Experts Say This Is A Key Sign You Have An Unhealthy Relationship With Money

It might be time to see a financial psychologist.

by Natalia Lusinski
Margaret Flatley/TZR, Tetra, PM, Steven Puetzer/Getty Images, Lumina, Federica Giacomazzi/Stocksy
relationship with money

When it comes to money and budgeting, it’s often easier said than done. You may have the best of intentions — you’ll eat out less this month and put the money into your savings account instead. But then life happens. Just like working through any other life, fitness, or wellness issue, a little introspection is often the ticket. If you want to get your finances back in order, a financial psychologist or money mindset coach can help. It all starts with getting your head in the right place.

“Whenever things are in order, it brings us a sense of peace,” Severine Bryan, DBA, financial empowerment educator and coach, and founder of Sev Talks Money, tells TZR in an email. “Having our finances in order doesn't necessarily mean we are debt-free, but it allows us to have a clear picture of where we are at. It is very important to know what is coming in and what is going out so we are not flying blind.”

She says she likes to think of organizing finances like taking a trip to New York City. “I can leave Georgia and end up in California if I don't know the details of the trip and if I don’t put specific plans in place,” she explains. “When I have a plan, I will go directly to NYC. And even if I take a detour, I will know how to get back on track to get there.” Ahead, Bryan and two other financial coaches explain how they help clients get back on track — and why it’s never too late to do so.

What A Financial Coach Does

Whether you consult a financial psychologist, money mindset coach, or similar type of financial expert, they all do variations of the same thing — help you figure out your relationship to money and how your past (upbringing) affects your present spending and saving habits. “Part of what we're doing in financial therapy is to be able to really look with clarity at our circumstances — and how those circumstances change from moment to moment,” Financial Therapist Amanda Clayman tells TZR. She aims to help clients learn how to use certain strategies to get a money routine or practice in place.

Bryan adds that a financial coach can also help clients set financial goals, create a plan to achieve those goals, and provide accountability to help them follow the plan. “We also help the client dig deep to find what motivates them to achieve certain goals,” she explains. “Because, many times, the goal is not money, but the things that money provides, such as freedom to make choices.” This can mean anything from wanting to eat out to buying a particular car or taking a certain vacation. “I think of a financial coach similarly to a football coach,” she adds. “The football coach gives the plays during training, but on game day, the quarterback is the one that has to make the calls.”

Finances can be a very difficult topic to discuss, Taryn Bushrod, money mindset coach and founder of Taryn’s World, tells TZR in an email. “Doing so exposes people’s vulnerabilities, and that can be extremely uncomfortable,” she says. “The first thing I do with a new client is build a relationship, so they are comfortable enough to start sharing pertinent information I need in order to help them start seeing results.” She then focuses on behavioral factors that impact spending. “In doing so, you can identify the root cause of your actions and redirect your spending habits, which, in turn, could result in redirecting your funds.”

Similarly, Bryan points out that it helps to think of money as a tool. “Society has conditioned us to think that money is hard and handling it requires a degree,” she says. “But it really is not hard. We can learn to use the tool of money properly, just like we may have learned to navigate a college campus at one point. When we enter the college world, we learn where the cafeteria is, where classrooms are, when assignments are due, and so on.” She points out that we had none of that knowledge when we started college. However, four years later, we have become pros and may even be giving directions to others.

She suggests looking at money in the same way. “Take the first step by understanding where your money is going by creating a spending plan,” she says. “Then, once you know all the places your money is going, you can begin to tell it where to go. You want to manage your money instead of having it manage you.”

Piggybacking on this idea, instead of focusing on cutting costs, per se, Clayman says that it’s best to come up with a spending system when you sit down and look at your finances. For example, with eating out, maybe you figured out that you can afford to do so twice a week. “This means you're not sitting there on a Wednesday, wondering if you deserve to go buy yourself a sandwich because you're working hard and you're tired,” she says. “You've already made that decision, essentially, and have the answer.” In other words, if you already ate out twice this week, you reached your (sandwich/eating-out budget) quota and the answer would be no in this case.

And when it comes to impulse buys, Clayman says try to delay, as well as to assess how you’re feeling and what’s causing you to want to make this purchase. Perhaps you’re feeling insecure about something and feel the red dress you’re eyeing will help. “Set a timer for 30 seconds and just sit quietly with yourself and hold the feeling and allow the emotion to come forward,” she says. “It may be the thing that helps that impulse feel not quite so compulsive.” Personally, Clayman says she lets things sit in her online shopping cart for a week before deciding whether or not to buy it. This way, you can see whether the items were things you really need or impulse buys based on how you were feeling that moment you added them to your cart.

How To Figure Out If You Need A Financial Coach

First things first, Clayman stresses to not beat yourself up regarding how you’ve spent your money and have now decided to seek help. She says many people may feel isolated or ashamed regarding their financial life. “They feel like there's probably something that they ‘could’ or ‘should’ have done to avoid their current financial circumstance,” she says. “But there's often a lot going on in how we come to those kinds of conclusions.”

Bushrod adds that finances can impact every single thing we do. “But the way you handle your money is a direct reflection of your mindset,” she says. “This also impacts your mood, your general responses, and the outlook you have on your life.” She says an indicator that you may need a money coach depends on if you’re hitting your financial goals or if you need help achieving them. She adds that a lack of financial education, exposure, and transparency are the main reasons people have difficulty managing their money and may seek, and need, help.

Bryan, too, says it’s easy to figure out if you need some financial coaching — anything that requires a decision around money. For example, perhaps you can't see your way out of a financial hole. “In this case, it is good to see a coach so you can get a plan in place to help you prevent getting into that hole,” she says. “Or you may need a coach if you got a raise, need to make a decision between two job offers, want to start your own business, want to buy a home, are planning to have a child, or any number of major financial decisions.”

She says a coach can be helpful at every stage of life and suggests people get one as soon as they get out of college. “This way, you can get strategies to help manage your money,” she explains. “A coach can help map out expenses and provide guidance with your financial choices.” However, she says it is important to keep in mind that a coach typically does not provide life insurance, investment advice, and so forth, but can educate you on those topics. “And another thing to note is that personal finance is personal and never static,” she says. “Plans will change as we change, and plans are never cookie-cutter and never should be.”

Where People Get Their Money Mindset

Have you ever thought about where you got your money mindset? “The way we learn about money is, first and foremost, from our family,” says Clayman. She says there are four key things you pick up from them: messages they give you about money; experiences you have; the emotional tone around those messages and experiences (like a high level of tension around it); and then the way you’ve come to understand money based on those three things.

“If we think of our body as the hardware, what we learn in our family about money is our 1.0 version of our software,” she says. “This is in terms of understanding the importance of money, how money matters in terms of the kind of life that you get to lead, the kinds of social groups you belong to, and so on.” And then your job is to take that program out into the world and test it. “You see if that programming is really helpful for you,” she says. “Does it help you make good choices? Does it help you end up in circumstances that you feel comfortable in?”

She gives an example of how someone can be raised by accountants, but they want to be an entrepreneur or an artist and were given a lot of messages about how important money was. But then they see everyone around them, who thought money was important, is also really unhappy. “And so they're going into their life determined to deemphasize the importance of money,” says Clayman.

Bryan echoes this sentiment. “Our money values and stories are shaped by our past experiences, especially from our younger days,” says Bryan. “This includes the way our parents handled, and/or talked about money (or lack thereof), the way our friends and family dealt with money, and the way it’s portrayed in society (whether that’s TV shows, social media, etc.). They all inform our money views.” She says two people can grow up in the same household, and yet their views of money can be at opposite ends of the spectrum. “For instance, maybe someone refuses to spend money on themselves and saves just about every penny because they may have grown up in a house where there was always a lack of money,” she says. “In their minds, they can never have enough money, because they don't want to have that lack. The opposite happens, too, where someone coming from a lifestyle of lack will spend every penny because they are compensating for not having that ability in childhood.”

Bryan says this is why financial therapy really needs to play a bigger role in financial coaching. “Money is never about money — it is about emotions,” she explains. “Once we understand the underlying driver that influences how we look at money, through financial therapy, we can do a better job of coaching because we will know how to motivate our clients, or know what motivates them.”

When Clayman starts working with a new client, similar to non-financial therapy, she says she likes to hear the client's perception of the money-related problem they’re having. Is it something that they are doing and have the power to change? Or is it something that's happening to them or as a result of external circumstances? “When we look at a spectrum of behavior from surviving to thriving, there are a lot of financial issues that are absolutely survival problems,” she adds. Clayman also says financial therapy is not just for individuals, but couples, as well. “I have worked with all kinds of couples, from romantic partners to parents of adult children to business and creative partners even. Two business partners are a great couple to work with in couples financial therapy, for instance.”

Clayman says it's about figuring out what you can do and then trying to do that consistently. Although you may feel like your financial circumstances have power over you — as opposed to you having power over them — that’s not true. “You have a very high degree of control,” she says. Even sitting down in a chair and dedicating a certain amount of time to money matters is better than avoiding it and then constantly thinking, and worrying, about it. “You're working a lot harder that way as opposed to coming up with a reliable, sustainable level of effort and just working from there,” she adds.

No, It’s Not Too Late To Get Back On Track Financially

Let’s say you still have a ton of student loan debt to pay off, as well as some “emergency” credit cards and other debts. It may all seem overwhelming, with no end in sight. But Bushrod says it’s never too late. “Sometimes, we have to start over every year, every month, and, on occasion, every day,” she says. “Life is the one constant that will keep happening to us, and life events — such as weddings, funerals, raises, and job loss — can cause us to abruptly change course.”

Bryan agrees. “Depending on other things going on in our lives, it may take a while, but it is very possible to get back on track financially,” she says. She uses herself as an example. “I went through a divorce in my mid-50s. I was upside-down on my mortgage (the home was valued less than the balance of my loan), had no savings (because I had to use it to pay my lawyer), and because I walked away from my house, my credit score went from in the high 700s to the low 500s.” She says that now, five years later, she has a six-figure net worth, a five-figure savings account, and that her credit score is back in the 700s. “I could have said I am ‘too old’ to start over, but I became intentional in rebuilding my finances for my future self. Intentionality is what it’s all about.”