When you’re ready to search for professional money help, a smorgasbord of options will appear before you: financial planning; credit counseling; money coaching; burdening your nightstand with a teetering pile of self-help books.
“Financial therapy” is one of the newest additions to the field, emerging from a small forum for mental health and financial planning professionals in 2008. While certified financial planners help you develop and implement concrete financial strategies, and mental health professionals help you recognize and change thought patterns that aren’t serving you, financial therapists straddle both worlds. They focus on your relationship with money and how it affects your behavior so you can realize your financial goals.
“Money comes with a lot of emotional baggage, and there just aren’t many places to talk about it openly and constructively,” says Dr. Mary Gresham, a financial psychologist in Atlanta.
If you struggle with saving, budgeting, paying off debt, severe frugality or other money issues, financial therapy could help. Here’s how to assess whether it makes sense for you, and how to evaluate any professionals you may work with.
When to go to a financial therapist
Financial therapy can help you understand why you’re stuck in the same patterns, such as overspending, even if you’ve tried to change. It also can help you explore the feelings that bubble up when you think about money. Gresham and Derek Lawson, a doctoral student in personal financial planning with a focus on financial therapy at Kansas State University, say financial therapy might be the right call if:
1) Your finances make you feel depressed or anxious
2) You’re consistently spending more than you earn or aren’t saving any money
3) You’ve tried to change those behaviors, with no luck
4) You want to understand the root of your money troubles
In some cases, other experts could better suit you. Try traditional financial planning if you want straight money advice you’re fairly certain you can implement on your own. If you’re dealing with a mountain of debt and urgently need an action plan, try credit counseling. Gresham says she refers her clients to these financial pros when necessary.
What financial therapy looks like
At your first few sessions, a financial therapist might ask you, “What are your best hopes for your financial future?” and “How would you know if these hopes were realized?”
“I might have a couple of meetings with clients before I analyze their financials,” says Lawson, who is also a financial planner at Priority Financial Partners in Durango, Colorado.
Lawson says he’ll ask clients who have trouble saving to focus on a time in the past when they did save and how they felt. That positive emotional memory may encourage clients to integrate saving into their lives more frequently.
How to find a financial therapist
Because there are few formal places to study financial therapy, practitioners today typically have either a mental health background and an understanding of financial issues, or a financial planning background and further training in mental health counseling. (Kansas State University and the University of Georgia offer financial therapy studies, and the Financial Therapy Association plans to develop a certification in three to five years, says president-elect Sarah Asebedo, who is also assistant professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University.)
You can use the Financial Therapy Association’s member directory or do a general online search to find financial therapists or financial psychologists near you. The XY Planning Network lists financial planners who work with clients in their 20s and 30s. It’s best to work with fee-only financial planners, who charge flat or hourly fees and won’t earn commissions on insurance or investment products, like mutual funds, that they might recommend you buy. This type of planner may be more affordable than one who charges based on a percentage of your assets he or she is managing.
Check each professional’s background and training: Ideally, they’ll have both the certified financial planner designation and licensure as a mental health counselor, marriage and family therapist, social worker or psychologist.