Many people wonder if reaching certain milestones—finding a steady job, buying a home, saving, filing your own taxes—makes them adults, financially speaking.
In a previous blog post, Earnest published survey results showing what financial events people said made them feel like an adult. Most of the responses lined up with the milestones above.
However, hitting these goalposts may seem impossible in a competitive job market and with heavy college and consumer debt. Achieving these milestones certainly suggests maturity, but here’s the rub: Reaching them doesn’t guarantee you’re actually adulting yet.
And more so, you’re most likely adulting even if you have not hit some of the biggies, like buying a home.
Turns out, there’s more to the story: In order to reach any of these milestones, you’ll need to master and practice some basic financial habits and behaviors. And under that layer is yet another that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with your brain.
Mastering the Basics
Learning how to manage your financial decisions and commitments once you’ve made them is key or you may wind up backpedaling and unraveling what good you’ve achieved—or risk needing a humiliating bailout from parents, friends, a partner, or a lender, which isn’t so adult-like. And heck, this can happen at any age—calendar age and milestone events are not correlated.
Read more: How to Create a Budget in 5 Steps
For example, every city dweller knows that person whose parents bought them a place (milestone!), but who can’t pay their bills on time (uh-oh). They may be in an enviable position on one level (they own a place) but on another, they’re not adulting if they didn’t learn how to finance a major purchase and can’t pay the bills—and indeed, once the parents vanish, they may lack the life skills to stay in the home.
On the other hand, it’s not necessarily “less adult” to live with parents or accept the term “dependent” on someone else’s insurance—not if these “delayed adulthood” moves serve a mature bigger picture, such as building a savings cushion, accelerating a student loan payoff, or other gestures rooted in adult responsibility.
Emotional Adulthood vs Financial Adulthood
All this brings us to what is an adult, at least from a psychological perspective?
Dr. Jennifer Tanner, a psychologist who blogs about adulthood, wrote that when Millennials were surveyed about what constitutes adulthood many referenced not only the typical markers and achievements called out by Earnest’s research but also a more philosophical set of considerations.
Citing the work of author and psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, she wrote that people consider adulthood a state in which a person “accepts responsibility, makes independent decisions, and becomes financially independent.”
“It’s finding out who you are and how you fit into the world.”
Arnett, in an interview published by Business Insider, explained more clearly what each of these meant:
“People mention all sorts of things that they mean by it,” Arnett said. “It generally means accepting the consequences of your actions without expecting anyone else, particularly your parents, to protect you from those consequences.”
Makes Independent Decisions
“It’s finding out who you are and how you fit into the world,” Arnett said, “and there is a range of decisions that go into that.” This could include everything from the decision to go back to school for a graduate degree, to where to live for career growth, and then of course, whether to rent or buy.
If you’re trying to navigate some of these decisions yourself, take a look at the Earnest Guide to Decision Making.
Becomes Financially Independent
This last one is where it’s easiest to check the boxes. But it’s also where Arnett suggested there is an additional cultural aspect to consider. “We Americans expect children to become independent, and emerging adults feel that pressure and their parents put that pressure on them.”
So the good news: You’re probably an adult much sooner than you think.