Do You Need Financial Therapy?

There was a time in Shari Reid Grant’s life when she approached all financial decisions as a matter of life or death.

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“I was raised in an environment that made me feel like I didn’t know how to take care of myself, that I couldn’t handle money and that if I lost all my money, I would commit suicide,” she said.

Every spending decision was a grueling process for Grant. It got to the point that she had to set up automatic payments for all her accounts to avoid the anxiety when bills came due.

“It didn’t matter if it was a $250 plane ticket or a pair of shoes, I would take days -- sometimes weeks -- to make the actual purchase, doing research, comparing prices, trying to find the best deal. It was agonizing, but I was terrified of making a bad decision and losing all my money,” she said.

“It didn’t matter if it was a $250 plane ticket or a pair of shoes, I would take days -- sometimes weeks -- to make the actual purchase, doing research, comparing prices, trying to find the best deal. It was agonizing, but I was terrified of making a bad decision and losing all my money"

Shari Reid Grant

It wasn’t until Grant, 47, started to go to financial therapy that she discovered her money  issues were rooted in her upbringing, and how her father related money to her and her brothers. “My father used money as a way to control," she said. "He wasn’t doing it on purpose, he didn’t know he was doing that, but it was crippling to me and made me equate money with love.”

Financial therapy is a relatively new practice, becoming more formalized in 2009 and the creation of The Financial Therapy Association in 2010. While related, experts say there are distinct differences between financial planning, financial therapy and tradition therapy -- yet the three aren’t exclusive.

“If you keep creating concrete financial plans and you're not able to follow through on them, that means there are other issues that need to be tackled before any financial plan can be accurately executed,” says Rick Kahler, CFP and president of Kahler Financial Group. “That means the problem isn’t in the cognitive brain, it’s in the emotional brain.”

Through therapy, Grant has gained the confidence to discover she has a natural talent for managing money and finding sound investments. “I don’t ostrich like I used to. It’s made spending so much fun -- I don’t feel guilty or terrified or even bad at all when I spend money since I now know I have the control and knowledge to manage my finances.”

Financial therapy is focused on improving financial well-being and behavior by working through the emotional, economic, behavioral and cognitive parts of money management.

Because it's relatively new, financial therapy isn’t regulated, and anyone can call themselves a financial therapist, explains Kristy Archuleta, editor of the Journal of Financial Therapy. 

“We have financial planners that have some training with therapy and we have traditional  therapists that have gone through financial planning courses. We are dealing with a diverse set of professionals in this section of the therapy world,” Archuleta said.

Of course, many people have struggled with maintaining a budget -- that doesn’t mean we should all be scheduling meetings with a financial therapist.

“The issue is rarely about the spending, it’s about a deeper emotional pain,” says Kahler.

He likens the situation to failed diets. “With nearly two-thirds of our country overweight, we all know that we need to eat less and work out more; the last thing we need is more diet plans, nutrition books and calorie information. It’s about an underlying belief system that you must bring to the surface and heal, and then we can be successful.”

For Laura Longville, financial therapy taught her better work-life balance and how to have a healthy relationship with money.

“I grew up never hurting for anything, but I watched my dad work too hard and avoid spending time with the family," she said. "I vowed I wouldn’t end up like that. Then I ended up on the other end of the continuum where money didn’t matter at all.”

Longville, who is 52 and lives in Rapid City, N.D., says financial therapy helped her better identify and re-establish her money beliefs.

“I realized I didn’t have to work 100 hours a week, and I didn’t have to not care, there was a balance. I now have a better perspective about money…I’ve educated myself on financial issues, I am by no means an expert, but I have a good picture of investing, financial planning and leaving a legacy.”

She still has weekly phone calls with someone she met at a financial therapy workshop, and they keep each other in check. “She holds me accountable and she asks me the hard questions that others might not feel comfortable asking.”

Financial therapy isn’t a cure for cash flow issues.

“We all have money scripts that dictate our behavior and underwrite our attitudes toward money,” says Archuleta. “It can be a lack of follow through, but it can also be more extreme like hoarding behavior. Saving and never spending is financial hoarding, not making future planning decisions out of fear is a deeper-rooted issues,” says Archuleta.

Kahler recommends people looking for a financial therapist seek out someone they trust and are comfortable talking with. “The bond you have with the person is the best predicator of success,” he said.

When creating financial plans for clients, he’s seen people get stuck on estate planning, or not be able to make investment decisions and not realize their issues are deep seated. “Most people haven’t heard of financial therapy, but they know they need something. It’s like yoga, nobody gets into it on their own, it’s usually recommended to help with an injury. People realize they need financial help when there’s a crisis pending.”

Archuleta, who is also an associate professor at the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University, expects financial therapy to continue to gain momentum.

“We will see more financial therapy programs pop up and then there will be the establishment of some sort of registration or certification to call yourself credentialed and be able to work with clients,” she predicts.

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