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Stressed about money? Financial therapy can help

Kristy Archuleta (Photo by Cal Powell)

Money is universally acknowledged as a cause of anxiety, but research led by a University of Georgia professor indicates that a small amount of financial planning can make a big difference.

Spending just 20 minutes setting financial goals can provide short-term relief from overall financial anxiety, according to a study led by Kristy Archuleta and published in the journal Contemporary Family Therapy.

“If you’re feeling anxious about your money situation, you should seek help,” said Archuleta, associate professor in UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “Even just setting your financial goals can make a difference, and there are a variety of professionals you can turn to.”

Previous research has suggested that if someone is really anxious, they’re less likely to seek help, according to Archuleta. The study sought to determine if it was possible to reduce anxiety via brief goal-setting sessions—a strategy that might lead to further change and improved financial well-being.

“Wouldn’t it be great if in just 20 minutes, you could lower financial anxiety and encourage people to continue seeking help?”

For the study, Archuleta and a team of researchers from several institutions applied a tool called Solution-Focused Financial Therapy to a financial goal-setting session. This observation-based approach was developed by mental health professionals but has been used in a variety of settings, including business coaching and nursing.

“Instead of asking, ‘What are your financial goals?’ it asks, ‘What are your best hopes for your financial future?’” Archuleta said. “The goal is to help clients build a bigger picture of what the future is going to look like. Once clients can visualize their future, they are likely more motivated to do the things that are good for them to reach their goals. Then we can tap into their strengths to start breaking it down into smaller doable steps to help them move toward meeting those goals.”

The researchers conducted pre- and post-tests with 50 clients who met with financial planning students to create financial goals. The tests were used to assess the clients’ self-reported levels of anxiousness, irritability, worry, muscle tenseness, fatigue and overall anxiety as related to their financial situation.

The results indicated that after the sessions, the clients reported significant decreases in anxiousness (22%), irritability (15%), muscle tenseness (21%) and overall anxiety level (16%). The results for worry and fatigue were not statistically significant, but did show decreases of 9% and 7%, respectively.

With that in mind, consumers should consider their options for seeking financial help, according to Archuleta. There are financial professionals with strong technical skills; mental health professionals trained to deal with emotions, behaviors and relationships; and financial therapists, who have training in both areas.

“Financial therapy is a relatively new formalized area of study and practice. It comprises a variety of different disciplines, like financial planning, financial counseling, marriage and family therapy, psychology and social work, that intersect and work together,” she said. “We look at how behavior, thought patterns, emotions and relationships—with spouses or family members, for example—intersect with money and how that impacts one’s financial and overall well-being.”

In 2019, the Financial Therapy Association (Archuleta is co-founding board member and past president) launched a certified financial therapist designation that’s intended for both financial and mental health professionals. The organization’s website includes a tool to search for financial therapists in your area.

If you can’t find a financial therapist in your community, don’t despair. There are many additional types of service providers, including financial planners, financial counselors and financial coaches. Archuleta recommends doing your homework, researching service providers to ensure that they’re certified by the national association for their area of expertise, if applicable.

“Consumers should look for a professional who is a fiduciary—in other words, they must work in the client’s best interest,” she said. “If I want to do long-range financial planning, I’m likely to use a certified financial planner. If I need help paying down my credit, I am likely to go see a financial counselor. If I need help improving my financial skill set and how I use that skill set in daily life, I am likely to see a financial coach.”

In addition, mental health professionals like marriage and family therapists can provide help for a couple who is fighting about money by working with the underlying dynamics that are contributing to the conflict.

“Financial services and mental health services are very diverse. But we’re all working to help someone improve their overall well-being,” Archuleta said. “That’s the goal.”