Financial Therapy Is an Investment With Potentially Major Payoffs

In 2023, we admitted we do "girl math" and were inundated with deceiving TikTok economics. So, is 2024 the year of the financial therapist? Financial therapy is more than just a commitment to budgeting and figuring out how to pay off loans. It's about your relationship with money and undoing unhelpful narratives, like that there's "never enough."

The concept of financial therapy kicked off in earnest amid the 2008 recession and has since grown to the point that there are now a few organizations with accreditation, including the Financial Therapy Association and the Center For Financial Social Work, as well as a handful of programs at colleges and universities that offer training in the specialty. But is the practice actually helpful — or just one more thing to spend your money on?

Experts Featured in This Article

Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, LMSW, is a social worker-turned-financial therapist based in Michigan. She is also the author of the workbook, "The Financial Anxiety Solution."

Aja Evans, LMHC, is a financial therapist, coach, and speaker bsed in New York.

Garrett Gould, CFP, CFA, EA, a certified financial planner and the founder of the financial planning company Halyard Financial.

Ashley Agnew, CFT-I, is a financial advisor, financial therapist, and the president of the Financial Therapy Association.

What Is Financial Therapy?

Unlike financial literacy, which helps you better understand money and how to handle it, financial therapy goes beyond the basics to focus on telling your "money story." You're not just learning about what financial behaviors are helpful, like saving for retirement, but unpacking your relationship to and struggles with money, says financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, LMSW.

Bryan-Podvin compares the process to working with a nutritionist: we often know what foods might make us feel more nourished before we get to a registered dietitian's office, but the expert can help us examine our underlying emotional connections to food.

Financial therapists aren't necessarily telling you, "You need this savings account" or "Make that investment." Instead, they might help you understand the emotions you have around debt or investing, and how those feelings impact your behavior, says financial therapist Aja Evans, LMHC.

"Frequently, people just don't talk about money, and they have a lot of shame or guilt surrounding it," Evans says. "People feel like they don't have support to have these more in-depth, historically taboo conversations about money and emotions." And that's where financial therapists come in.

Do I Need Financial Therapy?

Ashley Agnew, the president of the Financial Therapy Association, says that "everyone" can benefit from financial therapy. "Financial skills are 21st-century survival skills," she says. "Finances touch every part of our everyday lives. We make about a thousand financial decisions a day, whether that be 'Do I lend my best friend money?' or 'Do I buy the organic instead of the standard bananas?' I really believe everyone is a good fit for financial therapy, and I wish it was looked at more like self-care than self-help."

It makes sense that most of us could benefit from taking a closer look at our relationship with money — but since financial therapy is a fairly new specialty, it's overstating it to say everyone needs it. And other experts agree that financial therapy is not always necessary. Because it's not free, it might even provoke more financial stress in some folks. "Even though I'm a therapist and I love therapy, I don't think every single person needs therapy," Bryan-Podvin says.

Some of the people who could benefit the most from financial therapy can't afford it. Agnew estimates most financial therapists charge between $125 and $375 a session, and you'd likely meet once weekly to start, eventually going biweekly or just scheduling check-ins as necessary. The point is, the money poured into this can add up.

That said, there are still clear benefits. Bryan-Podvin offers some scenarios in which folks might benefit from financial therapy, assuming they can afford it: "You might need financial therapy if you've tried the DIY route and are still struggling. You've read books about how to talk to your partner about money, you've listened to podcasts about how to budget, you've attended webinars about how to save for retirement, but you're not able to implement what you learned, take action, or make it sustainable." In this case, therapy can help you figure out what's getting in the way of you taking action to meet your goals or to stop negative behaviors.

"I think financial therapy makes sense for people who are knowingly making destructive financial decisions," adds financial planner Garrett Gould, CFP. "When you know you're making decisions you shouldn't be . . . but you can't change that behavior? Then a financial planner — someone like me — isn't going to be able to help much."

Money impacting your relationships is another big reason you might opt for financial therapy, adds Evans. Over a third of Gen Zers and millennials say they have a friend who drives them to overspend, a Credit Karma survey found last year. It's even led some survey participants to consider ending friendships. That's a big deal. Another Credit Karma survey from last year, meanwhile, found that 33 percent of Gen Zers and 31 percent of millennials had broken up with partners over money.

Lastly, Bryan-Podvin says that if your relationship with money is making it hard for you to function, that's also a good sign therapy could help. If you stay up at night worrying about bills, hide things from your partner, or if your finances cause anxiety or depression that stops you from doing things you want to do — like hanging out with loved ones or even going to work — that's a red flag. It's a sign you could benefit from some kind of therapy, financial or otherwise.

In many cases, a traditional therapist could help the average person unpack their relationship with money, Gould says. That might be a better option than a financial therapist for a few reasons, including because it's much more likely to be covered by your health insurance, at least partially. One of the only ways to get financial therapy covered by insurance is if you have a clinically diagnosed gambling addiction, Agnew says.

With that said, Gould notes that the connection between money and emotion is undeniable. "As a financial planner, I frequently have meetings with clients where they say, 'Well this turned into a therapy session,'" he says. "So, this is needed. It's just, who's going to provide it?"

There are just too few people who specialize in the intersection of finances and therapy and who have the appropriate licensure. While the field is growing, Bryan-Podvin says it's still fairly small. "There just aren't that many of us and the demand is intense," she says. "Last year, I think there were like 35 or 40 of us in the US, and now there's 70 or more." So, even if you think you're someone who could benefit from financial therapy, finding the right expert for you might take a while.

What to Expect From Financial Therapy

Every therapist will be different, just like everyone's needs vary. But in general, it'll go down like this: "In that first session, I'm doing two things," Bryan-Podvin says. "I'm trying to ask the person what their goals are and I'm going back in time to figure out what may be contributing to a block or a barrier in achieving those goals."

Evans says reflection on the past will help someone figure out their "money story," or the ideas they've picked up along the way from caregivers about how money impacts their lives. "We might ask, 'What were the messages you got about money when you were young, and how might they be subconsciously driving you today?'" Bryan-Podvin says. This could involve journaling or making a timeline of memories involving money.

Evans adds that financial therapy might involve working through financial guilt, even about debt you don't have. "Some people have guilt about growing up wealthy. How do they manage that?" Evans says. The point is, it doesn't matter whether you grew up very rich or in a lower socioeconomic class. Either way, you have a money story that's worth telling out loud and unpacking, including whether social, emotional, psychological, or systemic factors impact your relationship with money.

In the process, you might also learn new coping or communication skills that help you achieve your financial goals. It also might involve working on your confidence so you feel good negotiating a raise or finding a new job.

Other times, the therapeutic intervention helps people feel more comfortable looking deeply into their finances and unafraid to open their banking app. "Avoidance is a great short-term safety or coping mechanism — we avoid feeling uncomfortable or stressed, and that's normal," Bryan-Podvin says. "But when it comes to finance, that avoidance can snowball in a scary way, especially if we're doing something like avoiding paying our credit card or avoiding looking at our retirement accounts."

How to Pick a Financial Therapist

If you decide to take the plunge and try out financial therapy, you'll want to think a bit about what you want out of it first. Do you want someone who'll be hands-on with your finances? Then you might want to find someone who has the therapeutic side down but also has their financial planning license. If you know you have some trauma and anxiety about finances, you might need someone who has a psychology background, as opposed to someone more focused on budgeting to reach goals.

Most people in the field have either their clinical therapy license or their certified financial planning license before getting the official certification in financial therapy, which takes less time than an actual degree or clinical license. So, they're either coming from a finance background and took a certification to learn the therapeutic side, or vice versa.

"We recommend interviewing at least three financial therapists to make sure you're working with the right professional to serve your goals," Agnew says. In interviews, ask about certification: Did they get it through the Financial Therapy Association or the Center For Financial Social Work? What was their background and licensing before that?

It's easy for someone who just paid to get a certificate to call themselves a financial therapist when, Bryan-Podvin says, it'd be more accurate to call themselves a financial "coach," which she says is a valid profession that can have its benefits. "I just don't love it when financial coaches who don't have the training or the background use terms like 'psychologist' or 'therapist,' when they actually are not those things, and I think it can be really deceptive and harmful, even though I don't think that these folks are trying to actively deceive others."

"Be direct and say, 'Hey, I see you advertise as a financial therapist. When you say that, what do you mean?'" Bryan-Podvin suggests. "Then ask who they're credentialed under. In the US, if you're a mental health professional — such as a psychologist, social worker, licensed counselor — you have to report to a mental health board, you have to do continuing education every year, you have to maintain certain ethics." In other words, there's oversight.

Along with asking about credentials, Evans recommends asking bout what kind of modalities or "home disciplines" a potential financial therapist will use. Will they implement cognitive behavior therapy, or be more about talking through goals?

How to Make Financial Improvements Without Financial Therapy

If you're not sure financial therapy is right for you, there are still ways to improve your relationship with money this year and reflect on whether you might consider pursuing financial therapy (or any kind of therapy) in the future.

You might try a book. Bryan-Podvin has a workbook, "The Financial Anxiety Solution," and Agnew recommends the books "The Healthy Love & Money Way," which has a journal prompt at the end of each chapter, and "Mind Over Money," which helps folks figure out their money story. If you can't afford these books, check your library or request they get the book through an inter-library loan.

You can also find good information in free webinars that might be offered by your school, job, local library, or community center. There's lots of good and bad advice out there, however. To help you navigate it, make sure to search the expert's name (and don't just read what they've put out there themselves) and do a "gut check" about how the content is making you feel, Bryan-Podvin recommends. "If someone is giving you the ick or rubbing you the wrong way, there are so many people now giving this information that you can pick and choose who you want to get your information," she says.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid anyone who makes you feel judged or ashamed about your money story. "If you're feeling worse about yourself instead of feeling empowered, that's a pretty good cue to walk away," she says. "Of course, it's not going to be all sunshine and rainbows — unpacking your relationship with money will probably be uncomfortable — but you shouldn't feel shame or feeling worse about yourself as you work on feeling better."

Another way to be more mindful of your financial well-being: notice your reactions when money comes up. "How do you feel when you get your paycheck: do you feel excited, overwhelmed, relieved?" Bryan-Podvin asks. How do you feel when the bill comes at dinner with friends? Dread? Excitement about the credit card points? These are a few things that are worth journaling on — they can help you start to uncover your money story — and with your diary, you won't have to pay a penny for your thoughts.

Molly Longman is a freelance journalist who loves to tell stories at the intersection of health and politics.