The Emotional World of Money

Why shining a light on our darkest fears can right the ship

by Erica Ryberg

Like many people, I use my credit cards for daily shopping and pay them off at the end of the month. Mostly, it works just fine. Last month, though, the balance on one of the cards crept up past what I could pay off using that month's cash flow. And then, just like that, the thought crept in, "I thought you're supposed to be good at this."

Alexandra Gorn

This is technically true. I'm a financial planner, and so the assumption would be that I would keep it on the rails and feel great about money at all times.

If only.

“Everything you need to know about money begins with the word ‘emotion,’” says Debra Kaplan, a financial therapist who practices in Tucson. A former Wall Street exec with a passion for helping people and a no-nonsense manner, Kaplan is part of a growing cadre of professionals who specialize in healing people's money issues.

Much of this work centers on teasing out unhelpful money beliefs and exploring how and when those beliefs were established. Collectively, she says, those beliefs drive unconscious and potentially self-destructive behavior with money.

“If you're not aware, you lose the opportunity for choice,” says Kaplan.

Along with exposing unhelpful beliefs, uncovering and neutralizing the shame around money that most of us carry can free up our energy to start taking meaningful financial steps.

That's why Garrett Philbin, a financial coach in Tucson, works on building up the confidence and self-esteem of his clients long before he teaches them to create and manage a working budget.

Where Kaplan, as a financial therapist, works mainly in the psychological realm with a side of practical application, financial coaching is more about building a Dave Ramsey-style financial foundation. But Philbin and other coaches are leaning into helping clients with their money stories as well.

Philbin, a lanky millennial with an open manner and a wide, disarming smile, tends to work with high-achieving women in their 30s or 40s who have hit a roadblock where money is concerned.

“They're really good at what they do, and they have their stuff together in almost every area of their lives except for money,” says Philbin. “Which leaves them feeling even worse.”

For anyone tempted to disregard as frivolous the work that Kaplan and Philbin do with money beliefs, it turns out adopting healthier financial beliefs has real monetary value. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Financial Therapy found that people with an avoidant money style in the study tended to earn less than those with other styles.

People with excess credit-card debt tended to have beliefs like, “More money will make you happier,” and, “Money is what gives life meaning.”

Untangling self-worth from the perception of financial success, then, can not only enhance quality of life, but have a positive effect on a person's overall net worth.

My own story has two dominant characters: my thrifty father, who still drives a 1983 Blazer to bargain-shop, and my mother, who was lavishly generous and often broke. So my inner voice often whispers that I should save more, that I need to be more responsible with money, or bad things will happen.

If someone like me, who lives, breathes and teaches personal finance, can feel this way, maybe it isn't all that uncommon. So what, besides seeing a financial therapist like Kaplan or financial coach like Philbin, can a person do about this?

One powerful technique Kaplan uses with her clients goes like this: “Sit down in a quiet place and bring up an image of what bothers [you] ,” she says. “Is it paying a bill? Clicking ‘purchase’ on a website? Is it when you have to buy something for yourself? What are the images or experiences that elicit strong emotions?”

Then, she says, give those emotions a label: Is it anger? Shame? Fear? Since emotions arise from thoughts and beliefs, figure out the core belief.

Similarly, most money coaches require clients to manually track their spending to goose awareness ofwhat is happening with that money. “A good place to start is getting a budget,” says Philbin. “Find a tool that allows you to plan for the upcoming month, and set an intention for what you want to do. Any budget template on Google will work.”

Once you have your target, start tracking. When you do, if awareness of both your emotions and dollars isn't getting it done, Debra Kaplan and Garrett Philbin will be standing by to help you on your journey.

Erica Ryberg is a freelance writer and financial planner in Prescott. Reach her at

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