man wondering about financial therapy

Why Financial Therapy Fails – Part One

During a discussion in the graduate class on “Facilitating Financial Health” that I teach at Golden Gate University, one student said, “I’d be really reluctant to refer clients to a therapist since many people may have had a bad experience with therapy.” 

Now, I have spent years in therapy myself as well as facilitating therapy for others, and I wouldn’t hesitate to refer someone to therapy. I have found therapy to be a very positive and life-changing experience. 

It’s also true that therapy, including financial therapy, does not always succeed. I remember the first time I engaged a therapist, perhaps 40 years ago when my first marriage was failing. I decided maybe seeing a therapist would fix things. Just making an appointment was one of the hardest things I had ever done. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was overcome with shame because I believed “only failures need therapy.” And I didn’t see myself as a failure, but I had to confess that things weren’t going well in my marriage. Of course, my perception was that the problem was really my wife, and if she would just get fixed everything would be fine. That assumption, which is common, is one of the reasons therapy can fail. 

I remember the therapist saying, “Why do you need to feel that you’re in control of everything?” I was dumbfounded. Why wouldn’t anyone want to be in control? I also remember asking how many sessions it would take before things were fixed. I went for two sessions and then quit. For me at that time, therapy had failed. When I tried therapy again a few years later, I was in a different place, and the experience was much more successful. 

I maintain that just about anybody can benefit from financial therapy. This does not automatically mean that every financial therapy experience will be helpful. One of the most common reasons is that the person does not want to be in financial therapy. They are in some manner forced, guilted, or manipulated into being there. Perhaps a spouse issues an ultimatum, or parents who want to stop financially enabling adult children insist on financial therapy. Even  someone who engages a financial therapist themselves may well feel a great deal of shame, as I did in my first attempt at therapy. You can want to be there, but that doesn’t mean that every part of you wants to be there.

The second reason that financial therapy may fail would be a lack of skills on part of the therapist. Just as in every profession, there’s a wide range of skills, training, and therapeutic approaches. Plus, financial therapy is complex because the therapist is required to understand financial planning as well as therapy.

A third reason is a lack of understanding of what therapy is. A psychologist once told me that the purpose of therapy was to be able to objectively tell your story. At the time I thought that was weird. Today, I understand that the key word is “objectively.” Many people think therapy is a place to vent your story about what’s happening. Venting inherently is not objective. It generally is focused on the other person and how if they would change life would be great. It may be necessary as part of the process, usually early on, but eventually venting needs to move into a more objective look at my 100% responsibility for my 50% in a relationship. 

The only thing I can control is what I am responsible for. What can I change? What can’t I change? Usually, I only have the power to change myself and my specific circumstances that I can control. So therapy is about gaining perspective and objectivity around your story. 

Another factor in unsuccessful financial therapy is a misplaced expectation that the therapist will give them advice, and most therapists will not do that. Certainly, providing financial information or education is part of financial therapy. But rarely will a financial therapist say, “This is what you need to do to fix your problem.”

There is often a “right” or “best” financial decision in a given situation. But that is not necessarily what every person should do. You, the client, are the ultimate decision maker to choose the best option for you when you’ve been given the necessary in information.

That’s just a start to exploring the reasons that financial therapy might fail. We’ll look at more of them next week. 

Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.

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