Becoming an Adult Through Financial Independence

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, our video team revived our long discussion thread on adulthood by producing a series of person-on-the-street interviews in Manhattan (re-embedded above). We still have a ton of your emails and are trying to post as many of the best ones as we can. One of the most common themes for the question “When did you become an adult?” is financial independence, namely from parents. Here’s reader Michelle, age 38:

Great question! I felt like an adult at age 26. For the earlier part of my twenties, I rarely lived at my family home, but I searched out opportunities to live for free—friends’ homes, non-profits that offered housing, jobs where you could live on-site. But at 26, I got a studio apartment in a big city and paid rent through my own efforts. Living alone for the first time was my entry into true adulthood; financial independence and self-knowledge occurred in those rocky but wonderful years.

Megan Von Bergen gets a bit more specific with her marker:

One of the first times I really felt like an adult was when I started paying my first utility bills, during graduate school. This was my very first apartment. Paying bills was something I’d seen my parents do, it was something I was never involved in, and so to take responsibility for a mundane task made me really feel like an adult.

Ironically, for the first few weeks, this made me really excited about paying bills.

Stephen Grapes, on the other hand, isn’t quite there yet:

I don’t think I’ve become an adult just yet. I’m a 21 year-old American student who lives almost entirely off of my parent’s welfare.

For the last several years, I’ve felt a pressure—it might be a biological or a social pressure—to get out from under the yoke of my parents’ financial assistance. I feel that only when I’m able to support myself financially will I be a true “adult.” Some of the traditional markers of adulthood (turning 18, turning 21) have come and gone without me feeling any more adult-y, and I don’t think that marriage would make me feel grown up unless it was accompanied by financial independence.

Money really matters, because past a certain age, it is the main determiner of what you can and cannot do. And I guess to me the freedom to choose all “the things” in your life is what makes someone an adult.

Here’s another thing from Lauren Oliver:

When are you an adult? When you make your own doctor appointment.

Yes, there are defining moments in life that will make you feel like an adult: having kids, owning a home, holding a steady job, marriage, or experiencing deaths of loved ones, divorce(s), and career loss. All of these experiences are part of an adult’s life. But what is an adult? An adult is when one has full responsibility for him/herself. Bills are paid by oneself, appointments are made by oneself, confirming holiday plans with family members is done by oneself. Once this occurs, in my opinion, is when one is an adult.

“It’s nice to feel comfortable in your own weirdness; it’s maybe even the most important thing.” That’s my favorite line in this reader roundup, from Tom Schroeder, a 25-year-old grad student:

I began considering myself an adult shortly after moving into my own one-bedroom apartment about a year ago, at the age of 24, roughly two years after becoming financially independent from my parents. This probably says a lot about my personality, but it wasn’t until I lived alone and felt full ownership over my living space that I felt comfortable forming healthy routines.

I finally began learning to cook, for example. I kept my apartment clean for once in my life. I began to feel like a competent host. I no longer dreaded coming home, because there was no longer the question of whether there’d be any roommates around that I’d have to justify my actions, schedule, or company to.

It’s nice to feel comfortable in your own weirdness; it’s maybe even the most important thing. It’s easier without witnesses.

I’ll be moving away soon, so I had to abandon my beloved apartment in the summer to find a temporary room in a house with some friends. It’s the best thing I could have found for my circumstances, but I feel myself backsliding—between having housemates and existing in a more or less transient state, I’m cooking less, avoiding my own home, and living more messily and less healthily.

In short, I feel less like an adult living here. But I now know what to look for so I can get back on track when I arrive in my new home.

One more reader, who prefers to remain anonymous:

When I was a child, I thought adulthood was when you went to college. You were “completely on your own.” You took the classes that you wanted, you made the friends that you wanted, you ate what you wanted. You were the only agent in your successes and infrequent failures. Besides, you were 18 years old—that was pretty old to a 9 year old. You had to have been smart and mature and nice at that point. You had to have been “grown up.”

When I entered college, I realized how woefully naive that idea was. I was supported by my parents since they paid my tuition as well as room and board. Without them, I would have nothing.

With that, I mentally crossed off the sole agent bit. The other bits would be crossed off one by one, as I met many people who weren’t very smart or mature or nice or “grown up” and I came to realize that doing whatever you wanted did not equate a sense of adulthood. Eating Subway sandwiches at 4 AM on a Tuesday night, drunk out of your mind, when you have an 8 AM class is not a roaring affirmation of your maturation.

When I was in graduate school, still being supported by my parents, I thought that having a job and living on your own made you an adult. Actually being responsible for your own day-to-day life had to have meant something. You truly were on your own. How much more grown up is that?

Now that I have a job and am getting closer to moving out of my parents’ house, I am coming to realize that there is closer of a truth in that idea. I do feel better and more “grown up” about myself handling the finances in my life. Except that there are all these technicalities that come with that sense of financial independence.

For example, the cellphone plan. Adults pay for their cellphone plan. Except … do adults stay in their family plan? By doing so, I pay $44 a month as opposed to about $100 for unlimited data, talking, and text.  That’s some financial responsibility right there! Especially since it makes my parents’ cell phone plans cheaper as well. But after I pat myself on the back, I find it hard to ignore the feeling of embarrassment that my mommy takes money out of my checking account to pay for my cell phone every month. Is it better to pay more to get rid of my hot cheeks?

I know that it is a very Millennial thing to say (and thus unfashionable in certain circles), but I also don’t want my identity to be tied to money so closely. I had hoped my sense of adulthood would be connected to feelings rather than decimal points and commas in an online statement.

Am I an adult now? Who am I? I am 23 years old. I have a job. I am moving out soon to live with a significant other of nearly three years. I have two degrees and I am hoping to pursue a third. On paper, I am on the cusp of maturation. But I still am insecure. I over-analyze things to death and, while I argue that I am a realist, I am probably enormously pessimistic. I am anxious about small things and large things, and the gaps in my knowledge about basic things (still have not learned how to change a tire, how do I do taxes without an accountant, how do I know if I want children one day-oh God, the list is endless) deeply troubles me.

On a good day, I would say I am 60 percent of an adult. Since today is an okay day, so I am about 40-50 percent of the way there. At least I am making progress.