Saturday, March 12, 2011

Send Your Finances to Therapy

Thinking about money can be confusing and overwhelming, especially when your money situation is as out of control as mine used to be. No matter what state our finances are in, we tend to think about money in terms of something else we understand. This week, as I've worked on plans to return to providing therapy part time, I realize there are similarities between the way I view my money and the way I work with my clients.

Any time you go to therapy, the first order of business is assessment. The therapist will ask all kinds of questions to find out your history and what brought you to where you are now. Many clients are nervous about sharing their life story with a stranger, and often they aren't completely honest at the first appointment. That's okay - the therapist expects that - but it does slow down the process a little.

Assessment is also the first step in changing your financial life. Before you can make any kind of change, you have to look at where you are and how you got there. That means making a list of all your debts and account balances, which is nerve-wracking, but it also means being honest with yourself about why and how you spend. Until you are able to discern the root of the problem, you won't be able to do anything about it. And just like in therapy, this first step is one of the hardest. It's not enough to say you spend too much or save too little. You need to determine your priorities - both the ones you think you hold and the ones you actually do hold - and the real reasons for the choices you make.

The next step in therapy is planning. Based on what the therapist knows about your situation, s/he will work with you to decide what needs to change and how. This is solely based on your personal goals and your comfort level, and the plan can change throughout the therapeutic relationship. You will determine an overall objective - What do I want to get out of this? - and measurable goals to help you reach that objective.

For example, a depressed person comes to therapy because they want to feel better. That's the objective. The therapist would talk with them about how depression affects them personally (can't get out of bed, isolating from others, crying) and what signs would tell the client that the depression is better (spending time with friends, crying less, getting out of bed when the alarm goes off). The goals, then, are designed to move away from the negative effects and toward the positive ones. The person may work toward going out with friends twice a month at first, for instance, or setting limits on the behaviors they don't like (I'll only hit the snooze button 5 times each morning, then I'll get up).

Financial planning is the same way. Your objective might be to get out of debt, to become a millionaire, or maybe just to stop overdrawing your bank account every month. You can't make up an objective based on what other people do; it has to be personalized or it won't matter enough for you to follow through. Once you've determined your goal, you need some concrete actions to take in order to reach it. These are what Dave Ramsey calls "baby steps." If they are unrealistic or too ambitious, you may get discouraged. Think of small things you can do. Don't say you aren't going to eat at restaurants at all any more, because it's too easy to slip up once and think, Well, I already failed at my goal, so I'll just continue spending. Instead, start by taking your lunch to work on Tuesdays and putting the $10 you would have spent into savings. Once that becomes pretty comfortable, take lunch on Thursdays as well. Before long you'll make a change that is sustainable and doesn't seem too painful.

At this point in therapy, you are working. You've identified the small things you want to do, and you're trying them out. You may discover that some of your small goals could be expanded, or that some of them aren't achievable. That's why I said your plan will change constantly throughout the process. It's all about discovering what works. During this stage, it's important to notice your thoughts and feelings and how they relate to your actions.

For example, last weekend I slipped up and went shopping. Looking back, I realized I was feeling stressed, which led to thoughts like, I deserve to get something new. That's one of those underlying issues that I caught during the assessment phase of my financial journey - I justify spending sometimes because it makes me feel better. A therapist would point that out as resisting cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance happens when your expectations and experience don't match, and you rationalize the experience to match the expectations. As human beings, we don't like that yucky feeling when we do something wrong, so we try to get rid of it. I knew that buying a pair of sneakers and a print for my wall went against my goals, but I tried to convince myself that this was a special circumstance. That way I wouldn't be held accountable for the poor choice I made. Learning to sit with cognitive dissonance and accept mistakes is a large part of any effort to change.

So at this point, you have assessed your situation, made a plan, and worked toward your goals. With minor adjustments along the way, you are actively engaged in the change process. The longer you take your baby steps, the more they solidify into a habit. After awhile, you won't need your plan any more because you're automatically doing what you need to do to meet your goals (personal or financial). In therapy, this would be the point where you feel pretty good and don't need to see a therapist any longer. That's not to say you may not need help again in the future! It just means that you've achieved what you needed to at that moment.

Personally, I'm still working on my financial treatment goals. I've implemented lots of baby steps like automatic transfers to savings, opening a Roth IRA, and reducing expenses, but I haven't been doing those things long enough to feel they are permanent changes. As I learned last weekend, it's all to easy for me to return to old habits if I'm not careful. So I continue working, and this blog serves as my "therapist" to hold me accountable for what I'm trying to do. I know change is possible, because I have seen it over and over with the clients I work with. I just have to make it mine, which is exactly what I tell them to do.


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