We Asked a Financial Therapist for Money Advice—and It Was Fascinating
File this under “who knew?” Within the world of financial advisors is a subset of specialists who are also psychologists. Called financial therapists, they help clients explore their emotional relationship with money. Family money weirdness, secretive overspending, marital stress—it’s their bread and butter. We spoke to Dr. Brad Klontz, a leader in the field, about what keeps women up at night, and what keeps us from getting richer.
The confidence gap
Q) In your practice, what are some of the most common money issues that come up for women?
Women have a tendency to have less confidence in their relationship with money. They may have more fear, or wonder if they don’t know as much as a male would, around financial literacy. On the flipside, women outperform men in terms of investment decisions. Since they're questioning themselves, they tend not to get overconfident and end up getting higher returns.
But the downside of this lack of confidence is a tendency to be vulnerable to money avoidance and financial denial. They may feel overwhelmed when they think about money and avoid diving into that part of their lives.
Q) So how do we combat this?
It’s the same treatment approach that works for anxiety, which is exposure. Read a book about personal finance. Just go ahead and pick one up. Start dipping your toes in the water. The basics are actually very simple. Deciding what type of IRA to open? You could do that in a five-minute discussion with a financial planner. That’s the big irony here. It’s the shame, and the idea that we don’t have what it takes to really understand money, that makes us feel overwhelmed.
The shame in our game
Q) Speaking of shame, has online shopping addiction and secret spending spiked with the rise of technology?
Oh yeah. Women have a tendency to be more vulnerable to Compulsive Buying Disorder. It’s more likely to affect women. What’s made it more challenging is that before [technology] you had to get dressed up and actually go somewhere to buy something, and now you can do it in your pajamas on the couch. Temptation and the availability of impulse shopping has just escalated dramatically.
But as with all of our money behaviors, I always caution against making it trite, like we overspend due to our self-centeredness or some defect in character. Actually it’s how we’re all hardwired. To be financially responsible, you have to consciously act against how your brain wants to function.
I call it "the big lie" about personal finance—that our financial problems are the results of us being crazy, lazy or stupid. And that’s just not the case. Our evolutionary hardwiring works against us in many areas of our financial lives. And on top of that, what we were taught about money and stuff and relationships growing up determines our financial behavior. Shame just acts as an emotional glue trap that keeps us mired down and stuck.
Cash is Queen
Q) But how do you actually stop yourself from spending?
It pays to be conscious. The more abstract our payment method, the more likely we are to overspend. We spend more with a credit card than we do with cash. Then there’s autopay. If you have a slippery slope in one area, like eating out in restaurants for example, consider making the transaction more concrete by paying in cash. Normally, at the grocery store, you just swipe the card and sign. If you actually had to sit there and plop $20 bills on the counter, you’d spend significantly less money. The pain centers in our brain register when we’re losing money. I’m not saying avoid all convenience. I’m just saying consider using cash for a while so you can actually have that visceral experience.
For love or money
Q) What are the most common issues couples grapple with in your office?
Every fight a couple is having around money is the result of conflicting money scripts. Those come from childhood experiences, are deeply ingrained and go back for generations. If there’s strong emotion attached to those beliefs, they’re very difficult to change. Couples are coming in and it’s “She spends too much!” and “He’s a tightwad!”—whatever. I help them actually have the conversation they should have had early on in their relationship: So, what was it like for you growing up around money? What socioeconomic class were you in? What was that experience like for you? What three things did your parents teach you about money? What’s your biggest financial fear? What are your biggest financial goals? It’s incredibly therapeutic. They’re getting so much insight. Their partner can then go, “Wow. So you’re not just trying to be controlling. You have a desperate fear of going back into poverty.” It gives context to these little money battles. And it just really opens up a wider menu of possible negotiated solutions.
Q) Besides sharing their history, what’s your best advice for couples?
Money can be such an issue of power and control, where somebody takes a parent role and somebody feels like they’re in a child role, and resents it. One solution is figuring out “how much money are we agreeing that the other person can spend without consulting? Anything above that number, we agree we’re going to consult with each other before making a purchase.” When your partner comes home and says, Hey, I just spent X on this, what number is going to make you freak out? Two people are almost certain to have two very different numbers. Being on the same page about this creates a sense of safety and trust.