Money–a necessary tool for our day-to-day lives and for many, a source of anxiety.
According to a 2018 study conducted by Northwestern Mutual, 44% of respondents cited money as their main source of stress, ahead of relationships (25%) and work (10%). For couples, money is a common source of tension and in some cases, can lead to divorce. Common problems that couple face include insufficient finances, financial infidelity, or unequal earning power.
So it’s no surprise that financial health and mental health tend to be intertwined. As a result, when an individual has money problems that are rooted emotional issues (as is often the case), seeking help from a financial adviser might not be enough. A financial adviser can tell someone to cut back on their spending or come up with a plan to pay off their credit card debts, but they may not be equipped to help their clients make the behavioral changes that are necessary to establish good money habits.
Enter financial therapy, where professionals apply a therapy-based approach to money issues. Financial therapists aren’t there to give asset-allocation advice or recommend investment products, but they do work with people to tackle the emotional, psychological, and behavioral hurdles that get in the way of making sound financial decisions. Fast Company recently caught up with two financial therapists to talk about when it might make sense for you to go to see a financial therapist, rather than a financial adviser, when you want to get your finances in order.
When you don’t know your “money story” and how it affects your relationship with money
Everyone has their own money issues, says Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a Michigan-based financial therapist. “You can have a ton of money, you can have no money. At the end of the day, everyone has a relationship with money, and it has to be tended to the same way we [maintain] our physical and mental health.”
Nicolle Osequeda, a Chicago-based financial therapist, agrees. She says that money is not that different from other relationships that we have in our lives. “Early on, we receive messages from our family,” she says. “We have experiences that shape our values, the meaning we make of it in terms of spending and savings. That will influence our relationship with money.”
Osequeda says that because money is deeply tied to our sense of power and identity, no well-thought-out financial strategy is going to help an individual who doesn’t understand their relationship with money. What were the values instilled in them growing up? Did their parents use money as a way to show love, or did they grow up in a frugal household and were taught to be suspicious with people who have a lot of money? Someone can give you a plan, Osequeda says, but “there is a lot of emotional, historical value tied into money and our relationship with money, and we need to talk about those things before someone can make changes or follow a plan.“
When you know you have a money belief that’s holding you back
Sometimes, you are aware of your beliefs around money, but you also know that the attitude you have toward money is preventing you from taking the actions that you need to take to improve your financial life. This is where a financial therapist can help.
Bryan-Podvin says that one of the most surprising thing that she has seen since becoming a financial therapist is how common it is for people not to have a handle on their money. “There is this huge disconnect; a lot of people have these hangups that having money is bad or that wanting money makes you greedy or selfish–or that in order to be a good person, you have to be frugal,” she explains.
Structural discrimination and gendered expectations can also play a part in how people view money. Bryan-Podvin says that she was also surprised by how ashamed some women are of making money. Despite serving a largely affluent community, Bryan-Podvin says that a lot of women who come to her have this sense of guilt.
Suze Orman, author, television host, and personal finance adviser, previously told Fast Company that she also sees this discrepancy. “Women will always think, especially if they have children, that their money is for their parents, their spouses, their brothers, their sisters, their pets, and everybody but them, because a woman’s nature is to nurture,” says Orman. “Men, on the other hand, know absolutely that the money that they make is for them; they don’t have trouble saying no, they have no problem keeping it for themselves, investing it for themselves, and not sharing it with their spouses.”
When money is causing major relationship issues
Both Bryan-Podvin and Osequeda work with couples who struggle with money issues, and believe that financial therapy is something that many couples can benefit from. “It shows up a lot when I’m working with couples–finances, the meaning of money,” says Osequeda. “It became increasingly clear to me that money and finances was such a source of anxiety and a source of shame in the relationship.”
Bryan-Podvin says that she sees a lot of couples not talk about money before they decide to enter into a partnership. They talk about kids, careers, and religion, Bryan-Podvin says, but they don’t discover that they have widely different beliefs about money. That creates a lot of tension.
Ideally, couples should have the money conversation before they enter into a long-term partnership, but working with a financial therapist can help them bridge any financial differences that they encounter at any stage of the relationship. Bryan-Podvin works with couples to find common ground and zeros in on where they are aligned in terms of what they’re trying to achieve, all while examining where their “money story” comes from. Did one person come from a family who always scraped by and feels good when they accumulate wealth? Did their partner come from a more comfortable place, and are okay with spending on things like entertainment and vacation?
At the end of the day, Osequeda says, working with a financial therapist helps someone dig into their relationship with money. Once they have that knowledge, she explains, it becomes easier to improve their financial relationship with their partner, and also make positive changes in their own financial life.
“We need to take some time around what the meaning is behind [money], what our motivations are, and how that contributes to our behaviors. If we don’t do that first, it’s really hard to shift anything.”