Being broke is an emotional problem. I mean this in two ways. First, it’s difficult to engage in critical activities associated with creating your life if you’re broke–finding a safe place to live, getting out of a bad relationship, and even being able to afford psychotherapy are all made more difficult. Second, while being broke is a function of financial realities (like the job market, and a high cost of living–especially true in New York City), it is also the product of difficulty managing one’s money, prioritizing financial decisions and dealing with the emotional issues that are raised by doing without.
Whenever a new patient comes to me for therapy who’s in bad shape financially, I urge that among our top priorities be helping him or her get on more solid financial footing. Sometimes this involves making smarter decisions with credit cards (and perhaps working with a financial counselor to reorganize debt), improving one’s employment situation (including, perhaps, learning how to find a better job and increase the chances of promotion), and learning how to save money by cutting expenses.
All of these activities are a part of a larger whole, and all raise significant emotional issues. For some, growing up poor meant doing without in ways that were painful; for others, having less money than they did growing up is just as challenging. There are also the challenges of being surrounded by the wealth and excess of a city like New York–everyone here seems to have so much that (almost) no matter how much we have, it seems to be so little in comparison.
There are also very practical issues. Many find themselves in adulthood without the ability to make a budget, prioritize expenses, decide how much money is available to spend on various needs and wants, and to save for emergencies. On the income side of the equation, there are difficulties finding work, learning how to work hard, building relationships on the job, marketing oneself, asking to be paid well, and on and on. In this regard, therapy can be remarkably practical.
Couples and families can have their own difficulties with finances. When decisions are made as a team, some of them can fall through the cracks. Couples commonly come to me for couples therapy complaining of disagreements over finances. Often there is a good deal of work on helping them make better decisions together while negotiating disagreements over priorities.
As parents, the significance of finances decisions changes. Not only do expenses go up, there’s increased pressure to provide. We wonder how we can say no to swimming lessons or an expensive Spanish tutor. We struggle in guiding our children in developing their own understanding of money, priorities and living without.
The good news is that psychotherapy can be tremendously helpful. When we recognize that being broke is largely an emotional problem (in both its cause and effect), we can begin to do the emotional work of improving our financial lives. It is also the case that the activity of development (and the things we subsequently develop) in therapy and group therapy are tremendous assets in our endeavor to do better in our work lives. In other words, good therapy can help you make more money.