Financial Infidelity & Other Reasons You May Need a Financial Therapist

financial infidelity relationships money counseling
SheKnows article by Sarene Leeds. A financial therapist might be the thing you and your partner need. Photos Courtesy of Getty Images Danielle Giarratano/sheknows

We live in an era where almost nothing is taboo. People hardly bat an eye anymore at once-controversial topics like politics, sex, or mental health. There is, however, one subject that, according to a 2022 study, more than 50% of Americans still consider forbidden in regular conversation: Money. 

“The social norms around this are that you wouldn’t dare ask a friend how much money they make,” says Debra Kaplan, a licensed therapist, financial expert, and co-author of Coupleship, Inc, which explores the idea that a solid financial partnership is vital to a solid romantic partnership. But if people aren’t having these kinds of conversations, whether it’s socially or with a partner, Kaplan explains, “how will they recognize that there’s nothing wrong with seeking out help?” 

Enter the financial therapist, a relatively new specialization that focuses on creating healthier relationships with money. The Financial Therapy Association (FTA), which formed a little over a decade ago, offers certified financial therapy training (CFT) to a range of professionals, including mental health clinicians, financial coaches, and financial planners. Though it’s imperative to note that even if someone has a CFT certificate, this credential doesn’t necessarily make them a practicing mental health therapist. “The CFT is designed to be a credential that demonstrates knowledge, that you have been able to understand that there is this intersection of money and mental health and emotional well-being,” explains Saundra Davis, a financial coach, a founding member of the FTA, and the director of financial planning programs at Golden Gate University. “But I don’t call myself a ‘therapist.’” 

So What Does a Financial Therapist Do?

Distinguishing between financial therapists, financial planners, and financial coaches can be confusing. But finding the right kind of professional help depends on your individual needs, and/or the needs of you and your partner, so it’s important to understand your options before reaching out to practitioners.  

Davis lays this all out in a framework she developed called the Continuum of Financial Wellbeing. In short, “Financial coaching is about accountability. Financial therapy is about healing,” she says.

“A financial therapist works with clients around thoughts, feelings, behaviors, body sensations and reactions, relationship dynamics, and their sense of self,” says Ed Coambs, a licensed therapist, financial planner, and author of The Healthy Love & Money Way. “And those things are all deeply interwoven together.” Kaplan adds that financial therapists “help clients have a healthier relationship with each other about money, and to money itself.” RELATED STORYDating Someone With Similar Spending Habits Helped Heal My Relationship to Money

Why People Might Consider Working With a Financial Therapist

Financial infidelity

Financial infidelity is a significant reason for couples to consider the financial therapy route because it covers such a broad spectrum. “Financial infidelity can be as simple as keeping secrets from a partner,” explains Kaplan. “This can be as serious as having separate bank accounts, or [spending money] in service of sexual infidelity.” Financial infidelity can also manifest in separate or unknown credit cards: “Couples find out that one of the partners may be holding onto a credit card, or two, or three, or maxing out a line of credit to pay for a bill that the one individual doesn’t know about,” Kaplan says. Any “discovered debt,” she clarifies, is financial infidelity, and that translates to a breach of trust in the relationship. 

Financial anxiety or avoidance

Lindsay Bryan-Podvin is a licensed social worker with certifications in financial therapy and financial social work, and the author of The Financial Anxiety Solution. She says that although it’s normal for people to feel a little anxious on payday, it may be time to consider professional help when “anxiety, worry, shame, or any other pain point is impacting [your] ability to function.” If you can’t sleep because you’re worrying about money, or your constant anxiety about your finances causes you to forget to pick up your kid from daycare, “that’s a cue to get financial therapy,” she says. Also, when avoidance becomes a normal response, as in, you’re refusing to even look at your finances, “there’s your sign that financial therapy might be a really good fit for you,” says Coambs.

Arguments due to differing financial philosophies

Everyone brings unique perspectives to a relationship, and that includes individual financial philosophies. But a major red flag can be when someone doesn’t feel “seen, valued, heard, or cared about for their perspective and approach to money by their partner,” says Coambs. “If you’re being criticized or shamed or guilted around what you’re doing or not doing with money,” he warns, “that’s a big sign that there’s some help needed there.” Kaplan also emphasizes that working with a financial therapist can “honor both individuals, because it’s not about one or the other, but the couple’s relationship with money.” 

What Are the Benefits of Working With a Financial Therapist?

Couples can benefit from working with a financial therapist because this is a neutral, third party not emotionally tied to the argument, who can offer an unbiased perspective. “A financial therapist is able to see things that the couple are too close to be able to see,” says Kaplan. These practitioners can spot underlying conflicts that fuel the fights about debt or spending or lack of savings, and they make sure each party is being heard. From there, Kaplan says, the financial therapist can help couples figure out “what their common ground is, instead of being stuck in ‘MY position versus YOUR position.’” 

By working to understand the root causes of their clients’ money issues, says Coambs, a financial therapist helps people move away from an anxious and/or avoidant approach to a more “thoughtful and reflective” one. He offers a very common scenario as an example: A husband and wife would argue over the wife’s shopping patterns. In therapy, however, they discovered that the husband’s criticisms resulted from his own financially insecure upbringing, whereas the wife grew up affluent. “As they were able to reflect on their own history with money,” explains Coambs, “it built empathy between them. They moved out of seeing each other as the villain, and more as a person who has very real experiences that shape what’s going on.” 

Ultimately, being able to have constructive conversations about money is one of the main benefits of working with a financial therapist. If a couple avoids having conversations about their finances because they tend to end in arguments, working with a financial therapist can help partners “find a healthy way to communicate about money on a regular schedule, without explosions, going off the rails, or name-calling,” says Bryan-Podvin.

Why Does Everyone Need Financial Guidance? 

Even if you’re not constantly fighting with your partner over money or ignoring your credit card bills, it’s never a bad idea to consult with a financial expert. “We can’t see our blind spots,” advises Davis. “It’s so important to have a personal financial professional on your team because you don’t know what you don’t know.” 

It’s also important to remember how fundamental money is to our existence, yet, ironically, most of us go through life without ever learning how to manage our finances. So it’s worth improving your financial literacy: “Many of us have grown up without the benefit of education around money,” explains Kaplan. “It wasn’t taught in schools, and we’re often learning through what we see being modeled.” This can sometimes be a problem because “that modeling isn’t always healthy.” 

If anything, seeking out financial guidance, whether it’s from a therapist, coach, or planner, is just a shrewd life hack. Coambs encourages a proactive financial mindset because “there’s a compounding effect to delaying [financial advice]. It’s much harder to recover once you get to your 50s.” The sooner individuals, whether they’re single or in a partnership, start working on their relationship with money, the better the potential outcome.