When Does Financial Advice Become Couples Therapy?

I had just finished giving a talk on the psychology of money to a group of professionals, and a participant waited in line to speak to me afterwards. The person before him took quite a while, so I figured whatever he had to tell me must be pretty important to him. With a passionate look in his eye, he approached me and said, “I don’t think any of this emotional stuff about money is my job. I am not a psychology professional, and I don’t want to pretend to be one. In fact, I think I am asking for liability problems if I start bringing up things I don’t know about. I am bound to get myself in trouble, and maybe make it worse for them. Clients come to me for investment and financial advice. That’s what I’m good at, and that’s what I’ll give them. End of story.”

If you work with financial advice, and especially couples, long enough, emotional issues come up. Many financial advisors tread lightly with​​, or even avoid,​ confronting emotions behind clients’​ spending, investing, and sharing decisions. What if a​ couple brings up something the advisor doesn’t know how to handle? What if it produces a big ugly argument? What if somehow they get blamed for starting it?

How does a quantitatively-skilled financial professional understand when they are being helpful, and when they might be causing harm? The best thing I have learned to do is simply help with awareness. There are two possible outcomes from it: 1) the awareness and talking out loud with a third party helps the couple come to their own compromise and resolution; or 2) the awareness and talking out loud helps the three of us realize that resolving it might require more help than I am able to give. In other words, I never presume I have an​ argument’s answer, but I

​am willing to explore whether they have the answer within themselves. The worst that happens is that I’m wrong, but at least then we all know it and own it, rather than ignore it.

How do we​ get to this place of awareness? Trying these questions:

1. Is this normally how the conversation goes when you talk about this issue?

2. How does it normally end up?

3. What have you considered doing about it?

4 (If necessary). It sounds like this is a place where you might be stuck, and could use some outside help to work through. How would you feel about doing more work on it with a counselor?

With two clients in the room, the importance of bringing up these issues is more than doubled. If a couple is handling money disagreements in an unhealthy way, studies show the relationship itself is at great risk. And breakups and divorces cause way bigger money problems than the typical argument subject. Keeping this fact in mind means financial advisors ​might ​have a vested interest in helping couples face difficult money issues. Focusing only on the numbers may seem easier, but in the long run, the story for all three people ​may not​ end nearly as well.

See this post on YouTube here: Advice vs. Therapy – Holly P. Thomas, CFP

Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® runs an hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice virtually from her Tampa Bay, Florida office. She also works with clients throughout the U.S. (except Texas) interested in retirement and tax planning advice without product sales or investment management. Holly is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch."

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Barry Kohler

    Another GREAT column, Holly! Very helpful to those who are reluctant to venture into such waters.

    1. Holly

      Thanks, Barry!

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