advanced adulthood primer for parentless children?
August 21, 2013 2:02 PM   Subscribe

My parents were absent for much of my childhood, and I have been estranged from my family for years. I've been fully independent since my late teens, but I still learn best by example and rote memorization, and I did not really have anyone to learn from. I've built what I think is a good life, but I am still lacking a lot of practical information. What sort of resources are available for people in this position to figure out what they've missed and get themselves unstuck? Is there a book, checklist, or set of guidelines that I could use? Something like Advanced Adulthood for Dummies?

Some things I am hoping to be able to learn, preferably in a straightforward educational format:
* What is retirement? I know I'll have to work until I die, can I safely ignore everything everyone says about retirement?
* What is a pension, and why does my company keep telling me I have one when I never signed up for it?
* What is a 401(k) for, if I do not expect to retire? I've had one for years, do I need to do anything with it beside put money in?
* How much time should an average working adult spend volunteering? What percentage of their salary should be donated to charity?
* What are powers of attorney, living wills, etc.? Can I just call any lawyer in the phone book and say, "Listen, I need to make sure that no one I am related to can access any of my assets after I die. Please help me take care of this?"
* Who is in charge of your medical decision-making if you are incapacitated before you are able to talk to a lawyer (or whatever)? What is the terminology I need to use to change this?
* What do I need to be aware of in terms of physical changes/issues that come with getting older, and more specifically the aging process as it affects women -- mammograms, menopause, hot flashes, etc.? I will not be having children. Other than that, it is all a mystery to me.

I've tried reading books about parentless children/motherless daughters, but most are geared toward orphans and people mourning parents who have passed away, rather than people born to parents who are profoundly unwell and thus simply unable to act in a parental role. I can identify very strongly with the stories here, particularly the feeling of being rudderless and, most saliently, having "gaping holes in my understanding of how I was supposed to handle things."

Resources like Adulting are not what I need -- I already know how to clean my house, pay my bills, and stock my pantry. I know how to survive; the problem is that's all I know. What I'm trying to find is more like Beyond Adulting: How to Suck It Up and Get It Done Mentally, Physically, Socially, and Professionally or Fuck Yes, I Can Feed Myself. What Now?: An Operator's Manual. Does such a thing exist?

Are there tools, resources, or studies I can use to help identify what I don't know but need to, which outmoded or inaccurate ideas I can abandon, and what I need to investigate further now and later in life? Search terms would be very helpful; my Google-fu is usually quite strong, but it has failed me in this instance. Basically, where do formally uneducated people raised without reliable adult supervision learn how to be reliable adults and create strong futures for themselves? I know it isn't purely intuitive, so is there somewhere I can start digging in? (Yes, I have a therapist. Everyone should have one! Go out and get yourself a therapist today!)

Thanks very much for any information you might be able to provide.
posted by divined by radio to Human Relations (23 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of your questions regarding retirement, pensions, powers of attorney, medical decision-making can be answered by reading a book by Suze Orman like this one. Obviously it's geared towards younger people but that's a good place to start.

You can't ignore retirement because unfortunately, you might not have the option of working until you die. It's great that you have a pension because again, if you can't work until you die as planned, that should help you support yourself. You should rebalance your 401K once in a while and look to see where your money is going.

Regarding volunteering and donating to charity, that's totally up to you. As for living wills, powers of attorney, etc., Suze Orman discusses them. I think that you do need a will as well as a revocable living trust and documents authorizing someone to make medical decisions on your behalf. I'm not sure that power of attorney will suffice. The revocable living trust is so that someone can access your money and spend it on your behalf if you are incapacitated. The revocable part is so you can take it back once you are no longer incapacitated.

I think (though I could be wrong) that if you're married, it's just assumed that your spouse will take care of these things. Though that might not be a good assumption to make.

As for taking care of yourself, continue getting your annual physical exams from your GP and your OB-GYN. If you have questions, ask them - it's their job to answer.

A lot of this is designating someone to make decisions on your behalf if you can't make them for yourself and putting that in writing to the best of your ability. Go through all of the horrible "what if"s and make a plan.

Also, for what it's worth, don't feel bad about not having parents who can help you with this stuff. I think that most people learn about this the hard way. When my grandfather was sick, he didn't sign any of the stuff he needed to sign because he thought he was going to live forever. It made a bad situation worse for my family. When my grandmother got sick a few months later, she did sign stuff because she saw how much it sucked when he left us hanging. Just make sure that your wishes are spelled out somewhere and occasionally update that information.
posted by kat518 at 2:19 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

sounds to me that many of your questions could be answered with authority and accuracy by making appointments with a financial advisor, an elder law attorney, a gerontologist and a good physician. Walking into those appointments with a well formulated list of questions.
posted by HuronBob at 2:19 PM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, if you have a job where everyone gets a pension, you are paying into the pension fund, like it or lump it - and you don't "sign up", it's a condition of employment (and an awesome one!) . (Check your pay stub - there should be something about pension deductions). Many unionized or state jobs carry pensions. After a certain amount of time, you will "vest" in the pension program, meaning that you will be entitled to collect benefits. Just how much you'll collect depends on how long you work there and when you retire. So if you are vested but work there only five years, you can choose to get a tiny payout after you retire. If you are vested and work there twenty years until you retire at 63, you'll get a more substantial amount but less than if you retire at 66. How much you receive will be calculated based on your wages in some way, but this varies by institution. Your HR people should have all the details about your pension.

In general, if you pay into the pension system and then leave, you do have the option of rolling your pension funds over into some other investment vehicle.

Again, your HR people will have all the details.
posted by Frowner at 2:25 PM on August 21, 2013

Oh, also, when you started your 401K, you probably had to designate a beneficiary. You might want to check that out and be sure that it reflects your current wishes. When I got hitched, I went back and made sure that mine would go to my husband if anything happened to me.
posted by kat518 at 2:26 PM on August 21, 2013

Can I just call any lawyer in the phone book and say, "Listen, I need to make sure that no one I am related to can access any of my assets after I die. Please help me take care of this?"

I'm not a lawyer, but I've spent a lot of time settling matters for dying relatives.

Power of Attorney is the document that will grant a person the ability to make legal and medical decisions for another living person. If there are things you want to make sure are done or not done after you die, you'll also want an estate set up and an executor appointed.

I wouldn't suggest you call any lawyer -- get a recommendation or do some research beforehand -- but yeah, basically. A lawyer will be able to sit down with you, explain how this works and draft for you the appropriate documents (Power of Attorney, Living Will, etc.)

How much time should an average working adult spend volunteering? What percentage of their salary should be donated to charity?

Unless you subscribe to a religion or society where this is codified, no book worth reading is going to be able to tell you about "should" when it comes to charity and volunteering. I can link you to ten books that run the gamut between "volunteer your life and give away your possessions" to "volunteering and charity is the greatest sin imaginable" and they'd all be wrong because no one them have any idea who you are.
posted by griphus at 2:26 PM on August 21, 2013

Since you say you learn well by example, I think you would be very well served by actual human role models and mentors. (Which is easier said than done, I realize.) If you're part of a church, volunteering, or activist community (or knitting group, or reading group, or whatever -- any non-work community), and there is someone in your age group or older who seems competent at this sort of life skill, you could approach them and ask them to get coffee with you and give you the benefit of their advice.

I actually got coffee with someone younger than me recently and it ended up being just that -- it was supposed to be a career-based thing but I think she found the basic stuff like "What are benefits? How does health insurance work? What is a 401(k)?" much more useful, because she didn't really have anyone in her life who was up on all of that. On my end, I was really surprised at how much I'd picked up on that kind of thing over the years.

Also, I wasn't kidding about the knitting groups and book clubs. I have a relative with a complicated family who gets a lot of this kind of support from older women in her crafting group.

I have a couple book suggestions as well. On the investing, 401(k), etc. front, The Bogleheads Guide to Investing is oft-recommended for a reason; it's a classic. I haven't read their retirement guide, but it might be the next step. For buying a car, Remar Sutton's Don't Get Taken Every Time.
posted by pie ninja at 2:31 PM on August 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would like to point out that I DO have excellent parents, and most of the things you ask about are stuff that I had to find out on my own. So you really aren't working from that much of a disadvantage here. I figured it out as I went along, mostly in my late twenties and thirties. I didn't ask my parents these questions, I asked whatever subject experts I could find. (And i didn't have the green!) Being in this position is pretty normal, I think, and you are asking the right questions. You just need to find someone to give you the answers, like all the rest of us!
posted by raisingsand at 2:40 PM on August 21, 2013 [9 favorites]

* What is retirement? Social Security will probably be around. You can save for retirement, or work.
* What is a pension Some companies have pension plans. Some contribute to a retirement account. Consult the HR website or HR staff.
* What is a 401(k) for, if I do not expect to retire? It's a type of savings account for retirement. Money goes in. Can't be taken out until retirement without penalties
* How much time should an average working adult spend volunteering? What percentage of their salary should be donated to charity? Personal choice. If you can afford to give to charity, I encourage it - it feels right.
* What are powers of attorney, living wills, etc.? You can look this stuff up. If you make a will, your estate will be distributes as specified.
* Who is in charge of your medical decision-making if you are incapacitated Family, unless you have a medical power of attorney, living will, etc. Talk to your primary care physician about this.
* What do I need to be aware of in terms of physical changes/issues that come with getting older, and more specifically the aging process as it affects women -- mammograms, menopause, hot flashes, etc.? I will not be having children. Other than that, it is all a mystery to me. Mammogram - get a baseline mammogram, discuss frequency of need with your doctor. Menopause - it's nice to stop having periods. Some people have hot flashes. Lots of info on the web.

I used to feel like everybody else was socialized differently because their families weren't so dysfunctional. But few parents do a great job of teaching their kids everything. There have been a number of Ask.Me questions about What did you find out as an adult that surprised you/ that you wish you'd known/ etc. Before the Web, lots of people were lacking lots of basic information; many still are, but the Web makes it possible to catch up on a hell of a lot. Ask.Me really helps people get questions answered, large and small.

Lack of parental attention really affects how you feel about yourself, and how you deal with romance. I have no idea how to catch up on this. I just muddle along.
posted by theora55 at 2:42 PM on August 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

A lot of people I know who had real involved loving parents never learned most of the things you mentioned from them. If you get involved in community groups, neighborhood associations, or places of worship, make a point of trying to get to know people of varying ages. Or volunteer to do something at a senior center and get to know some old people.
posted by mareli at 2:45 PM on August 21, 2013

You might find The New Ourselves, Growing Older, by the same folks who put out the popular young women's book Our Bodies, Ourselves, a helpful heath reference.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:46 PM on August 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

For general advice and mentoring, might a surrogate older sister be of use to you?
posted by Dansaman at 2:53 PM on August 21, 2013

Response by poster: It's comforting to hear that everyone has the same questions! Man. I really started feeling like parentless people might need some sort of extra guidance because nearly every time I've asked an authority-ish figure about this stuff, they've chuckled and said, "Didn't your parents teach you that?" which usually inspires me to vacate the premises posthaste.

me [nervously]: Hi, I know this is kind of a weird question, but what is a pension? Do you really just get money for not working?
HR [totally normal and friendly]: Haha! Didn't your parents teach you about that?
me [horrified rictus grin]: Parents. No? They don't... No. I. Will ask them about it? [raises hands, backs away]

The books linked above are exactly what I'm after. And these are some great new-to-me search terms: financial advisor, elder law attorney, 401(k) beneficiary, estate, executor, medical power of attorney, health care proxy. Very helpful for more in-depth Googling.

For my fellow grown-ups looking for an advance directive (another good search term) to give to doctors and stuff: Five Wishes. It costs $5. Thanks again!
posted by divined by radio at 4:02 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Making your retirement plan " I will work until I die" is an unbelievably awful idea. The reason is, you may well end up not being able to work for many years of your life. At that juncture, your options if you have no money are absolutely loathsome. Younger people seem to just think they will kill themselves or "i can always find something" but this belief is WRONG. The good news is, if you have a pension and a 401k plan that you have been contributing to, along with social security, you will likely be in relatively good shape.

Suze Orman is better than no financial advice, but not much. I would put her at about the center decile in terms of advice quality. Better than nothing, but not much.

Consider paying a certified financial planner for advice. DO NOT CONSULT WITH ANYONE WHO MAKES A COMMISSION FROM YOU IN ANY SHAPE OR FORM. Pay someone hourly who has a fiduciary responsibility. Should be the best grand you spend.

Better still, you might look around for a class in personal finance. A lot of your questions would get answered in depth.
posted by jcworth at 4:56 PM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

These questions are the kinds of things I ask the people in my community group through my church when needed. In fact, it's one of the best things about that structure - it's multi-generational, and not only can I get answers, but I can see them work out their marriages, parenting, grandparenting, etc.

I know church isn't everyone's thing, but there are lots of community organisations that at least would give you access to people at older stages of life, like a mentor or volunteer system.

And I'd like to say this too: figuring this adult shit out is hard enough even when you do have parents helping. Don't be afraid to tell someone who asks the, "Didn't your parents..." question with, "No, they really didn't have any knowledge in that area themselves. That's why I'm asking." Keep it unemotional in tone, but persist to get your question answered. I think it's actually kind of a shitty response to give to anyone. Would they be asking you if talking to their parents was an option? Ugh.
posted by guster4lovers at 5:09 PM on August 21, 2013

Didn't your parents teach you...

Wow that is obnoxious.

My parents were solidly middle class and taught me none of this, and I would be surprised if they even knew most of it. 401ks were not common. Pensions were more common but still a big perk- most jobs didn't have them. What they knew about pensions was that at the end of their job they'd get some money on a regular basis- or at least they knew that's how it had worked for their dads. They themselves changed careers too often.

Families who were not middle class would have no idea about any of this.

Your employer is supposed to have annual 401k education meetings. In fact, I believe it is required by law for companies who have more than X number of employees, for just this reason- I'd guess MOST people don't know these things. (However, many employers don't bother.) Why they don't teach it in high school I don't know. I didn't even know how to pay a bill when I got out of school.

As for health things, I have learned what little I know from books and magazines and now that I'm older I have friends who are 15-20 years older than me and I can watch them.

Yes a financial planner can teach you all of these things, including the basics of estate planning (wills, trusts) and the bits about powers of attorney and Advance Directives/Living Wills but if you know enough to ask the question, you're 70% there already and the internet can teach you a heck of a lot too, and it's cheaper, so I'd start there. I like the Five Wishes Advance Directive. I used it myself though I ended up crossing out all the woo woo sections. (For future readers-make sure your Advance Directive is legit in your particular state.)

I have only read some of Suze Orman's columns and I like them a lot (and I'm in the financial industry!). Her specific investment advice I'd take with a big grain of salt, but her general information seems very solid to me.
posted by small_ruminant at 6:17 PM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

every time I've asked an authority-ish figure about this stuff, they've chuckled and said, "Didn't your parents teach you that?"

This is basically them saying "Explaining that to you is not my job, and I really don't want to spend a half hour doing that."

Many people's parents don't understand these things themselves, and have either not explained or have done a terrible job of doing so.

How much time should an average working adult spend volunteering? What percentage of their salary should be donated to charity?

Like metafilter's gender designations, this is free-form. Don't go nuts though, you should be keeping enough money to save for the future, and if your income drops suddenly and you are cutting expenses you can cut that one.

* What are powers of attorney, living wills, etc.?

Complicated topic. These things work differently in different states. Buy a book or google "end of life planning" for your state to find out more.

In short, living will and powers of attorney have to do with others making decisions for you while you are alive if you are unable to do so.

Can I just call any lawyer in the phone book and say, "Listen, I need to make sure that no one I am related to can access any of my assets after I die. Please help me take care of this?"

A will (without the word "living" in front) covers what happens after you are dead. It's possible to do one yourself, get a well reviewed book on it that covers your state as there are many details such as how it should be stored, who can be a witness, etc. Don't rely on blog posts for setting up a will.

You probably don't want to make it absolutely permanent that no one you are related to can get money after your death, in case you get a spouse or children at some point. Many states don't allow you to prevent a spouse from inheriting.

Even if you don't birth children yourself, there are a number of other ways to acquire children that would be considered yours for legal purposes. Even if you can't stand children, what if a good friend of yours who was dying asked you to care for a largely independent 16 year old so they wouldn't end up in the foster care system?

Sometimes people set up trusts, which can control in more detail what happens after you are dead. These can be very complex. There's a lot of different reasons people do this, such as making sure a disabled child is cared for or giving a house they want to keep living in to a charity.

Don't just call up a lawyer, do some reading on these topics first.

If you happen to have significant assets to donate to a charity after your death, the charity may have someone on staff whose job it is to help you figure out how to do that, generally they will not charge you to discuss that and set things up. You'll want to have a good understanding of how things work before you sign anything.

Also, most of your bank accounts will have a "payable on death" beneficiary you can choose. This supersedes a will, so make sure you haven't written any family members in at any point.

* Who is in charge of your medical decision-making if you are incapacitated before you are able to talk to a lawyer (or whatever)? What is the terminology I need to use to change this?

If you are incapacitated, it is TOO LATE to change who is making decisions for you. Incapacitated means you aren't able and/or competent to make your own decisions, and therefore cannot decide who will do this for you.

The default for who can make these decisions is covered by state law. Some states allow partners you live with who are unmarried to make decisions, but it's better to have paperwork on that just in case.

You want a "medical power of attorney" for your state. Many hospitals also have paperwork you can fill out that says who can make decisions, but it's just on file with that one hospital. There are often restrictions on having a non-family member who works at the same hospital you are at make decisions for you, so if you have a friend in the medical profession you'd like to choose you probably want to have a backup -- your friend could have changed jobs by the time this becomes an issue.

"Medical power or attorney" is a different thing than a regular "power of attorney". You'll want one of those as well in case someone needs to handle your finances. You can limit it to certain areas of your finances.

If you don't have someone in your life you would trust with all your money and your life, you can have a lawyer or a specialty company manage these things.

You might look on amazon for a book on retirement planning, and a book on end of life planning for your state. Both of these are very involved topics that need hundreds of pages to cover in depth. None of these are things some authority figure can cover adequately in half an hour, and if you want to have control over your future you must, absolutely must spend some time understanding them in depth.
posted by yohko at 7:03 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just popping my head up to second the recommendation for The Bogleheads' Guide to Investing. Even if you don't want to follow their advice (but you should!), it gives you a solid adult background to investing for the future, planning for retirement, etc. That will address your first three questions, or at least get you started on the right track.
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:41 PM on August 21, 2013

My public library and community centre regularly host talks on things like

At the library:

"What is a will?"

"Planning your retirement"

"Managing your money"

(plus they have weekly chess nights and knitting circles!!

or, at the rec centre:

"Health and aging" or "Diet and Aging"


There may be a similar talks at a library near you.

I also have lots of friends of different ages, which I find is helpful for all sorts of things.
posted by chapps at 11:59 PM on August 21, 2013

My parents were solidly upper class and taught me none of this. The general life stuff I know, I figured out myself.

The retirement question is the one exception. My family never sat me down and told me what a 401(k) is, but I did grow up with the expectation that my grandparents would retire, my parents would retire, and one day I would retire. My wife is from a poor family where everyone worked until they died and it took a lot of convincing to get her to put away any money -- she just didn't have the expectation that retirement was a realistic possibility. So yeah, check out some books and figure out how much you'll be able to save up.
posted by miyabo at 7:43 AM on August 22, 2013

If I can add one thing: the tone of your question, especially the "you mean I get money for not working" part in your response, raises some flags for me. It suggests that you have trouble seeing yourself as entitled to money and a decent standard of living, and that suggests to me that you may have trouble advocating for yourself.

When you get social security or a pension, you are not "getting money for not working". You are taking deferred benefits. I pay into my pension plan. My pension plan is one of the conditions of my job, just like my hourly rate, vacation, sick days and any other thing that comes along with being employed here. It's not something my employer graciously gives me because they are just that nice, or something that lazy miscreants leech off of young workers.

Additionally, when people start talking about the perils of social security - well, we have very good examples* showing which works better, a defined-payout system (like SS) or an individual-investment-led system. Defined payout systems like pensions and social security work. 401Ks and other vehicles are wonderful supplements to them, but they are not good replacements.

Your situation is not just an individual situation - it is political. You deserve a certain measure of security and comfort - no matter how industrious, lazy, healthy, sick, employed or unemployed you have been over your life time. Feel that you deserve this. Recognize that this is a social question - do we have social security? What guarantees do we put on pensions? How do we limit administrative fees that often eat up so much 401K/investment income (and that are a defacto kick-back to bankers)? Because you deserve these things, find out about them (especially your pension) and fight to protect them.

Don't let people screw you over because you get into some kind of "I am beaten before I start, I'll work til I die, government benefits never work for people like me" mindset.

*Chile had a defined payout system, it was privatized under Pinochet...the military had the option of keeping a defined payout system and everyone else had to 'invest'. And lo, in the nineties it turned out that the military were the only people who could afford to retire.
posted by Frowner at 9:03 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, I'm only trying to find out exactly where other people have gone and exactly what other people have used to get this information when they did/do not have older adult guidance available to them. I definitely know it will require ample professional assistance, lots of reading, and lots of figuring it out myself; that's going to be the easy part!

What I'm looking for are specific individual books, checklists, sets of guidelines, websites, and definitive search terms I can use to find that much-needed professional advice. A much better question would have been: "Which books and non-human resources did you read/consult to make yourself aware of the myriad mental, physical, psychological, and professional changes that start to happen when you live to see age 30? What are some terms I will need to be familiar with so I can find out more?"

And I'm a damnable socialist if ever there was, but I absolutely do not see myself as being realistically entitled to anything, including food or shelter. The fact that everything that appears secure or safe can fall or be taken away in an instant is at the forefront of my mind at all times. Even though planning for the future terrifies me, and makes me feel like I am jinxing myself by projecting that far ahead, I know it will be just as bad if I shut down and refuse to plan for it at all. So barring an epiphany, I'm just trying to pinpoint the language and resources I'll need to be armed with in order to tamp down The Fear and get everything squared away.

Thanks again for all of the great information!
posted by divined by radio at 9:44 AM on August 22, 2013

I don't have much to add to the good advice above, I just want you to change your dialogue to this:

HR [totally normal and friendly]: Haha! Didn't your parents teach you about that?
You: No, they didn't. *stare* (with a smile, if you feel like it)

Your questions are totally normal and I've had ALL OF THEM too. Most people do. Shit, I have tons of questions about menopause and I'd better make some older lady friends before I get there because all my doctor will do is give me a pamphlet or something.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:50 AM on August 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

As an HR person, I can assure you that I answer a lot of questions that people young and old have about exactly the things you want to know. I'm disappointed that you got that response, since that's basically what we are paid to do. Maybe you just talked to the wrong HR there anyone else in that office?

The reason that there is no tell all book about this stuff is that everybody is pretty different, has different goals in life, and comes at it from a different angle. Start with people you know who know you: your banker, even if you have never talked about any of this with them; your tax preparer; and, if you have one, your pastor. They will know and can probably refer you to people in an ever-widening circle that can guide you with your questions. Again, that's what they are there for, even if it's not the first line on their resume.

Don't plan for the future, plan backward from it. Decide how you want the end to be, and what it will require, and then do the things in reverse order that will make that happen. It's a lot easier that way, and it takes the pressure off of building up to the Big Finish. You can even "reverse engineer" a couple of pitfalls in there if it makes you feel like you're preparing for the inevitable challenge. Then see if the challenge lives up to your fear of it. Most often, your preparation will take you outside of it when it happens, and enable you to see your way through it.

Good luck. The answers are out there, and you might make a few new very good friends in the process.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:39 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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