Does anyone ever truly feel like an adult, though?

By Lauren Phillips
Updated: April 18, 2019
Andrew Bret Wallis/Getty Images

Turning 18 may legally make a person an adult, but what really makes someone feel like an adult? Is it learning to drive? Is it getting married? Is it saving for retirement? A new survey from Merrill Lynch Wealth Management says 75 percent of early adults (U.S. residents ages 18-34) define adulthood as being financially independent from their parents.

The study, conducted by Merrill Lynch in partnership with consulting group Age Wave, asked more than 2,700 adults in the United States about their perceptions of adulthood. The survey focused on people between 18 and 34 years old, a group the results define as early adults, and defines early adulthood as a transitional life stage during which people are trying to establish functional and financial independence.

75 percent of these early adults say they’ll actually reach full adulthood when they achieve financial independence—but 70 percent of early adults have received some form of financial support from their parents within the last year. So what does financial independence look like?

Financial independence can be defined as reaching a place where you are able to afford your day-to-day essentials without outside support from friends or family. Ideally, a few treats (a few meals out, a new TV, a vacation) and working toward financial goals are also possible within that budget. In the Merrill Lynch survey results, eight out of ten early adults say it’s harder to become financially independent than it was for previous generations. For the 70 percent receiving some form of financial support, parents pay for cell phone or phone plans; food and groceries; school or related costs; car expenses; vacations; rent/mortgage payment; or student loans. 41 percent of the early adults surveyed who own homes received help from their parents for the down payment on a house.

There’s no one secret to reaching financial independence, but for many, it’s a (deceptively simple) matter of ensuring you spend less money than you earn. Reaching that balancing point may require increasing income, lowering expenses, or both, and there are dozens of factors—including student or credit card debt, a low-paying job in an expensive city, or medical expenses—that can prevent people from getting there. Small personal finance tips can help someone work toward financial independence, but they won’t make the difference between being able to pay rent or not.

If financial independence isn’t the secret to reaching adulthood, what is? Other suggestions from the survey are having a full-time job, living separately from parents, buying a home, completing education, getting engaged or married, having children, or having a serious relationship. Still, the majority—75 percent of people, versus just 60 percent who said having a full-time job makes one an adult—say financial independence makes a person truly an adult.

“Continued support can delay progress toward early adults’ independence, and it can add to their anxiety that they are falling behind their peers,” the survey results say. “Yet financial support beyond age 25 has become the norm.” Which is to say, continuing to receive financial support may keep someone from feeling like a true adult—but most early adults are in the same situation.

The solution might be weaning early adults off their parents’ wallets, but 83 percent of parents supporting their children say it’s because they want to help them get ahead and they’re genuinely happy to help out. The feeling is mutual: 85 percent of early adults say it’s their responsibility to help their parents financially if they are struggling, and 89 percent say they’d be willing to support their parents financially in the future.

In that case, maybe it’s time to address the factors—rising tuition costs, rising costs of living, stagnant pay—that make financial independence during early adulthood so difficult. Until that happens, if your parents still pay for your phone bill, you’re definitely not alone.

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