Maybe it's Suze Orman on CNBC saying the American Dream is dead or maybe it's just the ongoing ramifications of a financial crisis that doesn't seem to quit and the deep sense of dread many Americans continue to suffer in an economy they don't feel has pulled back to normal-no matter what stock markets, economists or financial experts are telling them.
Whatever the reason, this widespread anxiety, among poor and rich alike, has created an opening for a new kind of financial planning that combines both the best tools of relationship management with the insights of psychology into the deep-rooted scripts and anxieties many people have over issues related to money.
The result has been a new organization, the Financial Therapy Association (FTA), that is attempting to bring together best practices in both fields. While this might seem like some kind of bad joke to the uninitiated, the fact is it is a serious endeavor and growing fast. So no one should be surprised if they continue to hear more about this innovative organization. Indeed, representatives of the association are scheduled to speak at the upcoming National Association of Personal Financial Advisors' annual conference in May.
This nascent organization, just over a year old, hopes to give itself empirical research to back up the assumptions it was founded under through an academic journal. Meanwhile, young grads are coming out of loosely related university programs with both counseling degrees and CFPs. They are the new face of financial planning.
But it is in the membership of the FTA that established planners-and psychotherapists-are meeting and discussing issues of common interest. "Believe me, I understand. I was a numbers guy," says member Rick Kahler, a CFP licensee, about how "crazy" all this might sound to the average planner.
But Kahler, an early advocate in promoting the use of psychotherapy to improve his practice and client relationships, says it's particularly useful when a client gets stuck. Why is it, he asks, that many clients don't fully execute the financial plan they have worked so laboriously to come up with? Similarly, when clients know they shouldn't be overspending or have some other behavioral issue around money, why do they find it so difficult to change? "They know the behavior change they need to execute, yet they don't make it. They still execute the behavior that gets them into trouble."
Kahler likens it to the behavior of any kind of addict. "The same psychological principles are at play around money. It's the same issues, playing out in a different venue."
Kahler, a successful Rapid City, S.D.-based fee-only planner with more than $150 million under management, is the author and co-author of four books based around the idea that people have unconscious "scripts" about money that influence their behavior with it. And Kahler, who also gives workshops and an online course, says it doesn't matter if someone is bankrupt or has tens of millions of dollars. Everyone has some script-whether it's from being a child of the Great Depression or feeling unworthy of what they've earned or inherited or feeling they have a right to buy everything they want when they want.
It's often exhibited through a sense of shame around money. He sees it in clients commonly when they come to his office for the first time. "They're often apologetic. 'I know this isn't a lot of money,' they say, and it doesn't matter if they have $500,000 or $5 million. When they come in, their fear is that I'm going to expose them for fraud or see their bad decisions about money and it just goes on and on."
Kahler came to his awareness about the psychological issues underlying successful planning the hard way: through the jarring emotional pain of a divorce in the early 1990s. He went to therapy to help him deal with the difficulties. In doing that, he says, "I just saw that financial planning principles could be put into a therapeutic situation to really address issues going unaddressed." And vice versa.
So, he says, if it makes planners feel any better, most therapists are even worse when it comes to dealing with money than planners are in dealing with psychological or emotional issues. "The [therapeutic] profession itself has a lot of projections onto money that are not good; the profession itself has a poverty mentality. Their professional money script is, 'Money is evil; money is unimportant; everything it touches is corrupt."
But if that's the lowdown on therapists, what about planners? Do they refer difficult clients to therapists? The answer is no, of course. "I've found planners think of themselves as the quarterback and they never make a pass to the therapist because they don't understand what they do. They have erroneous projections. They've never been to one, and the biggest reason is they view it as a negative referral. Telling your client they're really screwed up and they're abnormal" is not good for business, Kahler laughs.
Yet hardly a week goes by, he says, when he doesn't hear another planner talk of firing an out-of-control client. "They don't want to be there when the train goes off the tracks." Firing a client may be the best way of dealing with him or her, but he says there are other tools in the tool box. One is to train yourself to be a better listener. But when you have someone-like a Charlie Sheen-then it's time to bring in a bigger set of skills. Thus, the therapist.
And if planners think there's more liability in having a therapist on referral, it's simply not true-there's more liability issues in a portfolio, Kahler says. "I think that's an excuse to hide behind fear in this area of the unknown. Therapists are sued a lot less than planners. It's a scary area for planners, just like therapy is scary for a lot of people."
So Kahler brings his staff therapist into an early session with each new client. "I call him my financial coach and I tell the client they may never see him again. But if we get stuck, we'll call in Dave whenever we need him." Kahler believes it's important not to send the client off to a therapist, but to be in the room with both. "If I'm in the room, I can bring up clarification and objectivity [around money issues] that moves the process exponentially faster." Kahler says he is "continually amazed" at the issues that show up in financial planning, everything up to and including sexual abuse.