Fi­nan­cial ther­apy

Sound fa­mil­iar? Maybe it’s time you saw a fi­nan­cial ther­a­pist. Alex Holder meets the money doc­tor help­ing women to con­front their spend­ing habits and change their lives

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Meet the money doc­tor who will change your life

MAc­ney re­la­tion­ship with money has al­ways been spo­radic. Dur­ing years of ir­re­spon­si­ble fi­nan­cial be­hav­iour – pay­ing gas bills for flats I no longer lived in, com­mut­ing to work via taxi, throw­ing

pur­chases on to credit cards – I man­aged to make a few smart moves. Hav­ing a re­la­tion­ship with some­one older and more sen­si­ble meant I could buy a flat when I was 24. I was doggedly ca­reer-fo­cused and shrewd about job moves. But still, I’m of­ten anx­ious about money; I spend lots of time think­ing about it, but zero time ac­tu­ally bud­get­ing or plan­ning. Af­ter talk­ing to fi­nan­cial ad­vis­ers, the look of dis­ap­point­ment on their faces con­firmed my fear that I’ll al­ways be in­ept with money. That’s why now, aged 33, I’m sat in the of­fice of a fi­nan­cial ther­a­pist. Yes, you read that right. Imag­ine a psy­chother­a­pist armed with your bank state­ments. Ter­ri­fy­ing, isn’t it?

She’s called Si­monne Gnessen, she’s calm and – just like a nor­mal ther­a­pist – she’s ask­ing me how I feel, as well as how much I earn. She’s mak­ing me feel im­por­tant and safe as I sit op­po­site her ‘on the couch’ in her Brighton clinic, where a two-hour ses­sion will set me back £200. Within the first 10 min­utes, she knows about my par­ents’ di­vorce and my cur­rent in­come. ‘Are you more like your mum or dad in terms of your spend­ing habits?’ she asks. Yes, we’re go­ing there al­ready, but the ques­tion is rel­e­vant. Stud­ies show that our be­liefs about money can be set in child­hood*: if money was tight when you were grow­ing up, you might find spend­ing painful. If your par­ents were strict about sav­ing, spend­ing reck­lessly as an adult could be a way of re­belling. I spend like my live-in-the-mo­ment mum, but worry like my sen­si­ble statis­ti­cian dad, which is why I’m here. I’m in a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship… with money.

Fi­nan­cial ther­apy is one-on-one coach­ing that aims to trans­form your re­la­tion­ship with money. It’s a re­cent cre­ation, with the Fi­nan­cial Ther­apy As­so­ci­a­tion (FTA) only be­ing founded in 2010. Si­monne, who coau­thored the money-makeover book She­co­nomics, says the prac­tice ‘helps you to un­der­stand, and take con­trol of the un­con­scious way in which you be­have with money’. Be­ing a fi­nan­cial ad­viser for years meant she saw there wasn’t a ser­vice to help peo­ple ad­dress money is­sues that of­ten weren’t solely money is­sues. Si­monne ex­plains why more women than men seek her ser­vices: ‘There is still a gen­der pay gap, and het­ero­sex­ual re­la­tion­ships are of­ten di­vided along tra­di­tional lines, where women make short-term spend­ing de­ci­sions and men plan and in­vest for the fu­ture.’

Be­fore our ses­sion, I emailed Si­monne all the num­bers de­tail­ing my in­come, out­go­ings, as­sets, debts and sav­ings. It made me feel at my most vul­ner­a­ble: I’d rather have a naked selfie go viral than that email. But as she as­serts: ‘This is not about money, it’s about you.’ She wants me to walk out of this room em­pow­ered to live the life I want. And we don’t dis­cuss the fig­ures; in­stead, we talk about what I do for a liv­ing (I work at a fash­ion mag­a­zine), whether I spend enough time with my boyfriend and son (no), my anx­i­eties (I want to be a free­lancer, but I’m scared I’ll end up des­ti­tute) and the cost of the jeans I’m wear­ing (£59, & Other Sto­ries).

It’s lib­er­at­ing to be this hon­est about what I earn and how I spend. The last time I talked so openly about money was af­ter univer­sity, when I com­pared job of­fers with friends. I ask busi­ness psy­chol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor Nigel Ni­chol­son why it was ac­cept­able to talk about money back then, but not now. ‘Grad­u­ates have a pack men­tal­ity, where there’s no shame in be­ing at the bot­tom of the lad­der, be­cause they all are. Just like hunt­ing in a pack, each per­son ben­e­fits from shar­ing in­for­ma­tion. It gets dif­fi­cult when one be­comes more pow­er­ful than the oth­ers; re­veal­ing salaries cre­ates a peck­ing or­der and, for those at the bot­tom, a feel­ing of shame. That’s when the shar­ing stops.’ It’s Hun­terGatherer: The Grad­u­ate Years.

Shame comes up a lot in my ses­sion with Si­monne: shame at earn­ing less than some peers, shame at judg­ing a friend who moans about be­ing broke then drops £120 on make-up, shame about buy­ing ex­pen­sive clothes I never wear, even shame that I earn more than some friends who work harder than I do. Maybe if we all talked more we could erad­i­cate this feel­ing, as it’s of­ten some­thing we har­bour in se­cret.

I be­gin to re­alise that a lot of the is­sues peo­ple have sur­round­ing money can’t be solved by sim­ply hav­ing more of it. Si­monne ex­plains: ‘How we feel about money is far more im­por­tant than what we earn.’ To prove it, she de­scribes a girl who, de­spite mount­ing debt, can’t stop buy­ing rounds of drinks and pick­ing up the bill at din­ner. Si­monne stresses that this be­hav­iour can’t be solved by giv­ing her a bud­get; it’s about work­ing on her self-es­teem and mak­ing her re­alise that her friends like her for who she is, not just for her gen­eros­ity.

An­other client was so em­bar­rassed by a large in­her­i­tance that she wouldn’t in­vite peo­ple to her home in case they re­alised she couldn’t have af­forded it on her salary. She was wor­ried that the fi­nan­cial dif­fer­ence be­tween her and her friends would dam­age their re­la­tion­ships; Si­monne helped the client re­alise that her fear, and hid­ing things from her friends, was af­fect­ing her re­la­tion­ships more than the money it­self.

I think back to all the con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had with friends that felt in­au­then­tic be­cause money-re­lated parts of the story were miss­ing. I haven’t spo­ken to any­one about go­ing free­lance be­cause, to elicit any real ad­vice, I’d have to talk ac­tual fig­ures. Nigel ex­plains: ‘Money is such a pow­er­ful so­cial sym­bol. It’s so in­trin­si­cally tied to per­sonal iden­tity that talk­ing about money makes us ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble. With a salary, there is a very def­i­nite num­ber at­tached so you can bracket some­one. No one wants to feel like they’ve re­vealed too much or put them­selves up for di­rect com­par­i­son.’

I’d walked into Si­monne’s of­fice think­ing I was bad with money. Af­ter talk­ing through my life and fi­nances with her for two hours, I re­alise it’s not all neg­a­tive and I’m far from the lev­els of self-de­struc­tion I’d la­belled my­self with. Just like nor­mal ther­apy, when you hear your­self say things out loud, the so­lu­tion of­ten ap­pears as though it were ob­vi­ous all along. Un­like a nor­mal ther­a­pist, Si­monne is armed with hard facts in the form of bank state­ments, so she can point out the is­sues I’m blow­ing out of pro­por­tion. When I say I can’t stick to a bud­get, she coun­ters: ‘That is a self-lim­it­ing be­lief of yours.’ With that, I start to see that the things we re­peat to our­selves – ‘I couldn’t sur­vive with­out my part­ner’s money’ or ‘I can’t stick to a bud­get’ – be­come our truth. Si­monne’s an­swer to this is to start say­ing the ex­act op­po­site, and af­ter re­peat­ing ‘I can stick to a bud­get’ a few times, I re­ally think I can.

In a sim­i­lar vein, she tells me: ‘You get what you fo­cus on. Think about what you want, not what you don’t have.’ She asks me to vi­su­alise the new life I could lead if I be­came a free­lancer. Vi­su­al­i­sa­tion is a tech­nique that’s of­ten used in ther­apy for all man­ner of is­sues. And it works: once I’ve spent 10 min­utes in a world where I write from my kitchen table and take im­promptu af­ter­noons off to sun­bathe, it’s more dif­fi­cult to imag­ine my­self not do­ing it. This tech­nique can be used for other money is­sues, too: a client with mount­ing debt would think about how lib­er­at­ing it would be to be debt-free, rather than dwelling on the strug­gle to pay it off. It’s not rocket sci­ence, is it? But it is ef­fec­tive.

Some of my friends would ben­e­fit from see­ing a fi­nan­cial ther­a­pist. The one who never takes a hol­i­day be­cause she can’t say no to earn­ing. The one who won’t ad­dress prob­lems with his boyfriend be­cause he’s too fi­nan­cially de­pen­dent on the re­la­tion­ship (fi­nan­cial ther­a­pists call this ‘the golden cage’). The one who won’t ask for a pay rise be­cause she doesn’t think she de­serves one. Si­monne makes me re­alise that it’s not about how much money you have, it’s about how you think about it. I leave her of­fice feel­ing braver and know­ing that talk­ing about fi­nances helps. Sorry, friends, I’m go­ing to start chat­ting money – if shar­ing my fi­nan­cial highs and lows helps just one friend get out of a money funk, well, there’s no shame in that.

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