Financial Therapy Finding its Voice as a New Profession

by | Oct 15, 2012 | Financial Therapy, Healthy Money Relationships, Weekly Column | 3 comments

The driver of the van that was to take me from the University of Missouri to the St. Louis airport asked where I was from. When I said, “Rapid City,” we struck up a conversation about his childhood trip to the Sturgis Rally. At one point he asked me, “What were you doing visiting MU?”

I explained I had attended the third annual Financial Therapy Association (FTA) Conference. There was a silence. Then he continued talking about his memories of visiting the Black Hills.

Bringing up the topic of financial therapy tends to leave people speechless. It isn’t a common term. Plus, it combines two topics that most people want to avoid: therapy and finances. Put them together, and you have a real conversation killer.

Fortunately, there was plenty of conversation for the 85 professionals and students at the three-day FTA conference. For those attending for the first time, it was a “coming home” experience.

Financial therapy addresses a need that until recent years most financial and mental health professionals didn’t talk about or didn’t even know existed. It’s the unconscious and unspoken thoughts, beliefs, and feelings around all things financial. Certified financial planners aren’t required to have training in even basic communication skills, much less the more complex fundamentals of psychology or neuroscience. Likewise, therapists and psychologists aren’t taught to deal with money, either in working with clients or in managing their own businesses.

As a result, neither profession provides the tools to address clients’ problematic and often self-destructive beliefs and behaviors around money. Destructive behaviors around money usually aren’t about the money. For this reason, giving people more information about how money, investing, or financial planning works isn’t enough.

The exploration of financial psychology or emotion and money isn’t new. Dr. Jacob Needleman and Olivia Mellan were among the mental health pioneers who began raising questions around the psychological side of money in the 1990’s. About the same time, two financial planners, George Kinder and Dick Wagner, co-founded a leaderless group of financial planners, coaches, and therapists called the Nazrudin project to explore the emotional side of money. The Nazrudin project, which still meets annually, spawned scores of books, courses, and organizations raising the awareness and skill level of financial professionals and therapists.

The Nazrudin project was the primary influence that gave me, along with others, the idea of combining financial planning with experiential therapy. I began referring to it as financial therapy after hearing the term from therapist Bari Tessler.

Typically, financial therapy involves a client-centered financial planner (typically only compensated by fee for service) and a therapist or psychologist that conjointly work with clients. In my experience, this process helps clients who are in some way financially stuck make significant progress.

The one thing missing in the evolution of financial therapy until recently was the involvement of academia. For the first time, the FTA unites academics, therapists, and financial planners in a common pursuit of defining and developing the concept of financial therapy. This is essential if financial therapy is to become a profession.

It may be a while before we see practitioners with advanced degrees in financial therapy. Before that time comes, the FTA has a lot of work to do, including coming up with a scholarly definition of financial therapy.

In the meantime, Jeff Zaslow, who reported on our first financial therapy workshop in 2003 for The Wall Street Journal, wrote that it “combines experiential therapy with nuts-and-bolts financial planning.” As we work to foster the emerging profession of financial therapy, that’s still an accurate and effective way to describe it.

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