NEW YORK (MainStreet) — A new survey puts the nebulous "American Dream" phrase into financial terms.

According to, 36% of respondents said retiring "financially secure" at age 65 fits their definition of the American Dream, while 25% cited becoming debt-free as their characterization.

"I was surprised being debt-free was the goal in and of it self," says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education at "It was a bigger goal than owning a home."

A paltry 17% of respondents linked home ownership to the American Dream.

While people seemed optimistic that they would be able to achieve their American Dream, with 50% saying it's within reach, they weren't too upbeat about other people being able to achieve the same dream. 68% said the dream was not attainable for others, compared to 55% during the same study last year.

"People may look at a specific goal like paying off debt or owning a home and think, 'yeah, I can do that,' but they may be forgetting the little things that could hinder their progress, like unexpected medical bills or family member who needs help," says Detweiler.

Plus, other research suggests plenty of Americans aren't prepared for sudden expenses, with one-quarter of consumers having no money in an emergency savings account.

Still, owing debt makes it more difficult to maintain a robust savings balance ready to tackle life's unknowns. Echoing the aforementioned results of the survey, debt priorities were of utmost concern to consumers. 19% of respondents said paying off credit card debt was their most important goal for the next year, while 18% said "being debt-free" was their biggest priority.

"If you think about the American Dream, which includes a successful career and being financially secure, being debt-free is the first step, hence how popular this goal was in the survey," Detweiler told MainStreet.

The study also polled millennials, ages between 18 and 29. 19% of millennials viewed being debt-free as synonymous with the American Dream, while 20% said retiring financially secure at age 65 was the American Dream.

Millennials were largely optimistic about their prospects for achieving the American Dream, with 57% saying it's within reach.

For those over age 30, when asked if millennials would be able to achieve the American Dream, 40% said no.

"We saw the same kind of disconnect between those who are in the millennials group and those who aren't," Detweiller adds.

- Written by Scott Gamm for MainStreet. Gamm is author of MORE MONEY, PLEASE