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How families can help kids learn to 'adult'

Older parents and daughter
Jon Feingersh | Blend Images | Getty Images

Turn 18 and you're legally an adult. But two-thirds of young people say they don't feel like adults until some later point — and then it's often because they have passed a financial milestone rather than a particular age, according to a new survey from Bank of America and USA Today.

The survey polled 2,180 consumers age 18 to 26 during July. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Among those who feel like adults, 60 percent said their parents helped prepare them, while 49 percent cited the influence of another role model. Only 31 percent of those surveyed said their high school education did a good job of teaching them financial habits, while 41 percent of college attendees said they learned such lessons on campus.

(See chart below for some of the money issues young adults said they wished they learned more about.)

Among those who don't feel like adults, roughly 8 in 10 said it's because they still rely on financial support from their parents, the survey found.

Families that want to help their children launch into adulthood more easily can do plenty to help, said Ted Beck, president and chief executive of the National Endowment for Financial Education. He points to the results of the organization's longitudinal study with the University of Arizona, which has tracked factors that help young adults avoid financial problems as they enter adulthood.

"The three biggest and positive influences of people who were not showing risky financial behavior, No. 1 was parent involvement, No. 2 was taking a financial education class, and No. 3 was having a paid part-time job," said Beck.

Parent involvement can be as simple as talking to your children more about money — explaining the spending and budgeting decisions you're making, and being open about mistakes you've made, he said.

On the education front, be aware that financial literacy education requirements vary widely by state. Check to see what your child's school requires and offers.

"It's really a mixed bag," he said. "A school literally has dozens and dozens of programs they can pick from, because there is no standard here."

Ideally, Beck said, the program will be one that uses materials developed with field experts like financial planners, includes topics that are relevant and timely for young learners and is taught by an educator who has been trained in personal finance education. (Not satisfied with what your school offers? Many programs, including those from NEFE, JumpStart and Pwc, provides lessons and resources online.)

Students will also be well served learning fundamentals to help them make better financial decisions, said Annamaria Lusardi, a professor of economics at George Washington University. For example, understanding how interest compounds would be helpful with all kinds of borrowing and saving decisions, from understanding how a student loan balance will grow to choosing an affordable mortgage.

"It's not about teaching how to balance a checking account," she said. "That's more for the history course."

The final influence, a paid part-time job, brings that knowledge imparted from parents and classes into the practical realm.

"You can see how many hours of work it takes to buy stuff," Beck said. "Just seeing that paycheck and the difference between gross and net pay is a really meaningful experience."