings in the bank, which will go toward the first home. They're prepared for that big leap, but they are in no rush.
These baby steps represent a conscious decision, which is entirely appropriate considering the halting state of the economic recovery.
During Jen's pregnancy in 2007, they both went through a "paranoia phase," worrying about what would happen if one or both of them got laid off. That's when they started saving in earnest, and that flush savings account today provides peace of mind.
"We want to be able to live for two years on our savings," Lance says. "If the economy super-tanked (again), we wanna be able to survive."
Their solution is not rocket science. They've simply borrowed well-tested principles, used by millions to survive and rebuild after the Great Depression, and applied them in an era when financial risk-taking and living beyond your means have been the norm.
The example of Jen and Lance offers a rough sketch of what the future might look like, a possible template for a new American dream.
Maybe from the ashes of the Great Recession, a new architecture for the middle class can rise for all of us, one that is slimmed down, for sure, but also more sustainable — and built to last.
Sarah and Jack Walters, and their 4-year-old son Jack III, offer another variation on the American dream story.
In May they moved into their first home, in Kent, Wash., on a quiet street that is the picture of suburban living.
Emily Howell, their representative at Zip Realty, summed up their vision of the American dream this way: "They desired their own safe space to call home, a nice yard for their little boy and a neighborhood for him to grow up with friends/schoolmates."
There is nothing grandiose about the Walters' vision for their family, nothing that feels even daunting. The couple, both of whom work in the technology industry, took out a Federal Housing Administration loan with a 3.5 percent down payment, and by the end of May they were moving into a two-level house with a backyard and plenty of room for Jack-Jack, as they call him, to run around.
But there's a catch. As Sarah, a 35-year-old who works from home, gives a tour of the upstairs not long after moving in, she sheepishly explains the glaring lack of furniture in the living room, where there's a dining table and hardly anything else. They spend most of their time in the furnished family room downstairs.
"We're building slowly but surely," she says. The couch, chairs and lamps will come eventually. The main thing is they have the house.
Like Jen and Lance, the Walters family strategized before making the big purchase: They would buy a house with a mortgage manageable with just one income, should either Sarah or Jack lose a job. This was an especially crucial factor because the couple racked up a combined $120,000 worth of college debt while studying for their technology degrees, which also needs to be paid off.
Plus, they already know the terror of layoffs. Between 2006 and 2008, the year their son was born, Jack lost jobs several times because of downsizing, and the couple bumped along near relatives in Kansas City and in the Seattle area.
"We were sitting there having to pick and choose which bills to pay," Sarah says of that time. "It was a shock — having to ask my parents for support after we graduated, and we're almost 30 years old. It was really humiliating and degrading. Our credit was going down, and down and down."
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