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Time to Let Go of Mom and Dad's Purse Strings?

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The tough economy has a lot of us thinking about ways to cut back. For young people who came of age in the boom years, belt-tightening can be a rude awakening. Writer Jessica Herman knows first-hand.

Walking past a panhandler the other day, I found myself timidly grasping the collar of my jacket and hugging it close to my body.  It was one of the first days that felt like fall in Chicago, the wind reacquainting itself with my recently sun-kissed skin. I was excited to break in the newest addition to my wardrobe: a boxy, caramel color, quilted fur coat with a '40s-style glamorous flair. But as I stepped past this man begging for a few bucks, that happiness quickly gave way to self-consciousness. Sure, the fur was fake and the jacket, purchased at H&M, cost closer to $80 than $800, but I couldn't help but feel like I was flaunting frivolously spent dollars in this person's face.

The experience evoked a similar discomfort to the feeling I've had the past few weeks at work. As a style writer at TimeOut Chicago magazine, I spend my days scavenging the Internet for midcentury mod furniture or taking the latest pair of Nikes for a test run. I enjoy my job as a tastemaker, shedding light on deserving, talented designers, but when people are struggling to get food on the table, why should I think that figuring out the best mp3 player actually matters?

It's times like this that urge us to step back and reassess the ever-changing role that money plays in our lives. Growing up in Southern California, my dad a doctor and my mom a stay-at-home-mom, money was rarely a topic of discussion. My father promptly brushed off questions like how much he made in a year, and when I expressed concern that my parents were spending too much on my clothes or a new CD player, they encouraged me to simply enjoy what they could comfortably afford to give me.

I didn't have the feeling that we were swimming in money or that my parents took their fortune for granted. Neither my mother nor my father grew up in wealthy homes; they watched their parents struggle to support them. Like many Boomers, they had worked their way up from a modest Midwest upbringing to earn a sprawling home in San Diego and European vacations.  As parents, they'd made a conscious decision to ensure that my sister and I need not concern ourselves with where our family's money came from and presented a kind of the-world-is-your-oyster attitude.

Now as a 26-year-old, I still receive a monthly stipend from my parents. In many ways, I've matured into an adult: I've become relatively successful in my career, moved into my own apartment and experienced "adult relationships." However, when it comes to feeling financially responsible, my development seems stunted. I have this $1,000 safety net to catch me if I spend a little too much on shoes or let the heat bill get too high.

In addition to reading about economic stresses in the headlines, I'm hearing about it from my parents, too. My mother hints that sooner than later, I should consider how to gracefully make my way off the gravy train. And my father, now retired for nearly a decade, tells me about the class he started taking at the university on smart investing. On occasion he ponders out loud that perhaps he did wrong by my sister and I, by placing so little emphasis on the financial viability of a career that we didn't factor making money into the equation when we started to pursue our respective careers in the arts.

Now I'm faced with the dilemma that many twentysomethings of my generation face: We grew up believing that doing something that makes you happy is far more important than doing something that makes you money. So at what point do we calculate money into the equation? When in order to live in a one-bedroom apartment on a writer's salary or purchase a new coat and go out for dinner with friends in the same week means accepting money from your parents?

Sooner than later, that safety net of mine will drop out with the dwindling remnants of my childhood. Just as the panhandler I passed on the street made decisions that at least, in part, shaped his present state, I'll have to reassess the way I spend and earn money. I'll have to consider what I want my life to look like and how I can get there on my own. Not that I'd wish a recession on any economy, but the fact that it makes me face the facts, that's something I'm grateful for.

Jessica Herman is a style writer for TimeOut Chicago.

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