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Today’s definition of financial adulthood is more flexible than ever
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Today’s definition of financial adulthood is more flexible than ever

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Thirty-somethings are defining "financial adulthood" differently than their baby boomer parents did.

The financial milestones of adulthood used to be pretty clear-cut: 30-somethings were expected to get married, buy a home and have children. In fact, when the popular TV show “thirtysomething” hit the airwaves in 1987, back when many of today’s 30-somethings were in diapers, the show revolved around parenting young kids while climbing career ladders.

More recent hit shows about 30-somethings are more likely to feature characters experiencing underemployment (“Fleabag”), adult children living with parents (“Schitt’s Creek”), and dating with no marriage in sight (“Master of None”). (Producers are currently shopping around a sequel to the original “thirtysomething,” revolving around the original characters’ now-30-something children.) And all of those shows were conceived before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which has created even more financial strain for this generation.

In the real world, statistics from the Pew Research Center back up the shift toward delayed traditional milestones: Millennials, ages 24 to 39, are putting off or skipping marriage and are more likely to be living at home compared with previous generations.

“Thirty-somethings ask themselves, 'Why haven’t I achieved what my parents did at my age?'”

Financially, millennials have accumulated less wealth than baby boomers did at their age: The median net worth of millennial households was $12,500 in 2016 compared with $20,700 for baby boomers of the same age in 1983. Statistics collected post-pandemic will likely show that it — and the unemployment it wrought — had a negative impact on wealth and earnings, too.

Perhaps partly because of that different financial situation, 30-somethings are experiencing the traditional milestones of marriage, kids and homeownership later (or not at all). That can feel frustrating, as some 30-somethings ask themselves, “Why haven’t I achieved what my parents did at my age?”

But definitions of “becoming a grown-up” can differ widely, and instead of marching past uniform milestones, plenty of 30-somethings are drawing their own maps to adulthood with newer and more flexible markers: finally moving out of their parents’ house and living on their own; settling into a job that feels more like a long-term career; moving in with a partner; or simply staying employed in the midst of a pandemic.

The shifting economy, global health situation, and job market means that this generation is constantly reevaluating its options and redefining its path. While that can be confusing and overwhelming, it also means lots of options and opportunities.

Here are some ways to create a new definition of financial adulthood to replace the old markers.

Share your financial struggles with others

Talking about stress associated with feeling behind or not achieving traditional milestones can help alleviate it since many 30-somethings share similar feelings. Ada Calhoun, author of “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis,” says she started feeling better about her own credit card debt after she talked about it with others. She realized many people were stressed about credit card debt and that she didn’t need to be embarrassed by it.

Accept help without shame

Many 30-somethings still accept help from their parents, either by moving back home, in the form of free child care or in actual cash gifts. There’s no reason to be ashamed of that help, and it can be a huge lift when it comes to establishing your own financial security. As long as you’re not hurting your parents’ finances (or their health), and you show appreciation, everyone can benefit from the arrangement.

Leverage your education

One asset 30-somethings have going for them? Their education. Pew reports that millennials are generally better educated than previous generations. That education can be leveraged to earn more through full-time work, particularly as the unemployment rate remains low. Side gigs, too, can supplement. Many websites, from freelancer.com to flexjobs.com, make it easier than ever to find more work.

Pay off debt

Debt was the albatross around 30-somethings’ necks even before the pandemic: It can drag down the rest of their finances and create major stress. Millennials tend to have more student loan debt than previous generations. They also hold a lot of credit card debt, and it’s growing quickly: Credit bureau Experian reports that millennials carried $4,889 in credit card debt in 2019, a 40% increase from 2015.

Paying off debt isn’t easy, but it can be done: Paying more than the minimum balance each month and using an online calculator to help set goals can make it easier. Choosing either the snowball method, where you pick your smallest debt to pay off first, or the avalanche method, where you pay off your highest-interest-rate debt first, is a good place to start.

Save for big goals

Whether it’s a traditional goal like homeownership or a less traditional one like starting your own business, saving for big priorities can give you a sense of progress and empowerment. Setting up automated payments each month into a high-yield savings account can help grow those savings.

Creating a more flexible definition of adulthood’s milestones means that instead of being held to someone else’s idea of what it means to grow up, 30-somethings can define their own path — a potentially more creative and satisfying option.

Kimberly Palmer is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: kpalmer@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @kimberlypalmer.

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