Can a financial therapist solve your money problems?

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Myles Ma, CPFCSenior ReporterMyles Ma, CPFC, is a certified personal finance counselor and former senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covered insurance and personal finance. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

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Let's say you and your partner are fighting about money. It's hurting your relationship.

Or money just stresses you out. So much that you avoid thinking about it.

Do you go to a financial planner? Or a therapist?

An emerging field called financial therapy aims to combine the skills of both.

Money problems and mental health problems are often linked, and in recent years financial practitioners and mental health professionals began working on ways to deal with them together.

"What we've tried to do is find a way to help financial practitioners get counseling skills and help mental health professionals be more comfortable with finances," said Megan McCoy, a licensed marriage and family therapist and secretary of the Financial Therapy Association, an organization dedicated to the growing profession.

Who needs financial therapy?

Financial therapists can help people with psychological issues surrounding money, McCoy said. Many money problems stem from our unconscious biases. (They may be the reason you struggle to save.)

If you find it painful to spend money or have trouble talking to loved ones about money, those are signs you need financial therapy, McCoy said.

Ed Coambs, a member of the Financial Therapy Association board and founder of Carolina Couples Counseling, started out as a financial planner but was stumped about why clients wouldn't engage.

"I went back to school to become a therapist and learn about how psychology works to use it to apply to people's financial lives," he said.

Financial planners can tell people objectively the correct decision to make when it comes to investments, insurance, estate planning or taxes. But emotions and trauma can cloud decision-making.

"I think many people would like to think that their issues related to money are completely independent of other lived experiences that may be problematic," Coambs said.

How can financial therapy help?

One problem a financial therapist might tackle is money trauma. A bad financial experience can be traumatic if it continues to evoke charged emotions like shame, anger and fear, Coambs said.

Money trauma, like other forms of trauma, can affect people when they're young. Coambs said one of his clients shared a childhood memory of their family receiving a charity gift for Christmas. It was the first time the client realized their family was poor.

These experiences might not sit at the top of your mind when you think about money, but subconsciously they can make you overly vigilant about money or avoid it altogether. Coambs asks clients to talk through their money history to identify these painful experiences. Identifying the source of money anxiety can help people solve it.

Financial therapists can also help people who overspend. In that case, McCoy said she would explore what emotions trigger the overspending and see if there are other ways of dealing with those emotions. She would also relate how many hours of work it takes to earn the money to buy things to make the spending feel more concrete.

"I would also probably create a budget," she said. "I'm trying to get them mindful of their purchases."

How to find a financial therapist

Financial therapy has been around about a decade. The Financial Therapy Association started in 2009, in the wake of the Great Recession.

"At that point there was so much anxiety around finances that it naturally developed out of that," McCoy said.

Formal training in the field is limited. Kansas State University has offered the only graduate certificate program in financial therapy for a few years — McCoy is a faculty member.

The Financial Therapy Association plans to create a professional certification with educational requirements, rolling out before the end of the year.

Until then, finding a financial therapist in some places can be tough, though many work with clients digitally. The Financial Therapy Association website lists people who self-identify as financial therapists.

Make sure to review their profiles since therapists' backgrounds can vary, Coambs said. Until the Financial Therapy Association's certification rolls out, check to see whether a finacial therapist is certified either as a financial planner or mental health professional.

The CFP Board lists certified financial planners on its website To find a licensed mental health professional, the National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends calling your health insurer for a list of local professionals who accept your plan.

"It may take two or three attempts before you find someone that fits who you are and where you're at in your life and what you need to work on," Coambs said.

Health insurance may cover visits depending on the issue. Many insurers cover gambling addiction, Coambs said, but many problematic money issues can be diagnosed and covered as mental health issues.

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