For the past decade, I’ve made a career writing about personal and consumer finance. I know the importance of an emergency fund, why it’s essential to pay off credit card balances on time, and the best budgeting tricks to live large on less. But, even as I was interviewing the best minds in the business and understanding (okay, recognizing) the intricacies of cryptocurrency, I was lost in my personal financial life.
Debt would pile up, bills would be overdue, and I’d overspend at the first sign of stress. While I was lucky enough to always be able to save myself from true disaster — a freelance career meant I would often get large checks from weeks of accrued work that could cover a credit card bill — the stress was exhausting. I knew I needed help. So I reached out to a financial therapist. Think a video session rather than a couch, and FSA strategies instead of Freud.
What is financial therapy, anyway?
You had a bad day at work, so you hit the mall on your way home. You’re feeling overwhelmed in your personal life, so you ignore your incoming texts in favor of browsing a shopping site. You order takeout instead of cooking dinner to celebrate a win. Sound familiar? That’s because emotions — both subconscious and front-of-mind — drive so many of the financial decisions we make every day. Also, your childhood — as well as the way your parents handle money — can have a reverberating impact on how you spend and save.
Financial therapists attempt to uncover and discuss these emotional factors that go into spending decisions. They also offer concrete suggestions for how to handle any money issues that may arise. I’ve spent almost a decade writing about personal finance. I know the right things to do. So why was I making the same mistakes, over and over again?
I connected with Ed Coambs, a marriage and money therapist in North Carolina, who began his career as a certified financial planner. When he saw just how emotionally charged financial decisions could be, he made a move to become a marriage and money counselor, incorporating both psychological and practical elements to helping clients — single and married — feel better about how they interact with their money.
Connecting family patterns with spending habits
During the first session, I was surprised by just how much Coambs — who asked me to call him Ed — asked me about my family background. What was my relationship with my father and mother? How did I feel about my brothers? What were the conflicts that still arose when it came to my parents? I told him about the still-lingering anger I had from five years ago when I needed a car, and my dad refused to lend me the one that had been my mother’s before she died.
I talked to Ed about the recent family trip my brothers and I took; how my one brother had paid for his entire flight on points while the other casually threw down his credit card at every opportunity. I described how my mother had been the first in her family to go to college, shifting from a lower-middle class upbringing to upper-middle class adulthood in the process. As I began talking about my family and its approach to money, I started noticing patterns. In my family, money indicated power and prestige. In my adult life, spending money became a way to signify to myself and others that I was successful.
Tuning into my feelings
When I first began working with Ed, I told him my goal was to separate my emotions from my spending. I knew I had a problem with stress spending: At my last job, the mailman knew when I was on deadline just by the mountain of packages that he delivered to my desk. To keep my credit card spending under control, build savings, and work toward my eventual goal of buying an apartment, I knew I had to curb this habit.
But instead of separating my money from my emotions, Ed encouraged me to lean into the feels. He had me write down what I own on one side of a piece of paper and what I owe on the other, and then take inventory of each side. For example, I own two investment accounts, three 401(k)s I’ve meant to roll over, some cryptocurrency, and my car. I owe a credit card balance, several subscription services, my monthly rent, and recurring memberships to my gym and my coworking space. Then, Ed asked me to discuss how I felt about each item on the list, as an experiment to truly dig into the emotions behind my stuff. What did I find? I was pretty proud of the things on my “What I own” list: the car I paid off myself, the investment account I’d decided to open. Feeling that pride reminded me that I had the potential to be smart with money, busting that “I’m a money disaster” myth I had been telling myself for so long.
Talking about the tough stuff
One of the items on my “what I own” list is my car. Ed asked me how I felt about that. I’m proud that I was able to purchase a car for myself, but I also had a lot of residual anger at the fact that, after my mother died, my father decided to sell her car to a stranger instead of offering it to me. Buying a car was proof that I could take care of myself, but also a sign that I needed to take care of myself because if I didn’t, no one else would.
As Ed asked me more questions about my complicated feelings, I realized that for me, overspending was a form of protection and self-love — a way to prove to myself that I’m worth nice things. The conversation felt uncomfortable and scary, but it led to a conclusion I don’t think I would have gotten to on my own. I realized that to me, stuff is connected to self-worth and parental love, and I was trying to fill an emotional void with material goods. See? Revelations!
Getting ready to spill my deep, dark, debt secrets
Have you ever told someone exactly how much your net worth is? I know I haven’t, not even to people I love. Talking about money is intimate, and sharing with Ed was a lot more intense than I imagined it would be. For example, while I’m paying down my credit card, I still owe a balance, which is something that has always embarrassed me as a personal finance writer. Talking to Ed about this — and admitting the number — felt pretty freeing. Having him react to my credit card debt confession in a nonjudgmental matter was a pretty big deal to me and made me realize how much I’d internalized shame and guilt around money.
Once I could talk about my money challenges, it was that much easier to get into solution mode. While we only had three sessions together, Ed’s financial background makes it possible for clients to move pretty quickly from the emotional stuff to some behavioral strategies to help people manage their money.
For me, that meant checking my bank account statements, even when it made me uncomfortable. It involved making some actionable goals — roll over a 401(k), begin paying quarterly freelance taxes — and getting them done by breaking them down into bite-size chunks. It also meant forgiving myself for some of my past financial decisions and realizing that just because I have made some mistakes in the past doesn’t mean I’m “bad” at money — or that I’m doomed to feel disorganized and overwhelmed when it comes to my finances.
Ed also encouraged me to pat myself on the back for some of my financial wins, like the investment account I opened a few years ago and contribute to every month. Overall, the process made me realize that money doesn’t need to be a deep, dark secret and that it’s normal for anyone — even someone who’s made a career in writing about personal finance — to have some blind spots.
So, should you see a financial therapist?
That’s a tricky question. There’s plenty of self-help and financial coaching available for free — including here in Joy — and some of the topics tackled in financial therapy, like emotions and relationships, can also be covered in a more traditional therapy setting. Financial therapy also demands a fair amount of self-reflection — if all you need is help with your taxes or help to stay on top of your finances, a financial planner or accountant who only focuses on the numbers may be your best bet.
Finally, financial therapy can be expensive (although some therapists may be covered under insurance) and time-consuming — two factors which are hard to juggle if your goal is to find a fast financial solution to your problems. Three sessions is a short amount of time — Ed generally works with clients for a few months and sometimes up to a year — but I feel more accepting of myself and my finances, which makes me more motivated to do something about them.
For example, after the third session with Ed, I was able to critically eye my Amazon cart and cull my selection by half. It’s not much, but it’s progress — and a positive bank account balance.
The bottom line is that like many other financial tools, if it works for you, it works. But to me, even more important than the sessions themselves was the reminder that emotions and money are — and should be — intertwined. Ignoring your feelings doesn’t do any favors for your mood, or your money. And that’s a pretty valuable lesson.