What Financial Therapy For Couples Means To Me

What Financial Therapy For Couples Means To Me

“I have to admit that when we hired you to be our financial planner, I really didn’t expect you would basically become our couples’ financial therapist. It’s kind of nice!”

I first had a client make this statement to me back in mid-2017, and I’ve had several other couples make similar statements to me in the years that followed.

My initial reaction to hearing such a statement was to pull back and write it off. I got into financial planning because I was a math nerd. I’ve never been the crunchy, hippie, lets-talk-about-our-feelings type of person you’d think of when you think of a therapist!

It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth time I heard a client refer to me as a “financial therapist” that I decided to explore what that really meant and why I was hearing it so frequently.

After some self-reflection and asking a few of my clients, I found that they were using “financial therapy” as a code word for “I ask interesting questions and listen carefully to their responses”.

But one thing led to another, I found my way to the Financial Therapy Association, and became a Certified Financial Therapist-I™ Practitioner (CFT-I™) in early 2022.

The FTA describes financial therapy as “a process informed by both therapeutic and financial competencies that helps people think, feel, communicate, and behave differently with money to improve overall well-being through evidence-based practices and interventions.”

But as the self-described non-hippie, non-crunchy CFT-I™, what does financial therapy for couples mean to me and the way I work with couples?

(If you’d prefer to listen to this article, you can get a podcast version of this post here: Money and Marriage Podcast Episode 137 – What Financial Therapy For Couples Means To Me)

Financial therapy addresses the shortcomings that most financial planners and marriage counselors have when working with couples

Most financial planners suck at talking to couples, and most marriage counselors suck at talking about money.

Back when I got started in the investment management industry, part of the formal training I received was that I should immediately pause the conversation and change topics if a couple ever started fighting about money in my office.

From discussions at conferences to posts on message boards and everything in between, there have been at least half a dozen times I’ve personally witnessed good financial planners express exasperation, frustration, or even contempt about the inability of their married clients to get on the same financial page.

It’s very common in my industry to take these conflicts as an inevitability rather than something that can be solved.

These financial planners are very good at the mathematical side of financial planning. But most would rather avoid dealing with financial conflict and stick to the spreadsheets.

Unfortunately, marriage counselors often have the opposite problem; they’re (obviously) very effective at helping couples work through roadblocks, but they’re often not very good at helping couples with money-related issues.

I understand that this might sound like a bit of a stereotype at first, but study after study has shown that therapists, including marriage therapists, tend to be ill-equipped to help clients handle financial issues. In Money Talks – in Therapy, Society, and Life, the authors note at the outset that money has been termed the “last taboo” in the therapeutic realm, not just for patients but also for therapists. 

The focus of my financial therapy for couples in my marriage-centered financial planning process is to correct both of these issues: to provide good financial advice for couples that helps them work through (or prevent) financial roadblocks in their marriage.

Financial Therapy requires me to not impose my own beliefs onto a couple

One of our guiding principles at Pacesetter Planning is to provide couples with customized advice based on proven principles. We know what works, and what doesn’t work, for couples based on their specific money values, and we help couples pick the right solutions based on their specific money tendencies as a family.

Too often, I see other personal finance experts give one-size-fits-all advice that ignores the specific factors of the couple in question.

You can find money gurus out there who will tell you that you always need to combine 100% of your finances after you get married, and you can find equally respected gurus who will tell you never to combine any of your money with your spouse.  

Even worse, these one-size-fits-all guidelines are typically developed from the guru’s own personal experience, which they then project onto everyone else. The idea of projecting your situation onto everyone else’s is a concept known as transference in the therapy world, and it’s something that should be avoided.

I’ve discussed my personal money and marriage history on the Money and Marriage Podcast before, but it would be a huge, huge mistake to presume that the solutions that were right for my wife and I are the right solutions for the couples I work with.

Instead, we follow a consistent process to pick the right strategies and tactics for the couples we work with. Financial therapy and financial planning principles inform this approach.

Financial Therapy is based on getting in touch with the emotional drivers of financial outcomes, and charting a path forward that respects these drivers

Plenty of financial advisors will tell you that money and emotions don’t mix. In my view, this is naïve.

It can be nearly impossible to truly separate money and emotions, and in many cases, it can be a mistake to try to do so. Not recognizing the role that emotional decisions play in your financial plan will often either lead to a “blind spot” in your financial plan that will become exposed over time, or cause you to suppress emotions, which typically leads to negative results down the road.

Instead, financial therapy for couples should:

  • Help you understand your emotional responses to money and implement financial strategies that will let you work through these emotions without having a negative impact on your finances. I talked about this in the context of “retail therapy” in one of my favorite episodes of the Money and Marriage Podcast that I’ve ever recorded.
  • Help you understand and work on your “money scripts”. Money scripts are unconscious beliefs about the role of money in your life that are typically developed in childhood and are incomplete or partial truths. These money scripts are typically responsible for your financial outcomes, and are capable of being changed. A good financial plan for couples will both be compatible with your money scripts and give you the strategies that you need to work through your problematic money scripts.
  • Help you understand that things that have happened to you in the past can inform your financial decisions and drive your financial outcomes… but also help you understand that you aren’t defined by or limited by your financial past. Financial planning for couples, with a focus on financial therapy techniques, can help you address these challenges while creating a new future for your family.

The optimal answer on paper isn’t always the optimal answer in reality

Financial planning and financial therapy for couples isn’t a math equation to solve.

It’s not that the money math doesn’t matter; of course it does. But a true financial planning process that’s optimized for couples with financial differences focuses on results that go beyond the math.

A good financial plan for couples doesn’t just help you grow your savings, increase your net worth, or achieve your goals.

It also helps you and your spouse get on the same financial page and improve the way you communicate with each other about money.

It helps you and your spouse be able to clearly see the full financial snapshot of your family’s finances and helps you follow through on your best financial intentions.

And it helps you decrease your financial anxiety, guilt, and shame, and helps you increase your financial confidence as a couple.

Financial therapy for couples cares about problems in the spreadsheets and in the bedsheets. (No, you didn’t read that incorrectly, I did, in fact, go there.)

The spreadsheet analysis and answers to financial decisions matter… but they are only one part of the process.

I don’t take sides, and I don’t keep secrets

It’s very common for couples that I work with to have one spouse that’s more focused on saving, minimizing debt, and other behaviors that most people would praise as being financially responsible, and for the other spouse to be more inclined to spend or be less engaged financially.

As the financial planner, most people might expect me to often side with the more “financially responsible” member of the family.

You would be mistaken.

If you’re the “saver” in your family and are hoping that I will chastise your spouse for overspending, you might be disappointed. You will find plenty of financial planners who will take your side in the fight… but I won’t be one of them.

The reason for this is simple: even if you’re correct about your spouse overspending, the approach I would take in helping your spouse address his or her spending needs to be more subtle than taking sides. I might help your spouse see how their choices will affect their long-term goals and help inspire them to change… but I might also help you to see how chiding your spouse for overspending is likely to get them to disengage from the financial planning process.

It’s critically important for financial planning and financial therapy for couples for the financial planner not to take sides. If you are truly overspending, I’ll tell you so… but I’ll also help you to create a savings and spending plan that works for both of you that you both agree to.

Likewise, I don’t keep secrets from the other spouse. I’ve had clients email or call me in advance of meetings to tell me something that they don’t want to come up during the call or that they don’t want their spouse to know about. My answer is always the same: I will help them mediate the issue at hand with their spouse, but I can’t keep things a secret.

It’s not uncommon for members of a couple to email me with thoughts, concerns, or frustrations without including the other spouse. But, I always set the expectation that everything will come out during our meetings, in a way that I think will lead to the most productive conversation possible. The purpose of communicating individually to me isn’t to keep a secret, but rather to help facilitate the conversation in a way that reduces financial conflict.

At the end of the day, you are my client as a couple. I called my book Marriage-Centered Money because I literally put your marriage at the center of your financial plan. My not taking sides or keeping secrets is a big part of making this process work for both of you.

Physical therapy, occupational therapy, financial therapy

Let’s end on an important note: I am not a mental health practitioner.

I’ve been through financial therapy competency training, with a particular focus on helping couples. I’ve obtained the Certified Financial Therapist-I™ designation. But I am not a capital-T Therapist.

I’m a financial planner, who employs financial therapy techniques in my financial planning practice. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, financial therapy – I find that this nomenclature can be helpful to illustrate the difference.

Working with me is not a substitute for getting mental health counseling if you need it. There are limits to my scope of practice in line with my professional experience, and I refer out cases when needed.

If any of the following apply to you, you should seek help from a capital-T Therapist rather than from myself:

  • You’re at the breaking point in your marriage and are ready to file for divorce. I can help couples who are fighting about money repair the damage that these fights have done to their marriage. But if things are so far gone that you are seriously considering a divorce, you need a marriage counselor to help you decide how to move forward. Asking to work with me at this stage is a little like calling 411 (which is something you used to be able to do to get more information, for the under-50 crowd) rather than 911 when you’re in a crisis. I might have been helpful earlier in the process, but things have escalated to the point where you need someone equipped to handle a crisis.
  • Financial abuse- Financial abuse occurs when a spouse has control over the other spouse’s access to financial and economic resources, which diminishes the victim’s capacity to support themselves and forces them to depend on the other person financially. This is another case that requires an immediate response as if it was a crisis.
  • Addictions or trauma – If you have a history of trauma in your marriage (or in your personal life), you may need a professional with a specialized skill set to help. Likewise, if you have financial struggles related to an addictive behavior (drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.), the first step in your financial plan should be to treat this behavior first.

None of these are true financial issues, even if the symptoms are appearing in your finances.

Money does not need to be an inhibitor to marriage. It can strengthen it.

The bottom line is that financial therapy for couples is about making money something that strengthens your marriage, rather than something that causes conflict.

If you’re interested in exploring what this could look like for your family, I encourage you to set up a free, no-obligation breakthrough session with me.

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