Adulting and the milestone purchases that define it

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Adulting can be hard. Bills and financial obligations are a major part of navigating the “real world” — whether it’s buying your first car or choosing furniture for your first home, most of us have our own idea of what milestones mark the entrance into adulthood.

To get a sense of which purchases make Gen Zers and millennials feel like adults and what they spent on those items or experiences, we surveyed over 1,000 participants that fit the bill.

Key takeaways

Nearly 1 in 5 people feel paying off student loans is a sign of becoming an adult.

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Millennials most felt like adults after buying their first home and car.

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Millennials spent nearly four times more on their first milestone purchase than Gen Zers.

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Gen Zers (59%) were more likely than millennials (53%) to buy their first adult purchase using cash.

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The beginnings of adulting

So, when does someone become an adult? It’s safe to say adulthood comes with lots of responsibility and plenty of struggle, so many believe there’s a level of maturity one needs to reach before they can be considered an adult.

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Most of the respondents in our survey said they started feeling like an adult at 22 years old and that someone should start acting like a grown-up at the age of 21. Gen Z respondents were more likely to feel like an adult at age 20, on average, compared to millennials, who overall felt like adults two years later, at 22.

It makes sense that respondents viewed this time as the beginning of adulthood — at this age range, it’s typical to be finishing college and, notably, to start repaying student loans. (Following the repayment pause put in place during the pandemic, many are preparing to start repaying such loans in 2022.)

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When it comes to how respondents defined “adulting,” many of the purchases and obligations were relatively major in terms of milestones. In regards to finances, 52% of respondents said purchasing a home was a major sign of adulting, followed by saving for retirement (50%), being able to afford bills (49%) and purchasing a vehicle (48%).

Half said that buying groceries each week was a defining milestone. When it comes to work, having a full-time salaried position was the ultimate milestone that respondents felt defined adulthood (52%).

Adulting by generation

Younger generations have been relatively vocal about the struggles they’ve faced with adulthood, especially in the last couple of years, with the onset of the pandemic and some economic issues becoming more prevalent. Much has been made of the idea of adulting in general, especially among millennials in recent years. This has made the debate about what makes someone a real adult much more prominent lately.

Broken down by generation, it’s easy to see the slight differences between millennials and Gen Zers in what they think defines adulting.

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Based on this info, it seems there’s a slight generational divide in the definition of adulthood — 45% of Gen Zers and 43% of millennials find living in a house versus an apartment significant, and 39% of Gen Zers and 54% of millennials think being able to afford bills is a big adulting milestone.

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When it came to the purchases that made respondents feel most like adults, putting a down payment on a house was the top milestone (22%), with seven weeks on average spent researching the purchase and $36,889 on average spent on a down payment.

Buying a vehicle was also high up on the list (19%), with five weeks of research and $12,468 spent on average.

Considerations for purchasing

When making significant purchases like buying a home or car, it’s important to consider a number of factors to ensure it’s the right decision. Especially as a young adult, taking the time to research and be secure in your decision-making can go a long way.

Though some may believe younger generations (like millennials) spend more recklessly, the truth is that spending habits among this generation are about the same as with any other generation.

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Overall, 62% of respondents (51% of Gen Zers and 66% of millennials) said price was the thing they considered most when making a milestone purchase. Quality was also an important consideration (56% overall), as were brand (46% overall) and features (44% overall).

Parents were by far the biggest influence in young adults’ first major financial decisions (31% overall), though respondents also relied on friends (22%) and social media (16%) when weighing their options. Gen Z (21%) relied on social media more than millennials (15%) for help in making these initial adult purchases.

Making the purchase

When it comes to large purchases, there are several options, like loans and credit cards, that make it easier for young people without much money saved to make significant financial decisions.

Loans have their benefits and their drawbacks, though. There’s a recent trend among younger generations to take out loans to invest in stocks — pointing to, at the very least, a desire to prioritize investment and passive income. But when it comes to major milestone purchases, are millennials and Gen Zers relying heavily on loans to make things happen?

paying for your big purchase graphic

Cash was the top method of payment (55%) for a first-time major life purchase among respondents overall. Forty-one percent opted for a credit card, while 33% said they took out a personal loan and 32% chose financing from a retailer.

Notably, 64% of respondents said they went into debt over one of their first adult milestones, with Gen Z (76%) being more likely than millennials (59%) to accrue debt from these purchases.

purchase positive impact graphic

Buying with care

Making a major purchase as a young adult can feel like a huge milestone, and that’s because it undoubtedly has an impact on other aspects of life moving forward. While it seems Gen Zers and millennials have a similar idea of what qualifies as a milestone adult purchase, respondents seemed to express more nuanced opinions on what types of responsibilities make someone an adult.

No matter where you stand on what defines adulthood, making major purchases like these requires significant research and thought. Check out our buyers guides and other resources for help.

Methodology and limitations

We surveyed 1,049 people about the purchases that most made them feel like an adult. Among the respondents, 734 were millennials and 315 were from Generation Z. Fifty-five percent were men, 44% were women, and 1% identified as nonbinary.

For short, open-ended questions, outliers were removed.

To help ensure that all respondents took our survey seriously, they were required to identify and correctly answer an attention-check question.

Survey data have certain limitations related to self-reporting. These limitations include telescoping, exaggeration and selective memory. We didn’t weight our data or statistically test our hypothesis. The margin of error was plus or minus 4% with a 95% confidence interval.

Fair use statement

If you’re interested in our take on how the younger adult generations define adulthood, you’re welcome to share it. We just ask that you link back to the study and that your purposes are noncommercial in nature.


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