I’ve had a therapist for most of my adult life. Having someone I can talk to when I can’t make sense of things in my life, or struggle to find meaning in things that once seemed crystal clear, has been one of the best investments I’ve made.
While the topics my therapist and I discuss run the gamut — family dynamics, trauma, relationships — there is one particular topic that we’ve never really breached: Finances.
While financial discussions aren’t exactly what comes to mind when you think of a therapy session, the fact is: Money isn’t just about numbers — it’s a deeply emotional thing. No matter who you are or what your bank account looks like, chances are you’ve experienced stress, anger, or shame when thinking about money. On top of this, there are clear mental health links related to finances. For instance, the likelihood of having a mental health problem is three times higher among people who are in debt.
Regardless of whether we’ve realized it, each of us has inherited beliefs about money, usually from our families or from others close to us, and so the idea of money comes with a lot of baggage — whether we feel we have enough of it or not. So, when I was given the opportunity to speak with a financial therapist, I jumped on it.
Psychotherapist, financial therapist, and Prudential wellness advocate Amanda Clayman, came to her work after hitting rock bottom in her own financial life. At one point, she was facing tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, and experienced financial shame firsthand.
Today, Clayman works at the intersection of financial education and psychoeducation. When we first started our call, she asked me whether I consider myself to be more intuitive or more structured when it comes to money (after some thought, I said ‘structured’), and if I had any money-related habits that I felt deviated from the 'norm' or caused me a lot of stress — I did, I said.
For some context: I’m pretty on-track with my finances, statistically speaking. I have a high-interest savings account and a Roth IRA I regularly contribute to. I dabble in investment, regularly pay off my credit cards in full each month, and have an emergency savings account in case of, well, emergencies. And while a younger me — the one who lived paycheck to paycheck and once used a balance transfer to roll over credit card debt — would have marveled at my current situation, I’ll admit that financial anxiety is still a big part of my life.
I told this to Clayman, and what came next can only be described as a catharsis. To be able to unload some of my biggest financial stressors and insecurities to a trained psychotherapist who also is a financial expert was insightful. Clayman was able to tend to the emotions that came up while also offering me tools for how to start to address the problems. "It's a lot of emotional work," she said, as we discussed the fact that financial anxieties don’t just disappear the moment you have some money in a savings account. "The tough thing when it comes to money is that we can always find something to worry about. Because our money is never perfect."
Because money is still so private, many of us (including myself) prefer to avoid talking about it. From there, it’s easy to get swept away with fears about making rent, saving for retirement, or paying off a seemingly insurmountable debt. Preparing for an unknown future can be scary, but that’s why it’s important to develop emotional regulation strategies.
According to Clayman, feeling empowered about the future requires taking a look at how we’re managing our behavior in the here and now. She recommends asking ourselves: How much of our lives today do we want to dedicate toward inching up the likelihood of our being comfortable and taken care of tomorrow?
Beyond coping strategies, Clayman and I chatted about managing finances with a partner. She recommended identifying — and appreciating — one another’s strengths and keeping financial dialogue regular, whether things are going wrong or not. I was also able to learn more about how the brain works (against us, much of the time) and creates stress where it isn’t wanted or needed. “When we anticipate a gain, our brain lights up, but if we anticipate a loss in what we have, that shows twice the level of activation,” Clayman explained. This certainly explained a lot.
Ultimately, coming away from this session, I realized how important it is to consider the link between our finances and our emotions. Despite all the talk of "money moves" and the empowerment that can come along with financial stability, the fact remains: Money can be incredibly stressful. But, it is possible to create a healthy relationship with money, and to recognize that it is merely a tool that can help us create the life we want.
While it's great to develop strategies and systems that allow you to grow your savings account, improve your investment portfolio, or retire early, after speaking with Clayman I realize how important it is to take stock of the way finances impact your emotional well-being. Whether it’s financial therapy or some other mindfulness practice, finding a way to deal with the emotional and mental impact of money matters isn't just a good idea — it's necessary.