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Make July 4th your financial independence day

There is a reason we celebrate the Fourth of July: Becoming independent more than 200 years ago was no small feat — and the same goes for millennials today who are just starting out.

One in 4 young people between the ages of 21 and 34 still receive support from their parents, according to a report by SunTrust Banks (the bank purposefully didn't include millennials between the ages of 18 and 21). Most often, that assistance comes in the form of paying for a cellphone, car insurance, medical bills, household expenses or even rent or mortgage payments.

"Being dependent on mom and dad isn't good for anyone in the long term," said Brian Ford, SunTrust's financial well-being executive. Not surprisingly, nearly half of the parents surveyed by SunTrust said the assistance they give their grown children causes them financial stress.

As a result, "a lot of parents simply aren't on track for their own financial goals," Ford said.

To that end, financial experts offer these four steps to achieving your financial independence. While aimed at millennials, it applies to just about everyone.

1. Drop the debt

Pay off your debt, or at least implement a plan to pay it down going forward, said Jared Snider, senior wealth advisor at Exencial Wealth Advisors in Oklahoma City.

"Young people who just get out of college with their first paycheck are very excited and go out and buy a car without realizing how much the monthly payments will be," said Katharine Perry, associate financial consultant at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh.

"I can't tell you how many people who get a job, go buy a brand-new car and now they have a $600-a-month car payment they could have used toward student loans," Perry said.

Rather, focus on the difference between good debt and bad debt and knock out the bad stuff first, which includes high-interest credit cards as well as any debt with small balances "to get some wins under your belt and to free up your cash flow," Snider said.

2. Save now, not later.

"Don't live outside of your means," Perry said. Evaluate your monthly take-home pay and monthly expenses so you can find room for a rainy day fund, she advised.

Many Americans are woefully ill-prepared for an unplanned expense, so much so that 66 million U.S. adults have zero dollars saved for an emergency, according to a study by Bankrate.

"This is especially important for younger workers without families," Snider said. "You never know what the future will bring."

An emergency fund ideally should be three to six months of expenses set aside, Snider said. Many times it's the unplanned expense that pushes people into debt to start with, he said.

3. Keep an eye on retirement

"It's never too early to plan for retirement, and you'll thank yourself later," Snider said. That means actively and aggressively contributing to a retirement fund, whether it's your company 401(k) or an IRA or both.

Get familiar with the benefits offered through your employer, particularly if there is a match and vesting schedule. Some plans are so-called nonelective safe harbor plans, which means they may make a contribution regardless of what an employee does.

"It's in everyone's best interest to be taking advantage of whatever those matching dollars are," Snider said. "It's more or less free money."

4. Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses

One in 8 Americans is willing to take on $1,000 or more in debt to depict an extravagant lifestyle, according to a separate report by the banking app Fintonic. And with higher income, expenses tend to escalate, which means the deeper they will delve into the red, the study concluded.

Differentiate what you need from what you want, and prioritize your expenses by what is essential, not by what will allow you to keep up with your peers, Snider said. "It really comes down to a personal decision about how important it is to reach your goals."

As a rule of thumb, Snider said, remember that your journey "might look different from some of the parents at school or your co-worker's."

"It's not easy but the path to financial independence is not the path of least resistance," he said.