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Survey: Student Debt, Changing Social Norms Are Transforming the American Dream

by Varo Bank

August 1, 2019

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Millennials renew pursuit of liberty + happiness, yet stress rules; 1 in 4 think about financial challenges constantly 

SAN FRANCISCO – August  1, 2019 – New survey findings from mobile banking company Varo Money found millennials are revising their view of the American Dream, focusing less on tangible achievements like home ownership and a steady job and focusing more on freedom and happiness.

In a survey of 1,100 millennials conducted in June 2019 by Qualtrics, Varo found that despite mounting student loan debt, shifting social norms, a growing disconnect with their parents, and rampant anxiety about finances that hits women harder, millennials remain steadfastly optimistic about the future. 

Varo's survey findings underscore a broad transition around values and financial pressures in the United States as a generation of millennials settle into adulthood. Millennials are replacing traditional ideals rooted in financial security with a more expansive idea of the American Dream that returns to the nation’s founding principles around liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The New American Dream prioritizes freedom and happiness--and is harder to achieve

Millennials reported that the top characteristics of the traditional American Dream include: owning your own home (46%), financial security/peace of mind (36%), and having a steady job with retirement support (34%). The top characteristics of the New American Dream include financial security/peace of mind (42%), feeling happy (36%), and the freedom to focus on individual wishes and needs (33%).

While most millennials believe their parents achieved the traditional American Dream (54%), far fewer believe that they can achieve it for themselves. In the survey, 37% said it would be impossible for them to achieve the traditional American Dream even though they want it. More millennials (47%) say it’s impossible to achieve the New American Dream--indicating that millennials are aggressively raising the bar on their life goals.

Economic macro-trends and changing values have combined to reshape the American Dream. Millennials cited changing social norms (47%), crushing student debt (43%), a tougher job market (43%), and the impact of technology (39%) as driving factors in the evolving American Dream. Even climate change was a contributing factor (16%).

Losing sleep over financial stress

A major trend in the research was the overwhelming majority of millennials who report significant financial challenges--and anxiety. Just 5% say they don’t have any money problems, while 54% experience stress and anxiety due to financial pressure and worry nearly every day. One in four millennials worry constantly about finances.

This stress is substantial and at risk of holding back a generation. More than one-third (35%) of millennials who experience regular financial pressure and worry are losing an hour or more of sleep a night because of it, with 8% losing an incredible four or more hours of sleep a night. Fifty-two percent of millennials say the stress is damaging their health, and nearly as many (47%) say the stress makes them want to give up on their dreams

Women are more pessimistic around finances and their future. Fifty-one percent of women think achieving the New American Dream is impossible versus 43% for men. Survey results also showed women are more likely to be anxious and stressed about the future (49%) versus men (36%); 37% of men say they feel optimistic about the future versus 28% of women. Men are far more likely to receive financial assistance from parents compared to their female peers (56% v. 38%). 

Parents just don’t understand

Overall, nearly half of millennials receive regular financial assistance from their parents (49%) even as they say their parents don’t understand their financial struggles fully. Another 46% of millennials think their parents’ generation doesn’t understand the financial challenges of their generation, and one in three (37%) resents their parents for it. 

“While dreams may differ between generations, there’s a common theme—Americans seek financial security to make their dreams come true,” said Colin Walsh, CEO and co-founder of Varo Money. “New challenges—including soaring debt and increased anxiety—means people need new tools to manage them. Varo is committed to helping anyone overcome today's financial challenges with the technology and welcoming culture to turn that optimism into success.”


An online survey was conducted by Qualtrics in June 2019 with 1,100 millennials between the ages of 23 and 38.

Read more on the blog about results from the survey about the New American Dream and the connection between money and stress

About Varo Money

Varo Money, Inc. (“Varo”) is on a mission to help people make progress with their financial lives. In one mobile app, Varo offers customers no-cost¹ premium bank accounts, high-interest savings accounts, and tech-first features to help people save and manage their money more easily. Bank account services provided by The Bancorp Bank; Member FDIC. As a fintech leader, Varo has been granted preliminary approval for a de novo national bank charter by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), and is working to become the first mobile-centric national bank in U.S. history. Varo Personal Loans are offered by Varo Money, Inc., under state licenses, subject to application approval. For more information, visit, like Varo on Facebook, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter @varomoney.

¹Varo charges no fees for banking services. While Varo does not charge fees for ATM withdrawals, some third-party ATM operators may charge a fee. To avoid ATM fees altogether, customers can use an Allpoint® Network ATM. There are more than 55,000 Allpoint locations worldwide.

Varo bank account services provided by The Bancorp Bank; Member FDIC.

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