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Five ways to improve your relationship with money, according to financial therapists

The economy is looking uncertain, but that doesn’t mean your money mindset has to suffer.

Financial therapy — a burgeoning field that blends the fields of mental health and financial planning — can offer some insights on how to improve your money mindset.Nuthawut via Adobe Stock Image/Nuthawut - stock.adobe.com

The question for Americans is no longer whether they’re stressed about money, but just how stressed they are.

The American Psychological Association’s latest Stress in America survey, released last month, found that 66 percent of respondents listed money as either a very or somewhat significant source of stress in their lives. And this sort of stress can affect the mind and body, leading to ailments like migraines, sleep problems, and depression, according to Tufts Health Plan.

“Money is critical to our sense of safety and protection about the future,” said Amanda Clayman, a Los Angeles-based financial therapist. Given the myriad uncertainties in the world, she said, “it’s really hard to get ourselves to that feeling of safety anymore.”

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There’s little most of us can do about inflation, surging interest rates, and the possibility of a recession. But we can take steps to adopt a healthier mindset about these issues.

This is where an emerging field called financial therapy — blending the fields of mental health and financial planning — can offer some insights. The Globe spoke with several of these specialists and other financial experts around the country. Here is their advice.

Get organized

It may seem obvious, but being aware of your financial state is crucial to financial well-being.

“Often, financial anxiety comes from just not knowing the specifics of your situation and then imagining worst-case scenarios,” said Kate Yesyev, a financial social worker based in Northampton.

Looking at your financial information — bank statements, credit card bills, projections — should be a regular routine so that “we’re not always looking at money as a problem to be solved,” Clayman said.

Erika Wasserman, a Florida-based financial therapist, suggests printing out your bank statement and highlighting in yellow the purchases that brought you joy, and in blue the purchases that didn’t feel as good.

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For the yellow, consider if “there are different ways to still get the joy that you’re looking for that fit within your lifestyle and the salary that you’re bringing home,” Wasserman said. For example, if you love trying new foods, could you learn some new recipes instead of dining out?

For the items in blue, ask yourself how you can change them. If it’s something big, like rent, does that mean it might be time to consider a new apartment?

Whether you use the printout method or a financial planning app like Mint or Upwise, make an attempt to “be mindful and grounded as we’re doing financial tasks,” Clayman said. She suggests working calming rituals — lighting a candle, taking three deep breaths, clearing a table — into the process of looking at your money to form pleasant associations.

Look inward

The attitudes and behaviors we have around money are baked in as early as childhood, financial therapists say. This is when we learn subconscious “money stories,” financial narratives that we carry into adulthood, said Jennifer Calder, a Vermont-based financial therapist.

Calder suggests considering what financial messages your family might have ingrained in you, consciously or subconsciously. Growing up, was money revered in your household? Feared? Ignored?

The next step is to ask yourself: “Am I just following up the patterns of my family in the past? Or can I really take a hold of things and change it for myself?” said Megan McCoy, the director of the financial therapy masters program at Kansas State University.

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It’s important not to judge your financial outlook, but to make it work for your lifestyle, said Michigan-based financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin. For example, financial hypervigilance may have helped you get a good mortgage rate, but it might not be serving you to drive across town for cheaper groceries.

“Once we have a theme or a pattern, then we can start asking ourselves, how much does that behavior or that thought actually work for me?” she said.

Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist, at her home in Los Angeles on Aug. 3, 2022. Mark Abramson/NYT

Examine your feelings and values

“We can think of values as, what do I want money to fuel in my life? What do I want more of, and how is money my partner in having that quality of experience?” said Clayman. In your life, for example, do you want to prioritize stability? Adventure? Generosity?

When you go through your financial statements, make sure that your spending aligns with your values, Calder said. If you value adventure and are saving up for a vacation, it might be empowering to scale back on other expenses.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as building in a pause, and then asking themselves, ‘Is this use of money really bringing me the life I want?’” said Wendy Wright, a Denver-based financial therapist.

And remember, Clayman said, that everybody has different financial values. When talking about your priorities with others, be sure to use subjective statements, like, “Here’s what’s important to me, here’s what I’m hoping is going to happen from this decision or choice,” she said.

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Communicate

Talking about money, long considered taboo, is another hurdle in improving your financial dynamics.

“We tend to close ourselves off, and we have not seen that to be successful in any other areas of wellness, and it’s not the way to be successful with your financial relationship either,” Wasserman said.

When planning to talk about finances with an employer or a partner, don’t do it in the heat of the moment, Yesyev said. “Make it more like a date or an appointment.”

These conversations should not be one-time deals: Make them frequent and focused, limiting the discussion to one to three topics to avoid getting overwhelmed, Wright said.

One of the things to remind people is they’re not just going to have one money conversation, they’re going to have hundreds,” she said.

Speaking in the present tense can also help reframe your financial concerns.

“Use the words ‘right now.’ ‘Right now, paying my mortgage is painful.’ ‘Right now, I’m strapped for cash,’” Wasserman said. “It is not a forever statement.”

If it’s still tough to discuss, just remember the old adage: Practice makes perfect.

“The more we talk about it, the easier it becomes, the more we realize that we’re not alone in this journey,” Bryan-Podvin said.

Take a deep breath

During this time of economic uncertainty, it’s important to keep things in perspective.

“People are focused on, what is the market doing this week, this month, this year,” said Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist. “And the only time that would matter at all is if you were a short-term investor.”

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The shame we can feel when we’re worried about money is not conducive to making sound financial decisions, since we are “trying to deal with our initial distress in the moment, very focused on the present, not thinking about the future,” Clayman said.

When you can, take a moment to come out of survival mode before making any financial choices, said Calder, who encourages people to “slow the decision-making process down to let the emotions calm down, to then be able to access the more logical part of their brain.”

And remind yourself that this too shall pass.

“The economy is always kind of shifting,” Bryan-Podvin said. “This won’t last forever, and that there are, of course, things that you can do to properly weather the storm.”


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com. Follow her @danagerber6.