Money angst? You might consider a financial therapist

Research shows that financially anxious and stressed individuals are less likely to plan for retirement. ILLUSTRATION: ALICE MOLLON/WSJ
Research shows that financially anxious and stressed individuals are less likely to plan for retirement. ILLUSTRATION: ALICE MOLLON/WSJ

Summary

Unconscious beliefs and emotions can mess up how people handle their finances. The hard part is finding experts qualified to handle both money and the mind.

Do you worry a lot about higher food and gas bills? Fight with your spouse over spending splurges? Fear you’ll outlive your savings?

Some people seek to ease such money anxieties by hiring a financial therapist.

The goal of financial therapists ultimately is to help people make good financial decisions, typically by raising their clients’ awareness of how their emotions and unconscious beliefs have affected their sometimes messy experiences with money.

Needs for such help often arise following a job loss, bankruptcy or marital partner’s financial infidelity—when one spouse hides or misrepresents financial information from the other. Even something seemingly positive, such as getting a big inheritance or winning a lottery, can cause financial anxiety.

“Folks are craving help with financial well-being,’’ says Ashley Agnew, president of the Financial Therapy Association, a professional group launched in 2009.

Financial therapists tend to come from mental-health and financial-planning disciplines, and there are signs that their ranks are rising: The Financial Therapy Association has 430 members, up from 225 in 2015. Still, according to the group, fewer than 100 financial therapists have completed its certification process, introduced in 2019. You can be an association member without being certified by it.

The reason for the increased interest is clear: Many Americans are worried about their personal finances. In a survey of about 3,000 U.S. adults conducted last October by Fidelity Investments, more than one-third of respondents said they were in “worse financial shape" than in the previous year. Some 55% of those respondents blamed inflation and cost-of-living increases.

Similarly, 52% of 2,365 Americans polled for Bankrate.com said money negatively affected their mental health in 2023. That is 10 percentage points higher than in 2022. Financially anxious and stressed individuals are less likely to plan for retirement, prior research has concluded.

Messy divorce

New York advisory firm Francis Financial hired financial therapist Allen Sakon last November to aid individual clients. Many are divorced or widowed women with complicated money problems.

Certain clients “don’t believe they have enough resources, even though objectively they do," says Sakon, who is a certified financial therapist, financial planner and accountant. Meanwhile, others with limited means mistakenly believe “they can live as extravagantly as they want,’’ she says.

Sakon currently counsels a recently divorced woman who is struggling with her dramatically lower income and the imminent sale of the family’s suburban New York home. “Her world has been turned upside down" by a financially messy divorce, Sakon says.

Though the woman has stressful new money responsibilities, she long avoided financial decisions, according to Sakon. “A money-avoidant grown-up is typically someone who was excluded from money discussions as a child," she says.

Sakon says she hopes to eventually help this client feel capable of making financial decisions based on her resources and the financial plan that Sakon created for her.

Nate Astle, a certified financial therapist in Kansas City, Mo., met nine times from May 2023 to February 2024 with Andrea and Gianluca Presti, a 30-something Texas couple who were having persistent spats over money. Andrea Presti, an email marketer, says she believed that “if we didn’t go to financial therapy, I was going to question our entire relationship and whether we could continue."

The wife cites an argument over the possible purchase of an expensive new car to replace their decade-old vehicle as an example of the couple’s financial conflicts. They disagreed over whether to give up a car that still worked well.

The husband, Gianluca Presti, a music producer, says financial therapy taught him and his wife to communicate better through active listening. He says he stopped being the couple’s money gatekeeper, became more open-minded about spending—and agreed to pay up to $45,000 cash for a new car. “We have to be a team if we want to solve financial issues," he now realizes.

Astle helped the Prestis revamp their household budget as well. It now reflects each spouse’s interests by including expenditures, investments and savings.

Astle, who is also a marriage and family therapist, says he has seen his financial-therapy clients more than double to 43 since 2022.

Possible pitfalls

Still, there are possible pitfalls when hiring a financial therapist. One major drawback: Anyone can claim they are qualified to practice financial therapy.

No government agency regulates the young profession. Candidates for certification by the Financial Therapy Association must take online courses designed by the association covering financial and therapeutic techniques, counsel clients for 250 hours and pass a 100-question test. But you can call yourself a financial therapist and not be certified by the association.

Meanwhile, the cost of financial therapy varies widely—from $125 to $350 an hour, Agnew estimates. Insurance rarely covers the tab.

In addition, there is no broad evidence that financial therapy works well. No large-scale studies demonstrating the field’s effectiveness have been conducted.

Another potential downside is that financial therapists with mental-health backgrounds typically lack extensive financial-planning experience—and vice versa. It is wise to interview at least three financial therapists, experts suggest. Then, pick someone who admits the limits of their expertise.

“I am very upfront about my boundaries," says practitioner Aja Evans, a licensed mental-health counselor who isn’t certified in financial therapy. Evans adds that she failed the certification test but plans to take it again during 2024—and before she becomes Financial Therapy Association president in January.

She says she feels well-qualified to help clients recognize how their upbringing affects their money beliefs today. “But I am in no shape or form going to be advising you about your investments, money moves or creating a financial plan," Evans says. For clients who want that assistance, she says, she refers them to certified financial planners and accountants she knows well.

Joann S. Lublin, a former Wall Street Journal career columnist, is the author of “Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life." She can be reached at joann.lublin@wsj.com.

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