Where Money Meets Feelings: Financial Therapy Finds Its Footing

In the early days of the pandemic, Nora Herting decided to try financial therapy.

“I didn’t even know what it was, exactly,” she said. “I heard about it and thought, ‘That sounds like something I need right now.’” A small-business owner whose revenue had been decimated by lockdowns, she faced agonizing choices between her own financial security and that of her company, including her 14 employees.

“At the time, my personal finances and my business finances were inextricably tied together,” said Ms. Herting, who lives in New York. “I needed help — not in a business sense, but more in a personal sense. Like, what decisions align with my values? Are these decisions I can live with?”

She made her way to Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist with a private practice in Los Angeles. Ms. Clayman did not offer financial advice; instead, she directed Ms. Herting to make a timeline of her relationship with money. Over several sessions, they discussed Ms. Herting’s family history, her career and how she communicated about money with her boyfriend. Then they developed a plan.

First, Ms. Herting set aside a chunk of savings for emergencies and her retirement. Next, she determined how much she would spend to self-fund her company, which creates visuals for meetings.

“I felt good about the amount of money that I was willing to potentially lose on my business, because we had talked it through,” Ms. Herting said. Her company eventually rebounded, and is now fully operating with all of its employees.

For years financial therapy has occupied a little-known, vaguely defined niche. One of its earliest practitioners, Ms. Clayman became a licensed clinical social worker in 2006 with the goal of integrating financial and emotional wellness.

“I saw a clear need for it, but there was no institutional path or system for addressing that need,” she said. “The teachers in my master’s program had no idea what to do with me. I kept asking, ‘Why doesn’t this exist?’”

Ms. Clayman eventually learned that she wasn’t alone. Brad Klontz, a certified financial planner and psychologist, has been researching the overlap between his two disciplines since the early 2000s. But there was no official recognition of the field until the 2008 financial crisis, when a handful of financial and mental health professionals banded together to form the Financial Therapy Association, which aimed to spread awareness of the connections between psychology and personal finance.

Their timing was ripe. “The financial crisis helped the mental health profession understand that money is an area of deep concern to our clients,” Dr. Klontz said. The problem was, many therapists weren’t prepared to talk about it. “Most people in the mental health community are trained to ask our clients about their marital stress, whether they can sleep at night,” he said. “We’re not trained to say, ‘So, how about your money?’”

Financial advisers were experiencing the opposite problem. “During the Great Recession, all these financial planners had clients melting down and emotionally distraught during sessions,” said Megan McCoy, who leads the financial therapy graduate program at Kansas State University. “Financial professionals love numbers and clean answers and solutions, and they didn’t know how to deal with these messy emotions. They needed more tools.”

Today, those tools exist. In 2019, the Financial Therapy Association introduced an accreditation program for both financial and mental health professionals to become certified in financial therapy. The coursework, which takes three to six months to complete remotely, covers financial topics (like estate planning and budgeting) as well as therapeutic techniques (such as pinpointing behaviors and attitudes that may hinder financial progress). To earn the designation, students must pass an exam and promise to adhere to a code of ethics, which includes a fiduciary standard and a ban on selling or earning commission from financial products. The Financial Therapy Association also formed a disciplinary committee that enforces its rules and may revoke or suspend certification if they are violated.

If the 2008 crisis lit a flame under financial therapy, the pandemic doused it with fuel. “When Covid hit, there was a lot of uncertainty and anxiety around finances,” Dr. McCoy said. “The pandemic also decreased some of the taboo around discussing mental health. The combined result is that financial therapy has flourished.”

The number of students in her graduate program has quadrupled, even as higher education enrollment has shrunk. The University of Georgia and Creighton University in Omaha have recently incorporated financial therapy into their financial planning and family therapy curriculums as well.

Traci Williams, a board-certified psychologist in Atlanta, became an accredited financial therapist this year. She was inspired to do so after seeing how financial disparities affected her hospital patients during the pandemic.

“There was a stark difference between the haves and the have-nots, and how they were able to cope,” she said. “Once I started to see that, I couldn’t look away.”

Demand also played a role. “There is only one other financial therapist in Atlanta, and she has a three-month wait list,” Dr. Williams added.

Look for real expertise

But like any new discipline, financial therapy has experienced growing pains — namely, confusion around what it is, and who can claim that they are qualified to practice it.

“I see a lot of financial coaches advertising their services, particularly on social media, and they don’t have any credentials,” Dr. Williams said. “Last week, I stumbled across someone with a ton of followers on Instagram, and she offers financial therapy coaching calls. When I looked up her qualifications, she only has a bachelor’s degree in I.T. It makes me worry about people who need help and where they are getting information.”

Not all certified financial therapists are licensed mental health workers. Some, including the Financial Therapy Association’s president, Preston Cherry, are certified financial planners or coaches.

“I don’t do financial therapy as an isolated practice. I invoke financial therapy tenets within my financial planning,” Dr. Cherry said. “If there’s a situation that is out of my scope — say, a marital issue that is blocking their financial goals or communication — then I can help uncover that and refer my client to a specialized person, like a couples counselor.”

Like traditional therapy and financial planning, financial therapy can vary widely in cost. Practitioners charge from $100 to $800 per session, depending on their fee structure and services.

Financial advisers who are certified in financial therapy should be clear about the boundaries of their mental health training, Dr. McCoy said; the same goes for mental health workers and their financial knowledge.

“The financial therapy program trains people to recognize when an issue is outside of their expertise, and how to make a referral to someone else when necessary,” she said. Many financial planners deal with clients when they are facing major life events, such as marriage, divorce, career changes, retirement or a death in the family, and it’s normal for them to suggest a lawyer or an accountant. Why not a therapist?

Larger financial institutions are adopting more touchy-feely angles with their clients, too.

“Financial planners have always known that clients have trouble implementing goals even when they have been clearly outlined and demonstrated,” said Sonya Lutter, a founding member of the Financial Therapy Association who leads research and education at Herbers, a consultancy for financial advisory firms. “The part that’s been missing is the personal, behavioral element — a computer can’t just spit that out. A lot of big firms now recognize this, and are starting to integrate behavioral training into their work.”

Even the CFP Board, an organization that oversees the accreditation process for certified financial planners, has embraced the “soft skills” of money management. In January, the board added a section to its education program called “The Psychology of Financial Planning,” which covers “principles of counseling” and “client and planner attitudes, values and biases,” among other topics.

“Now anybody who wants to be a certified financial planner has to show competency in the psychology of financial planning, which is more or less financial therapy,” Dr. Lutter said.

With Americans feeling high financial anxiety, perhaps it’s inevitable that therapy and money should mix. It’s also a reflection of the growing challenges of our financial lives.

“Most of us no longer have stable careers for 30 years and then retire,” Ms. Clayman said. “We juggle multiple different jobs and income sources. We need to manage and plan for our future. And if we have a partner, we need tools for merging those two complex systems together. I would argue that’s a process that’s bigger than any spreadsheet can contain.”

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