What Is A Financial Therapist, And Do I Need One?

 Dissecting your penchant for "retail therapy" with your financial therapist is par for the course.

Dissecting your penchant for "retail therapy" with your financial therapist is par for the course.

Slowly but surely, our culture is starting to acknowledge that money matters come with all the feels—many of which stem from systemic issues of gender inequity. An emerging field of professionals who integrate psychology with financial advising may very well be the resource we need.

It’s a lesson learned early on, from the first time we discover there aren’t enough pennies in the piggy bank to cover what we covet: Money isn’t just a matter of numbers. And as our lives become more complex, so does the process of managing one’s finances. It’s a process that impacts our self-worth, confidence, lifestyle, relationships, friendships, careers and just about everything in between. And as such, it can take a real toll on our overall well being. According to a 2012 survey conducted by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, 74 percent of respondents reported that their debt takes a toll on their mental health.

Enter the relatively new field of finance therapy. Psychologist and financial therapist Bradley Klontz sums the practice up thusly: “People will often know that they should do better, but can’t do better. So I recommend financial therapy if their disorders start to leading to significant impairment in their lives.”

Finances are a deeply personal issue, with each individual holding a set of values that is incumbent on their upbringing, career trajectory and the culture in which they were raised. When our values and resources come up against challenges, the struggle can be paralyzing.

“We weren’t taught [how to cope], and we’re all adults trying to learn this for the first time,” says Bari Tessler, financial therapist and founder of The Art of Money, adding that for many of us, “we’re also trying to learn emotional literacy for the very first time.”

So, what does a financial therapist even do?

It’s a field that’s emerged alongside a number of studies indicating a strong connection between finance and mental health. As Tessler puts it, it’s a matter of asking the question of why we make the financial decisions we do. “That’s the psychology part of it. I get so many people who [had been going] to a financial planner to get a budget, and then they wouldn’t do it, because they had all these psychological issues they couldn’t understand.”

Financial therapists provide a safe space to open up and talk about money in a judgment-free space, when the overwhelming impulse may be to just curl up in a ball. “But it’s also an opportunity to work with those emotions. I don’t expect them to go away. Learn how to work with your feelings and understand what they are,” says Tessler.

Speaking to the financial literacy gap that can have the effect of compounding stress for women in particular, financial therapy may be an even more essential tool, according to Tessler: “It takes small steps,” she says. “We need good teachers, books and courses. It’s so important for girls and women to learn how to have a healthy and creative—and even fun—relationship to money.”

And while there are professionals emerging specifically to address the need for financial therapy, it’s a service that’s wending its way into more traditional financial advice roles as well, with planners and advisors adopting a more holistic approach to helping their clients.

“We all have a tendency to have a lot of shame around our finances, but what I have found to be true is that if we can understand where we grew up, what your parents taught you, and what was happening culturally, your beliefs around money...will all make perfect sense,” says Klontz.

How to find the right fit for your particular financial situation

The overall movement to consider finances in a more holistic light is one that stands in contrast to the traditional role of an advisor. “Many [financial experts’] approaches were tough love,” says Tessler. “They were all talking about the same thing: paying off debt and investing. There was no compassion. I kept thinking, what about the emotions?”

Tessler’s own approach with her clients is centered around what you hope to achieve and what a healthy relationship with money looks like to you as an individual. As someone with a background in bookkeeping, her practical lessons on tracking expenses isn’t something you’ll necessarily find from every financial therapist, which perhaps speaks to the newness of the field, but also serves as an acknowledgement of the complexity of the issue. “There’s no one way that’s better,” she says.

As for her advice for those looking to enlist the services of a financial therapist, Tessler recommends likewise extending your understanding to the fact that this too, is a deeply personal issue. “Interview them. Is it a personality match? Do you feel a connection?”

Of course, there’s no point in going much further without addressing one of the most obvious questions: Taking care of your money in this regard costs...money. While financial advising is becoming increasingly accessible, there’s no point in seeking our professional help if you’re in a situation where seeking out said help will put you further in a financial hole.

If you’re not quite ready to make that leap, test the waters and take advantage of online resources like the Financial Therapy Association or Klontz’s Mind over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health. Knowing they’re an option means you’re already one step ahead.

In addition to understanding the real value of money, Tessler adds, “We have to learn how to value ourselves, our time, our energy, our gifts, our skill sets. Learn how to ask for [the help you need.]”

Words: Paula Reid
Photo: Stocksy