Should you get a financial therapist if you’re having money problems?

Do you need a financial therapist?

My spouse and I argue about money. A lot. I grew up without much, so saving is a big priority. My husband thinks it’s silly not to enjoy the money we have. One example: I got really upset when he bought an Apple Watch. He told me I’m sucking the joy from every occasional indulgence. Recently, I’ve been seeing these “financial therapists” quoted in money-advice articles. What are they, and do you think seeing one might be a good move for us?

—Gita, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Rest assured that you’re hardly alone in your troubles. Money is a super-common source of marital friction. In fact, a recent survey by TD Bank found that a third of married couples fight about money at least once a month. That’s just one reason that financial therapists are becoming a thing, with their own organization—the Financial Therapy Association (FTA)—and a newly created credential, the Certified Financial Therapist-I (CFT-I) certificate.

“We are becoming more open to talking about money,” said Joshua Harris, a finance lecturer at Clemson University and a member of the FTA’s board of directors who helped to develop the new certification. People aren’t satisfied with simply keeping up appearances, Harris said, as money conversations become less taboo. While many individuals seek out financial therapists to deal with money anxieties and compulsions, Harris said, couples and families are also clients—not only is there each partner’s relationship with money to consider, but also their relationship with each other.

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The goal of financial therapy, according to the FTA’s mission statement, is to dig down and address the emotional, psychological, behavioral, and relationship issues around money—issues that can’t be resolved with a calculator. This isn’t exactly new. There’s an entire academic discipline, behavioral economics, based on the insight that humans aren’t completely rational animals when it comes to money. A financial therapist might, for instance, use her money chops to help a client pay down debt, but also help that client delve into the psychological reasons for her tendency to immediately go into the red again once she’s paid off her accounts.

While financial therapy is still in its infancy, the association strives to ensure that members have real training. The CFT-1 certification—which will require recipients who already possess a bachelor’s in a financial or mental health field to undergo competency training, log 500 hours of relevant experience, pass an exam, and pledge to uphold an ethics code—is meant to establish a credential that will standardize the practice and demonstrate that the new field is indeed legit.

But is it right for you? Maybe, but forking over the dough for an hour with a financial therapist—which can cost anywhere from $100 to $400—should not be a first move in dealing with joint money issues, especially if money is tight. Before you resort to expensive advice, I suggest taking the following steps.

  1. Mingle money. You might think that the way to ease money friction is to keep all your accounts separate, and many people do. A recent survey by the insurance website Policygenius found that one in five people keep and manage their money separate from their partners, and nearly a quarter don’t share any major financial accounts like checking or savings. But in that same survey, 20% of the people who were in couples who don’t manage money together said they plan to leave their partner because of financial problems. (Yikes.) Only 4% of those who handle finances jointly said they’re going to leave their partner because of money trouble. The upshot: Transparency, compromise, and having the hard discussions are what keep couples together. That said, it’s healthy to keep your own account or two, while maintaining joint accounts for shared expenses big and small, from the cable bill to the mortgage.
  2. Ask about the emotions behind the numbers. Couples tell me they’ve had countless arguments about X or Y when it comes to money. They’re shocked when I ask them to explain the reasons behind those arguments. Why? For the first time, they hear their partner articulate emotions and values that they weren’t aware of. So I get how a therapy-like situation could help financial discussions. When a person isn’t on the defensive, they may be more likely to share what they’re feeling—or even to get in touch with those feelings themselves. (News flash: We don’t always understand our own motivations very well.) Knowing where your partner is coming from won’t automatically resolve your differences, but it may make you more sympathetic. And that may make it easier for you to…
  3. Compromise. This may sound like advice from Relationships 101, but when it comes to money, couples seem to forget the importance of give-and-take. That’s because, in spite of all the emotions involved, people tend to see money issues in black and white. If your partner wants to do something that will truly endanger your financial health as a couple (risky investment schemes come to mind), that’s one thing. If he wants to buy a smartwatch, and you want to put a few hundred more in savings, that’s another. Can he get a used or older model that’s less expensive? Can the two of you agree to cut expenses in some other area (like the budget for dining out next month) so that there’s still enough money to put a healthy amount in your shared savings account? You get my drift.
  4. Talk about money when it’s not crisis time. Regular readers will know that I advocate for having regular money meetings—perhaps once a month—to talk about budgeting, goals, and so on. If the only time you talk about money is when emotions are high, you’re unlikely to develop the healthy habits that will help you to manage money together in a way that keeps the domestic peace. Choose a regular time to look at your finances together, and stick to it.

If you and your partner are still at an impasse after taking these steps, you may benefit from the services of a professional referee. To find a financial therapist, check the Financial Therapy Association’s list of professionals who have been vetted by the association. A number of these therapists are willing to work via phone or Skype if you don’t live close enough to make an in-person visit practical. As you would when seeking out any therapist, do your due diligence and find someone who’s a good fit for you.

anxiety conversations couples emotions financial therapist money issues money problems partners psychology spouse therapy

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