Early-Career Psychology

Troubled young couples who see Brad Klontz, PsyD, in his Kapaa, Hawaii, psychology practice often end up talking about more than their relationship with each other: They find themselves discussing their relationship with money, too.

"Some of the symptoms bringing them in—feeling depressed, feeling anxious, having panic attacks—they may not know how much the role of money is playing in those symptoms," says Klontz, a clinical psychologist and certified financial planner.

Unprecedented levels of student debt, high credit card debt and a dismal job outlook have presented some young couples with financial challenges their parents and grandparents didn't have to face. These days, more psychologists are stepping in to help couples tackle their financial burdens. Money stresses are nothing new for couples just starting out, but trying to resolve them in therapy is.

"There is a much greater awareness now among general psychologists that this is a very important issue to explore," says Philadelphia psychologist Maggie Baker, PhD, also an expert in financial issues.

To respond to the growing need for psychologists to talk to their clients about money management, Atlanta financial psychologist Mary Gresham, PhD, is spearheading an effort to launch an APA division of financial psychology. She's circulating a petition supporting its creation, and financial planners welcome her efforts.

"A trained, educated psychologist is a necessary component in certain financial planning relationships," says Paul Auslander, president of the Financial Planning Association. Some couples can benefit from behavior modification techniques to curb runaway spending or make spending compromises, he says. "But I suspect that there aren't enough financially trained psychologists to help couples coping with recession repercussions."

Combining households, combining money

A common scenario that brings on financial turmoil for newlyweds is that although they may have lived together before marriage, they failed to discuss their financial union before they said "I do," says Gresham. "They had operated under the roommate plan, where each one pays half of the expenses or one pays one set of bills and the other pays another set," she explains. But as they settled into married life, neither spouse knew what was going on with their partners' money. "Then they can't figure out how to collaborate, how to mix the money together."

Gresham looks at four issues with every couple: "math," values, emotions and process. To begin helping couples work through these issues, Gresham asks the couple to take an objective look at how they spend their money, using tracking software so they can see how their income is distributed among rent or a mortgage and other commitments. Baker takes a similar approach in beginning her work with couples. "It's important to get facts into the room," she says.

Seeing how much cash disappears in a $4 latte or a meal out can be a sobering experience. "The emotions start to come in all through this process," says Gresham. That's when she probes more deeply, asking couples about how their perceptions of money growing up affects them as adults. For example, children of cash-careful families may hoard their money as adults, while free-spending families may have kids who later on can't hang on to a paycheck. The reverse can happen, too.

"If a spender marries a hoarder, over time there's bound to be conflict," says Baker. "The spender loves the immediate gratification of spending, but for a hoarder it's almost painful to spend money."

A generational change

In Hawaii, Klontz is conducting research to understand couples and their finances, surveying 422 adults ages 18 to 80, with varying levels of income, education and net worth. His research, published last year in the Journal of the Financial Therapy Association, shows that younger adults are more likely than their parents or grandparents to have potentially damaging "money scripts"—subconscious beliefs that drive their financial behaviors. He found that adults 30 years old and younger were most likely to be "money avoiders" who become anxious, fearful or even disgusted when the conversation turns to money. Younger adults also were more likely to equate net worth with self-worth and to believe that the more money they have, the happier they will be.

These beliefs, Klontz says, are linked with lower income and net worth. People with these views may set themselves up for financial failure by simply ignoring money issues, giving assets away, gambling excessively or compulsively buying things they want but can't afford. "Very often in my work with couples, conflicts over money are really the result of conflicting money scripts," he says.

He uses a psychodynamic approach to examine clients' experiences with money in childhood. Living with a workaholic parent who pursued an ever-bigger paycheck but never was at home or being in a family that neglected life's necessities because parents hoarded cash could trigger present-day money troubles. "The more emotional the experience, the more rigidly these beliefs become locked in place," Klontz says.

Healing begins, he says, when a couple can open up to each other and be empathetic. "They may have very different attitudes about money, but if they can hear each other and respect each other, then they can come to a compromise" about sound money management.

"They become a money team instead of money adversaries," Gresham adds.


Rebecca Voelker is a writer in Chicago.