College Spending Habits May Predict When 'Adulting' Starts

How well you manage your money in college may determine when you'll ultimately achieve "adult identity," according to a new study led by researchers in the John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Researchers tracked a group of students from their fourth year of college to five years post-graduation. Participants were asked at three different points to self-report on financial behaviors such as spending, saving, budgeting and borrowing. Those who had good financial habits in their fourth year of college, or who showed marked improvement in their habits over the course of the study, were more likely to see themselves as adults at the end of the study period, when they were 26 to 31 years old.

On the flip side, those whose financial behaviors in college weren't as good, or didn't improve over time, were less likely to see themselves as having reached adulthood five years after college.

"We found that financial behaviors during that fourth year of college continue to have positive implications for emerging adults more than half a decade later," said study co-author Melissa Curran, an associate professor in the UA's Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The research, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, is based on data collected at three different time points over a six-year period, starting with students' fourth year of college in 2010 and five years post-college in 2016. All of the participants were originally UA students.

Although adult identity has traditionally been measured by milestones like getting married, having children and achieving financial independence, for this study researchers measured participants' perceived adult identity by asking them to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, a series of statements, such as "I feel that I have matured fully."

"We asked them to reflect on whether they think they've already reached adulthood and whether others around them see and treat them as adults," said lead study author Xiaomin Li, a doctoral student in family studies and human development.

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