The financial toll of the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s emotional health globally. In the pandemic-led financial crisis, people are facing increased stress about money as they try to figure out the extent of financial damage caused by the lockdown, lower incomes, looming debts and lingering uncertainties.
There has never been a better time to address the issue of money anxiety. Experts say money stress is a deeper psychological issue rather than default response to financial hardship. Studies show people can be anxious about money at any level of wealth or income.
Los Angeles-based Ludmila Leiva confesses financial anxiety is a big part of her life. Despite being a disciplined saver who regularly invested, kept her debt under control and had a structure to her finances, the 29-year-old Canadian-born Guatemalan-Slovak visual artist just couldn’t shake off her money-related stress. So, when she was offered the opportunity to speak to a financial therapist, she readily took it up.
“What came next can only be described as a catharsis,” says Ms Leiva. “I was able to unload some of my biggest financial stressors and insecurities to a trained psychotherapist who is also a financial expert.” Her financial therapist, she says, was able to tend to her emotions that came up while offering tools for how to start to address the problems.
Interest in financial therapy is on the rise as more people are confronting their fears about money.
What is financial therapy?
A relatively new niche, financial therapy is the practice of helping people with how they think, feel and behave with money to enhance their well-being, according to the Financial Therapy Association (FTA), the certifying body for the practice of financial therapy.
Unlike financial advice, financial therapy works at the intersection of financial education and psychotherapy. “It could be engaging in conversations about your financial stress, your financial anxiety, money fights in your relationships, financial enabling, overspending, financial infidelity, and much more,” says Megan McCoy, director of Personal Financial Planning Masters Programme at Kansas State University.
Financial therapists are trained to ask the right questions to help their clients gain insights to improve their overall well-being, says Ms McCoy, who specialises in financial therapy.
How does it work?
Financial therapy works by creating a collaborative and safe relationship where the client can openly and honestly talk about their financial realities. “By bringing out into the open fears, anxieties, disappointments, shame and guilt, clients are able to gain new and fresh perspectives on their financial lives,” says Ed Coambs, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based certified financial planner and a practicing marriage and family therapist who specialises in financial therapy.
A conventional therapy session, where clients typically try to share their financial struggles and are told to set goals and clarify their values, can leave people feeling more overwhelmed and disoriented, argues Mr Coambs.
A financial therapist, on the other hand, “will look for root experiences around money that are related to current money struggles”, he says. A financial therapist, he adds, will explore with the clients where the negative self talk about money comes. They help clients learn how to evaluate their thoughts, emotions, behaviours and relationship dynamics and how these factors coalesce to create the hum of financial anxiety.
“They will explore the underlying reasons for the financial anxiety – is it a lack of perspective and knowledge, is it past financial failures, is it fear of negative evaluation, are there negative stories about the person’s ability to earn, spend and save money?” Mr Coambs explains.
Who is financial therapy for?
Financial therapists argue that all recipients stand to benefit. Money isn't just about numbers, but a profoundly emotional phenomenon that impacts people on all levels of the wealth spectrum. No matter who you are or what your financial capacity is, chances are you've experienced stress, anger or shame when thinking about money, says Mr Coambs, who is also co-author of a financial therapy study. "People also must realise that money issues span from the practical purchasing of goods and services to the meaning of life," he notes.
Financial stress is a mind, body and social issue that goes beyond the size of one’s bank account. “Awareness of a person’s traumatic experiences with money is a huge step forward in treating financial angst,” says Mr Coambs.
Closer to home, UAE residents have had their share of financial losses over the years. Particularly for expats, one of the reasons of financial stress is the outcome of a glamorous lifestyle and living beyond their means, says Stuart Ritchie, director and chartered financial planner with the global wealth advice company AES International. “I’ve seen expats flee the country, leaving hefty loans behind, while others try to find ways to mend the situation,” he says. “Face your problems head on and don’t try to run as those problems will follow you and snowball as a result.”
Financial therapy versus psychotherapy
A key difference is that mental health professionals are not trained in money, says Ms McCoy, coauthor of a financial therapy study titled Narrative Financial Therapy: Integrating a Financial Planning Approach with Therapeutic Theory. "Hardly any of the programmes even touch on money even though it's the leading cause of stress," she says.
A financial therapist should also be a qualified investment professional, says personal finance guru Andrew Hallam. "As with conventional therapy, such therapists lead from behind, asking plenty of questions in a manner that allows the client to articulate what would be best for them," says Mr Hallam, the author of Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat. "But financial therapists also understand overall financial wealth management, so they can assist in areas where a conventional therapist wouldn't be qualified."
The FTA offers varying degrees of certification, which equip providers to offer differing levels of assistance, based on their educational background and training. As well, the financial therapy programme is now offered by reputed universities like Kansas State University and Creighton University in Omaha.
Triggers for financial stress
Financial anxiety could stem from a wide spectrum of events, including theft of money, being cut off financially or accusation of being selfish or no good with money, says Mr Coambs. Watching parents fight about money and dramatic changes in economic circumstances due to life events are some other triggers. “There are many different precipitating events that can lead to financial trauma, including addictions and mental issues, medical conditions and death,” Mr Coambs notes.
It’s easy to get swept away with fears about paying rent, saving for retirement, or paying off a seemingly insurmountable debt. “Because money is still so private, many of us, including myself, prefer to avoid talking about it,” says Ms Leiva. “Preparing for an unknown future can be scary, but that’s exactly why it’s important to develop emotional regulation strategies.”
Take the bull by the horn
“Never underestimate the impact your financial situation can have on your overall mental and physical well-being,” advises Mr Ritchie, stressing that “taking control of your finances today can make a world of difference to your happiness, health and prosperity”.
This assertion finds corroboration in Ms Leiva’s financial therapy experience. “Ultimately, coming away from the financial therapy sessions, I realised how important it is to consider the link between our finances and our emotions,” she says. “Money can be incredibly stressful, but it is possible to create a healthy relationship with money, and to recognise that it is merely a tool that can help us create the life we want.”
Regardless of whether we’ve realised it, each of us has inherited beliefs about money, usually from our families and those close to us. The idea of money comes with a lot of baggage, irrespective of whether we feel we have enough of it or not.
“After speaking with a financial therapist, I now realise how important it is to take stock of the way finances impact your emotional well-being,” says Ms Leiva.