One of our cli­­ents is a psychologist who specializes in money issues for couples. In a recent article she wrote for Family Process, she stated, "Although the stock market or the price of a car or house are frequently subjects of discussion, the powerful emotional meaning of money is rarely mentioned." She goes on to say that many psychologists may avoid discussing these matters with their clients because of their own uneasiness with money issues. She also wrote, "A financial portfolio must also include an emotional portfolio. Both portfolios need careful attention and management for risk and growth."

We certainly understand that most people who practice financial life planning are not trained or qualified to provide therapy for serious psychological money issues. So when we address these issues, are we crossing the line between financial planning and psychology? While I certainly acknowledge that what we are doing has a psychological component (how could it not when we're interacting with other human beings?), we do not and should not offer therapy. Yet the discovery process and the questions we ask may be therapeutic for our clients. More about that later.

I am not advocating that we attempt to "treat" serious problems such as addictive spending, hoarding, spousal conflict, unreasonable fear, etc. We certainly would not expect psychologists who uncover financial problems with their patients to give financial planning advice. And financial planners who uncover serious emotional problems with their clients should refer these people to other types of professionals. However, that should not keep us from asking questions about our clients' money histories, about their relationships with money or about other emotional issues.

The question I hear most often is, "What do I do with the information once I get it?" I can understand this concern since financial planners are trained to be problem solvers. We uncover deficiencies in our clients' financial situations and offer methods and solutions to help them achieve their goals. So it would only be natural for us to uncover a problem that may have started very early in a client's life and then attempt to offer "therapy" to change that behavior if it is causing her to make unreasonable decisions or keeping her from accomplishing her goals. But while it may be tempting to offer therapy, it is the client's discovery to make and it's only her own understanding that will change her actions.

Think about those "aha" moments when you have discovered the genesis of any problematic behavior of your own. I know that I discovered issues about myself during George Kinder's two-day seminar, "The Seven Stages of Money Maturity." It was then that I came to the full realization that asking the right questions will help our clients discover what may be holding them back financially.

We all acknowledge the emotional impact money has on just about everyone, and we need to ask the right questions to help our clients discover the origins of some of their issues with money, especially if these issues are sabotaging their financial futures. Isn't it our job to help our clients achieve their financial goals in life? As my psychologist client points out, this involves more than just managing investment portfolios. A couple of years ago, one of our clients was interviewed by a consumer finance magazine. He was asked what questions a potential client should ask financial planners to make a selection. His answer: "It's not the questions you asked them that matter, it's the questions they ask you."

So we developed a list of questions that we ask each client during our discovery process that deal with histories and attitudes. We got these questions from Kinder, from psychologists, from other planners and from people in our own firm. It is not the purpose of this article to list all of these questions, but they may be found in our book, Financial Planning-The Next Step. Some sample questions for clients:

What messages did you receive from your parents about money when you were growing up?
What financial values and/or discussions with your parents continue to affect you today?
What financial expectations did your parents have of you?
What is your first memory about money?
Describe a painful memory about money.
What does money mean to you?


We also ask all of our clients the three "Kinder questions":
What would you do if you had all the money you needed?
How would you live your life if you had only five to seven years to live?
If you had only one day left, what are your regrets?

We have had clients who experienced "aha" moments after confronting these questions. Some changed their counterproductive behavior and increased their chances of reaching their goals. Such was the situation with Aaron. When he first came to see us, he was in his early 70s, and 100% of his money was invested in fixed income. He told us that he had never invested any money in the stock market and wanted us to limit his investment options to high-quality bonds.

The problem with that strategy was that it would probably result in his family running out of money. Other financial advisors told him this, but he ignored their advice. When we asked him, "When have you experienced pain around money?" he told us about an incident that occurred when he was 9 years old. He was at a carnival with his parents and asked his mother for money to buy something. She gave him one dollar and told him he could spend 20 cents. Instead, he spent 40 cents and she was extremely angry that he wasted so much money. To teach him a lesson, she confined him to his room for one full week.

The fact that he remembered this incident so vividly after 65 years told us-and him-that it was a significant event in his life. Many people would have seen his punishment as the simple consequences of disobeying a parent, but he saw it as something else. When I then asked him, "How has that affected the decisions you have made about money?" he said he had never given it much thought until he was asked about it, but the lesson he learned from his mother was that every penny was very important and should not be spent frivolously. One way he interpreted that was to refuse to place any of his money in jeopardy. To him, stock market fluctuations would have done just that, and therefore all of his money was in bonds.

Of course, there were other decisions he had made in his lifetime that were affected by this incident, but the relevant one here was that he was on a collision course unless he changed his investment habits. At a later meeting, we demonstrated with our projections that he was very likely to run out of money unless he invested in equities. Understanding the origin of his reluctance to invest in anything but bonds helped him make the decision to invest 50% of his money in equities, which significantly improved his chances for success.

Other clients with our firm came to the conclusion after speaking with us that their lives were not aligned with their core values. Such was the case with Helen and Larry, who were successful executives when they first came to see us. When we asked about her history, Helen revealed that her father was a minister of a church in an upper class neighborhood, and they lived among people who were considerably wealthier than they were. She recalls one neighbor who appeared to be very unhappy, who always seemed to be buying more things to satisfy herself, but it didn't help. The more she bought, the more, like an addict, she felt the need to buy. The quick fixes did not last long and the cycle of buying would start again. Helen came away from that experience with the notion that money not only cannot buy happiness but that it may actually help you elude it. Her neighbors seemed so obsessed with spending their money for gratification that they ignored the things in life that really mattered.

Later as an adult, Helen managed to reach a high-level position with a large public company and was on her way to accumulating wealth, but she felt uncomfortable. Something was missing in her life, she believed, but she did not know what it was. When she recounted her experiences as a child, she realized that it was her quest for money that was causing her distress. As she communicated her childhood experiences, she realized that she needed to drastically change her life. Her job provided her with no rewards other than the money she earned. She told us she always knew that seeking money could become addictive and get in the way of a satisfying life, but she had done nothing about changing the pattern. However, she decided that day that things would change. We worked together on a plan to do that, and today, she and her husband are living in Arizona. She is working as a massage therapist and he has become a partner in a golf farm. During a recent visit, she told me that she has never been happier. It took the recollection of her childhood experiences to help her realize that her life needed a different direction.

What these two stories and many other like them have in common was that it was the clients' discoveries that changed their behavior. As Galileo wrote, "All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them." Asking the right questions is a good place to start.

Roy Diliberto is chairman and founder of RTD Financial Advisors Inc. in Philadelphia.