NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers would probably have told you in their 20s that the American Dream was to buy a home, but not so for adults in their 30s and younger.

"Owning a house still sounds great," said 26-year-old Allen Walton. "It's just that nobody my age has the money to do such a thing, and it makes no sense, because people in their 20s don't have three kids like they used to."

Walton isn't alone: a Credit.com survey of 1,000 people found that a third of respondents said being debt free is the American Dream. The youngest of the poll respondents, those 18 to 24, said were most likely to define getting out of debt as the American Dream.

Walton said that after the Great Recession, younger people are still feeling less secure and the thought of having 30 years of debt from a mortgage is terrifying. Millennials are thought to owe more now than previous generations thanks to the burden of student debt, which is about $30,000 for the average graduate.

"Every day that I see the debt I owe, it hurts my head and feels like an actual weight on my shoulders," Walton said. "The idea of not owning anything to anyone is incredibly liberating."

Perhaps reflective of that, overall homeownership is on the decline. According to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau report, homeownership was at its peak in 2004, with 69.2% of Americans owning homes. In the first quarter of 2014, that number had dropped to 64.8%, the lowest it's been since 1995. By third quarter 2014, the rate dropped to 64.4%.

Though Walton forewent a mortgage, he was burdened with $40,000 of personal debt. He felt simply drawing a salary wouldn't allow him to pay off what he owed in a reasonable time-frame, so he took control of the situation by investing in a business and is now a self-employed entrepreneur in Dallas. He's been able to pay down his debt by more than $10,000 since the first of the year.

Paying Debt Can be Done at Anytime

If you want to reduce or eliminate your debt, it's never too late to make your escape plan and achieve the new American dream.

The first half of the year might be half over, but you can still make a plan and start implementing it, according to Beverly Harzog, consumer credit expert and author of the recently released book The Debt Escape Plan: How to Free Yourself From Credit Card Balances, Boost Your Credit Score, and Live Debt-Free (Career Press, 2015). "Don't wait until it's the right time, because that's never going to happen," she says. "Decide today that you're going to create your debt escape plan and take back your life."

Harzog knows first-hand how hard being in debt and paying those balances off can be. She got in over her head in her 20s and was ultimately able to eliminate all of her debt. Harzog calls credit cards "toxic debt," and the first thing consumers need to do before they can pay it off is stop using the cards.

How to Pay Off Debt

Stephanie Jadotte, a designer based in Miami, said she is paying off her debt one credit card at a time. Jadotte began with her largest credit card, one that had a $5,000 balance. "It took two years and two tax refund checks to pay down," said Jadotte. Next, she attacked a $200 balance and will conquer $25,000 in student loans next.

Starting with the largest credit card is called the avalanche method, which is starting with the card with the highest APR (which usually is the highest balance) and concentrating on paying that credit card off first. In the meantime, you make the minimum payments on your other cards. "If you're the type of person who needs a quick psychological boost to stay motivated, then the snowball method might work for you," Harzog said, describing the act of paying off the cards with the smallest balances first.

The snowball method allows consumers to do a little happy dance sooner by having them focus on and eliminate the smaller balances first. Once those smaller balances are paid off, they move on to the larger balances. "Note that with this method, you pay more interest expense," Harzog said. "But the reason some people choose this method is because they get a quick win. They enjoy reducing the number of debts they have and that keeps them motivated."

Harzog said that paying off debt successfully has a lot to do with choosing a strategy that works with your money "personality." These methods don't just work for credit cards; many people are using these methods to also pay off larger loans such as vehicle and mortgages.


--Written by Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell for MainStreet

 

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell is an Arkansas-based journalist who writes for TheStreet and MainStreet on personal finance, small business and leisure/travel issues.