Is It a Money Problem? Understanding Your Relationship to Money
The different ways we feel about money and spending might say more about us than we realise
Therapist Vicky Reynal explores how our attitude to money can tied to deeper aspects of our personality and character, which may have been set down in childhood
Therapists and counsellors can support you on a number of issues, even your relationship to money – find your therapist here
Money – we use it and misuse it. A lot has been written on people’s complicated relationship with food or sex, but not enough has been written on people’s relationship with money. Money can get in the way of relationships with partners, family and in the way of happiness. But why?
As a psychotherapist, I repeatedly see people who present with money problems. We often discover that the difficulty is not just about, say, controlling spending or negotiating the home finances with your partner, but about deep-rooted emotional difficulties which show themselves through our attitude to our finances.
I recently saw a client who was unable to negotiate his salary. Despite knowing that he was underpaid (compared to colleagues, previous salary, and the market), he just accepted what he was offered. This was the case until he faced the fact that money was just one way in which he expressed his sense of not feeling 'good enough'. Even though at work he felt very capable yet underpaid, this wasn’t about work at all: these were feelings that belonged to his childhood and only once he understood this, he was able to ask for what he deserved at work.
Money problems come in different disguises
Some of the common sentences I hear from clients who struggle with money problems are: “I can’t spend without feeling guilty”; “I know I shouldn’t, but I overspend when I am feeling sad”; “I am too worried of making the wrong decision”; “It’s never enough.”
It is no surprise that in the United States there is a growing number of financial therapists – people with training both in finance and mental health who help those struggling emotionally, with money.
In a recent survey on the link between mental health and finances, 72% of respondents said their mental health problems made their financial situation worse, and 93% of respondents reported spending more than usual when their mental health was poor [i].
Why does this happen?
Money can be a powerful symbol. It is a tool through which we can express a variety of emotions:
- People may overspend to deal with their low moods (often known as 'shopping therapy') or with feelings of low self-worth (spending to boost perceived status)
- They may withhold money from someone to express anger, resentment or even to act out issues with control, or be victims of financial abuse
- People may express pessimism or fears by becoming 'money hoarders', not investing, not spending because nothing feels hopeful about either of those activities
- Feelings of an internal void may be expressed through an insatiable accumulation of wealth, an attitude of “it’s never enough, I need more”
- Fears of failure or judgement may get in the way of addressing a growing debt
- In some case, unresolved feelings about a previous financial trauma may get in the way of people having a healthy relationship with money
Are your emotions getting in the way of your bank balance? Ask yourself these questions:
1. What do I want to change?
Sometimes just putting into words what your difficulty is can come a long way. People often deny their money difficulties and sit for years with a sense of unease before they can utter the words, “I wish I could stop accumulating debt” or “I wish I could find the courage to ask for a raise” or “I wish I could have an honest conversation with my partner about our finances”
2. What is the emotion that I find hard?
Translating the difficulty into emotional language can help understand the cause of it. Often people speak of "anxiety” but actually there are specific feelings associated with the anxiety, which sit just beneath the surface. If you feel anxious when you are spending money on yourself, ask what is the feeling? Is it guilt? Is it fear of making a "wrong” decision? Is it a sense of loss, of parting with the money?
3. When did the problem start?
Sometimes a trigger event may point to the roots of the problem. Imagine a person whose family suffered great losses in a financial crisis and they become very risk averse as a result. They will have to understand what impact the family’s loss has had on their ability to make rational decisions about their wealth. They might need to mourn the losses before they can move on.
4. What does money represent in my relationships?
For example, if you find yourself feeling resentful that your partner isn’t contributing equally to finances, ask yourself whether money isn’t just one way in which you are feeling angry with your partner. Addressing the overall building resentment might create grounds from which the financial imbalance can be talked about / negotiated.
If you have answered some of these questions you will have already begun a journey towards understanding the problem in greater depth. If answering these questions has left you wondering what’s behind your difficulties or practical advice hasn’t worked and you feel stuck, then it might be time to seek professional help.