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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- For many of the nation's first settlers, the dream was to escape religious persecution, while others wanted material prosperity and freedom from autocrats.

There was plenty of room for both dreams in the first years of the great U.S. experiment. "Material prosperity and progress kept pace with religious and spiritual goals because the Puritans and the Quakers alike approved of industry and material advancement," says the American Dream Reference Page website.

Presumably, that material advancement wasn't burdened with a large amount of debt (a historical "no-no" among early American settlers).

But fast-forward 240 years or so, and the issue of debt is rapidly displacing all other landmarks of the American Dream. According to's 2014 American Dream Survey, an annual look at what matters most to the U.S. populace, "getting out of debt" (25%) ranks as a close second to retiring comfortably (36%) as the epitome of the American Dream right now.

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"The American Dream appears to now be about getting out of debt and getting to retirement age with a sense of financial security," says Adam Levin, co-founder and chairman of "And the sense is that the next generation will find it even harder to get there."

The sites top examples of the American Dream for the year are, in order:

1. Retiring comfortably (36%)

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2. Being debt free (25%)

3. Owning a home (a big goal for the entire 20 century for millions of Americans, now reflecting )

4. Joining the "1%" and getting rich (5%)

5. Graduating from college (3%)

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Surely, raising good kids, paying good deeds forward, or enjoying family and friends are all just as important as getting out from under a mountain of bills? But those who say becoming debt free is the American Dream may be on to something -- once you get out of the red and into the black, everything else could become more enjoyable.

A survey last year from the U.K. Money Advice Service found 74% of people living in debt were unhappy, and 70% often felt anxiety because of their debt. In a survey from American Student Assistance meanwhile:

  • 27% of respondents said that they found it difficult to buy daily necessities because of their student loans;
  • 63% said their debt affected their ability to make larger purchases, such as a car;
  • 73% said they have put off saving for retirement or other investments; and
  • The vast majority (75%) indicated student loan debt affected their decision or ability to buy a home.