How People Without Parents Do Money
by Chanel Dubofsky
So this weekend, I willfully submerged myself in a marathon of “the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and saw an episode in which Kyle reflects on how she’s taught her college-bound daughter a lot of things, but not how to do laundry.
My own mother taught me how to do laundry, but when she died during my second year of college, I also got a free crash course in how to be a financial disaster. Theoretically, it’s our parents who teach us about money, the technicalities of how to handle it, but also how we might feel about it as a concept and approach it through a moral lens. But what about when our parents die before they can teach us anything? What about when we don’t have parental figures to help us negotiate the world of finances (even though we still benefit from incredible privilege)?
I discussed this situation with my fellow orphan/only child/MFA candidate friend, H. Tucker Rosebrock, a Boston-based writer, speaker, and part-time superhero.
Chanel: Okay, so, let’s talk about money and not having parents.
Tucker Rosebrock: Yes, my favorite things. My dad died summer after my junior year of college and both my parents had been in like pretty failing health for awhile, but not like death was imminent. My whole life my parents had been very proud of the fact that I never had to worry about money, and I respect that hugely. My mom was also in really poor health at the time so suddenly I was in charge of also managing her care and figuring out what to do with her. (She died 9 months later.)
Chanel: After they died, where did you get advice about money?
Tucker Rosebrock: I actually was INCREDIBLY fortunate in that my dad was a tax attorney for a number of years, and one of the lawyers he mentored showed up at his deathbed and was like, “Hi, we’re here to help you,” for free. I don’t know what I did in this life or another to deserve that, but praise be. I did suddenly have to go to the law offices a lot and learn about IRAs and TIAA/CREF accounts and write my will.
Chanel: I think the thing about not having parents is that you find out you’re alone in ways even when you’re taken care of in others.
Tucker Rosebrock: Yes. That is a great way of putting it. Even if you have assistance, there’s suddenly a lot more responsibility you have to take on that frankly most people don’t have to even think about. There was a time before my mom died in college where we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to keep paying my tuition, so it was like the middle of my senior year and I was suddenly having all these meetings with financial aid and the dean of students and stuff trying to be like hi, I just need to finish this year, please.
Chanel: My mom had handled all the financial aid, aside from the student loan stuff, which was mainly like, “You know you have to pay this back, right?” So after she died, I’d go into the financial aid office and say, “I just need to graduate, okay? Whatever it takes.” I can’t have been the only kid doing that, but I couldn’t imagine anyone else who would be.
Tucker Rosebrock: Right, it’s not something people really talk about.
Chanel: Do you get financial advice from anyone now? Or do you pretty much run your own show?
Tucker Rosebrock: My finances are still with that law firm, and I get quarterly updates from them and I work with my attorney for like one off things — like when I was applying for grad school or getting a new car. It’s tough because while they’re very helpful, they’re still not my parents, so if I say, “I want to cash out my entire inheritance and buy a yacht” or something, they’re not going to be like, no that’s a terrible idea, because it’s my money, and they “work” for me.
Chanel: A yacht!
Tucker Rosebrock: More like a dinghy or a rowboat.
Chanel: Or like 100 really expensive dogs.
Tucker Rosebrock: I want a lifetime supply of Baskin Robbins ice cream.
Chanel: A FLEET of ice cream and dogs.
Tucker Rosebrock: THE HAPPIEST ORPHAN.
Chanel: Did you learn stuff about money from your parents when they were alive?
Tucker Rosebrock: Not at all. I mean, kind of broad strokes. One of my mom’s big things was that she always had her own bank account and her own finances and everything, and she really stressed the importance of that to me, but nothing like, “Here’s how this all works.”
Chanel: Same. My mother and grandmother were the folks who raised me, and I observed their (stressful) relationship with money, but I didn’t know anything about how to deal with it as an individual. I think it was one of those things where they thought there would be time to teach me when I was older.
Tucker Rosebrock: I also understand the impulse from a parental standpoint to want to protect your kids from that. Both my parents grew up in pretty middle-class background where money was always a huge stress in their families and then they were fortunate enough when they had their own family to be like, “Great, our child never has to worry about this.” My mom was like “I’ve worked since I was 15, you should never have to do that.”
Chanel: That sounds like my grandmother. She worked starting at the age of nine, so she never wanted me to have a job. My mother did leave me some money, about $25K, which seemed like a ton at the time, but is really not that much at all, considering I couldn’t live at home anymore and had to worry about a car and other living expenses.
Tucker Rosebrock: Also, now it’s like, oh, I have to plan for things. Before I went to Slovenia, my attorney made me come in and update my will, “just in case,”which was such a weird thing, to think about who the beneficiaries are. My parents didn’t leave me like a ton of money, but they left me some, but I still don’t think of it as “mine.”
Chanel: Oh, that’s interesting. Say more things about that.
Tucker Rosebrock: I almost never touch it and I have a ton of anxiety every time I need to take money out from it because it feels somehow “irresponsible,” even though I’m not buying drugs with it, you know? I take money from it to buy Christmas gifts or help pay some bills. I’m so resistant to the idea of touching any of it at all, even though it is “mine,” that I won’t use it even in situations where I probably should? If that makes sense?
Chanel: Do you think it’s about scarcity? A fear of it?
Tucker Rosebrock: Scarcity is a good term. I guess I don’t trust myself enough to work with it responsibly, so I’d rather just not touch it at all until … some unknown abstract date in the future when I suddenly understand IRAs and 401(k)s and all that stuff. Like, what if I get hit by a car tomorrow and suddenly have a gajillion dollars in medical bills or something. I think psychologically, for me, I still basically feel like I’m asking my parents for money every time I use any of those funds.
Chanel: I think my ideas about who parents are frozen at age nineteen, and that includes my relationship to money. I think that I don’t feel comfortable with money because I still feel like I deal with it like a 19 year old with no clue?
Tucker Rosebrock: Yes! And in a lot of ways I keep expecting like someone to show up and teach me, I guess, which clearly ain’t going to happen.
Chanel: Do you think about how your parents would want you to spend the money? Does that change how you deal with it?
Tucker Rosebrock: Yes and yes, in a lot of ways it’s good, because it keeps me responsible. I know my parents would want me to use the money to do things like go to grad school, get married, or whatever. But in some ways it’s bad because it keeps me from learning how to deal with it myself?
Chanel: I think finding other people who are dealing with this reality is really important. And also, having faith that we are the experts in our own lives.
Tucker Rosebrock: I feel like that’s one of the big things I miss about having parents. I don’t have anyone to check in with to be like hey, you’re doing great. Now I just have to like BELIEVE IN MYSELF WHOLEHEARTEDLY.
Chanel: Exactly. It’s about so much more than money, which obviously everything is. Okay, finally, what advice would you give to someone in a situation similar to ours?
Tucker Rosebrock: I feel like a lot of it what we’ve been saying, that you have to kind of trust yourself (within reason). Don’t trust yourself if yourself is telling you to buy a fleet of dogs and ice cream. Yourself is also sometimes an idiot.
Chanel Dubofsky lives in Brooklyn and is a Fiction MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts, which confuses people. You can read her writing in Cosmopolitan, RH Reality Check, The Frisky, and the Toast. She blogs at Diverge (idiverge.wordpress.com).
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