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What is financial therapy? The link between money and your mental health

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My anxiety has never been higher than when I started out as a freelancer four years ago. Panic washed over me as I sent clients “just following up” emails about past-due payments and did mental gymnastics devising ways to minimize my already meager expenses. I struggled to fall asleep at night, unsure of whether an invoice I had sent would be processed before rent came due. Despite my hustle, the sad state of my bank account made me feel like an utter failure. Now that I think back on it, I was a prime candidate for financial therapy.

Money troubles can fray at anyone’s mental well-being, as well as their relationships. Twenty-five percent of Americans stresses about paying for life’s essentials, according to a recent Stress in America survey, conducted by the American Psychological Association. In a Kansas State University study, arguments about money beat out other common marital disagreements as the strongest predictor of divorce.

While people often reach out to a therapist for help with managing anxiety or relationship conflicts, a financial therapist can help you navigate these issues when they stem largely from your personal finances. But do you need a financial therapist? And, if so, how do you find the right one for you? Mic asked a financial therapist for some insight.

First of all, what is financial therapy?

Financial therapy involves working with people’s beliefs, behaviors, and relationship dynamics when it comes to money, in a safe, non-judgmental space, Thomas Faupl, a financial therapist in San Francisco, tells Mic.

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More than just an account balance or credit score, money can hold deep meaning for people. It can represent power and security, and in some cases, like mine, it can trigger intense shame. “How we live in the world is so fundamentally tied into money,” Faupl says. “How could [mental health and money] not be tied together?”

Faupl gets calls from individuals for everything from poor financial literacy or habits like overspending, to traumatic pasts impairing their financial success. For instance, maybe their parents fought constantly about money, making it a scary, loaded topic for them.

Couples also reach out to Faupl about clashing values or goals around money; for instance, one partner might be a laid-back spender, the other a scrupulous saver. Other couples argue over which partner should manage finances, while some hesitate to talk about money at all. In couples therapy sessions, Faupl tries to help partners listen and talk to each other in non-shaming, non-criticizing ways. Once each partner feels like the other hears and understands where they’re coming from, the couple can work together toward common financial goals.

Through guiding them in this process, Faupl hopes to help people have a healthier, more realistic, and more empowered relationship with money, so they can have more harmonious interactions with their loved ones when it comes to finances

It’s important to draw a distinction between a financial coach and a financial therapist; they’re not the same thing, Faupl says. A financial coach can help you with setting goals and moving forward to put them into action. A financial therapist, on the other hand, “is going to go more vertical, look into the unconscious mind, and understand, ‘Where do these beliefs and behaviors [with regards to money] come from?’” Faupl explains. They’ll help you examine your family, self-esteem, past traumas, and other aspects of your life for answers.

Through guiding them in this process, Faupl hopes to help people have a healthier, more realistic, and more empowered relationship with money, so they can have more harmonious interactions with their loved ones when it comes to finances, and in general.

Could I benefit from financial therapy?

You might want to consider financial therapy if you feel like you’ve spun out of control when it comes to money (maybe you have compulsive or reckless spending habits, for example), or experience extreme anxiety about managing your money, Faupl says. Financial therapy can also provide a safe space to dismantle any self-limiting beliefs you have around money — for instance, that you’ll always be “bad” with it, or that you’ll be disloyal to your family or spiritually bankrupt if you make above a certain amount. If you and your SO struggle to talk about money, a financial therapist can guide you in those conversations and help you understand each other’s differences around money.

How I do find the right financial therapist for me?

Faupl suggests searching the Financial Therapy Association Network to start. Make sure any candidate you’re considering is a licensed mental health care provider — that is, a licensed psychologist, marriage and family therapist, social worker, or professional counselor. Also make sure they have financial expertise. Some financial therapists have MBAs, for instance. Before he became a therapist, Faupl was a certified consumer credit counselor.

Faupl says most financial therapists offer a free, 15- to 20-minute phone consultation, which can help you gauge whether their expertise aligns with your needs. Tell them about the issues you’re facing, and ask whether they have experience working with them. Ask them to describe their training, as well as how long they’ve been working as a financial therapist.

Financial therapy is an investment, sure, but a healthier relationship with money, which pervades so much of our lives, may very well make it worthwhile. “It’s very fulfilling to see somebody leave my office feeling more confident, more capable, and moving toward how they want to live their life, where they have greater peace of mind around money, and they’re happier and more confident around their relationship with money,” Faupl says.

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