Why You May Need A Financial Therapist – with Celia Roberts Hughes (Episode 315)
Have you ever heard of a financial therapist? My childhood friend Celia Roberts Hughes is with me for this episode to dig deep into what that even is, as well as some key things to consider when it comes to your family and finances.
Celia Roberts Hughes is a financial therapist who specializes in helping individuals and couples overcome their emotional blocks surrounding money. With a deep understanding of the somatic reactions that many people experience when dealing with finances, Celia provides a safe and supportive environment for her clients to explore their fears and anxieties. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or conflicted when discussing money, or if you struggle to make positive changes in your financial behavior, Celia can help guide you toward healing and understanding. Through her expertise, clients are able to break free from old patterns and move forward with a healthier relationship toward money.
"If you can't think about money without having a somatic reaction, if you get a lump in your throat, if you start sweating, if you want to run out of the room or stick your head in the ground...That's the place for financial therapy."
I've known Celia since I was 14, and it's been fascinating to see her journey. I knew she was a go-getter who cared deeply about helping others thrive. While she started out majoring in Psychology, she realized quickly she wanted a faster return on her investment - so she started working, shifted to business, and quickly fell into finance, as numbers were easy for her.
She went on to get her master's in Finance and became CFO of a company of creatives. She worked hard to create a plan that would work for people with great ideas to build something sustainable financially. It's way easier to focus on a plan when you're grounded and rooted in something that can financially stand up.
"So I'm in this experience where I'm watching humans show up as humans - and, we've got a plan. If you can just follow it, if you can follow these steps, if you can do these things, we're looking at success. And then we show up as our human selves, and we show up with different ideas or anxiety or stress or distraction or whatever it is, and humanity comes into the mix and really mucks up anything that we've figured out.
And so I was at a point where I had kids and I was dealing with my own workaholic tendencies and had stepped back and was really doing more consulting and working with small businesses, working with women, working with creative folks who needed a financial person like me.
I couldn't get away from how hard the humanity aspect of finances was and how we're not addressing it because we keep coming at it from a number's place and not from a human place.
And so I was walking one day a few years ago and I thought, oh my God, financial therapy should be a thing. I'm going to invent financial therapy. And I didn't invent it, I Googled it, and it's actually already a thing!
So here I am, I went back to do a postgraduate certification in financial psychology and I'm currently working on my Ph.D. in debt psychology because I'm really interested in the unconscious belief systems that we have around money. But that's where I got here. There are plenty of finance people. There are plenty of number people. There are plenty of mental health people and therapists. There are very few of us who are in the middle looking at our relationships with money and how we feel about money, what beliefs we've inherited about money. So I'm in this gray space between numbers and diagnostic therapy."
The Power of Our Words
As a financial therapist, Celia recognizes the power in our words and the deep-seated beliefs we carry with us. We can often carry multigenerational beliefs around money. We may carry a belief system down with us from our family, like the mindset that got them through The Great Depression, and at some point, we realize that belief doesn't really align with where we are now.
On top of carrying mindsets from our upbringing, like "I can't afford...", we also can have a fixed idea of our own abilities, like saying "I'm not a numbers person". That's a different statement than saying you have a hard time with numbers. When we simply identify as not being a "numbers person", we write off the power we can have over our own financial responsibility - and simply stay stuck in the same cycle.
...When I say I am this way [I'm bad with money], I'm saying there's no room for me to do anything differently than I've done. So I think that's a power piece. There's a real difference in saying, "I have really made some choices with money that have hurt me financially. I have racked up a lot of debt that I wish that I didn't have. There are decisions I made that I wish I could go back and do them differently."
That's a totally different conversation with a different set of outcomes than, "I'm bad at money. Hands up. There's nothing I can do about this."
Shifting the way we talk about ourselves is really important.
Reframe what you say as an "I am" statement versus simply making choices you may be able to learn from. That is way different than taking on that identity. It's not about avoiding the crazy in life, or, in this situation, ignoring finances. It's a part of our lives. So what tools do you have to equip you to make smart decisions most of the time, and continue to learn and grow in this arena?
What Does A Financial Therapist Do?
The first step with any therapist or coach is simply identifying where someone is at right at the moment. This is the best advice I got from a mentor ages ago: "Meet them where they are."
So first and foremost, it's getting in touch with what you're thinking and feeling in the moment, and if there is something specific they are coming in for, or feeling stuck on.
Sometimes, it's just a sensation or a somatic feeling in your body, and you may not even recognize what it may be or how it's related...yet it's an underlying subconscious response to the stories and beliefs we've written in our life.
Keep in mind, it's not just about people who are financially struggling. There are people who self-sabotage when they are overwhelmed by an influx of money. There are people with six-figure-plus incomes who struggle with extreme anxiety and stress.
These are the sorts of questions you may walk through with a financial therapist:
- What did you experience growing up around finances?
- What did you learn about finances growing up?
- How did your parents talk about money?
- There's a gender component. Did you grow up in a community that had expectations of men with money versus women with money?
- Did you grow up in a community where the expectation was that you live in a multi-generational home where the middle generation takes care of the older folks who give childcare to the younger?
We're a melting pot of diversity here in the United States, and with the multicultural dynamic added to the US culture, it can feel pretty contradictory and hard to navigate. When your roots are addressed as your foundation, it's easier to determine what beliefs and stories you want to continue to cultivate...and what may be worth letting go.
In addition to all of the individual work that can go on with a financial therapist, there are even more added dynamics when working with couples. You're adding the dynamics of communication and how the couple works together, and how the stories and beliefs they brought about money are manifesting in the life they are creating together.
"It's kind of like seeing these little pieces of a puzzle and then clients have these AHA moments where they have a realization. That's a piece of the puzzle that clicks in and then they have an AHA about something else and maybe they can start to see a big picture. It's a lot of talking and unearthing.
I send clients away with a lot of homework, journaling, and things to be thinking about outside of this space. My part of the work is small. Your part of the work is significantly more than what you can do while actually sitting in this space with me. So encouraging people to go out and spend some time quietly reflecting on something that came up that's really juicy, like, this feels like a thing that could have guided the decision that I made down the road. So it's a lot of connecting the dots."
A Socioeconomic Shift
There is a psychological shift that happens when there is a change in socioeconomic status. This can produce all kinds of anxiety - and not just due to someone losing money. There can be an even bigger disconnect when someone gets a windfall of money, like winning the lottery, getting an inheritance, or signing on with the NFL.
Now you're looking at changes with insurance, inheritances, taxes, and more. Celia has seen that when people come into money, it exacerbates whatever financial struggle they've had in their lives. So if they were spenders before, they are more likely to take that to the extreme, or do the opposite and not spend a dime out of fear of losing it.
When you are shifting socioeconomic status up or down, it's going to cause stress. It seems to be given with losing money, yet we don't acknowledge enough that gaining money does not just fix all your problems - and there is a lot that goes into navigating a new socioeconomic status, even when it's a financial surplus.
Digging Deeper Than Finances
When people are stuck in survival mode, it is just not the time to jump into finances first. While so often we can be thrown into survival mode due to finances, when we simply address getting some more money for the moment, we're simply putting a bandaid on a festering wound - it'll continue to get infected unless you address the root cause.
When Celia works with someone as a financial therapist, and they are stuck in survival mode, the first thing she does is set the financial component aside and get to the core. Sometimes there may be some conflict within or a struggle with values or belief in yourself. Oftentimes this is a time that is cloaked in shame, so she digs deeper into where the shame comes from.
- What did you hear about money growing up?
- What's your story about money?
- Did your parents have money?
- Did your parents fight about money?
- Was money used as a way to control your family?
- What were the expectations put on you?
- Have you met those expectations or have you failed those expectations?
She digs deeper than finances to understand the foundation of your relationship with money. When you start to really look at each financial decision, you can start to see what builds on each other. And with every layer, there is an opportunity for compassion.
So often we can get sucked into debt and not have any idea how to get out of it. How often does an 18-year-old, who isn't even able to legally drink or drive a rental car, strap themselves into massive debt just to get that degree? Did anyone talk to them about how they would pay off that student loan? Did they ever do the math on what they would need to make to pay it off....and live on their own?
One thing builds on another, and the debt ball can mount. While it's important to take responsibility for where you are, so often we can get stuck beating ourselves up for something we didn't know any better on.
- Did anyone ever talk to you about the importance of saving?
- Do you feel worthy of having a retirement?
- Do you feel worthy of having a healthy future?
Maybe there is a limit on future thinking as a direct reflection of self-worth, or lack thereof. When you dig deep and start at the base of the foundation, there is opportunity for grace, new insight, and compassion along the way, as you grow, experience resistance, sit with it, and then move past it.
"Start telling your money story. Pause when you get to a place that gives you a knot in your throat and spend some time there and look for self-compassion. When you can get to the point where it's like, "I am where I am, I have made some mistakes, maybe I've done nothing right."
I'm sure we could find something that you have done right. And here's where you are now and [let's work on] compassion for how you got here. Maybe you didn't know better. Often it's that we don't know better because we don't talk about money.
We expect people to be fantastic with money, with no education, and no resources. Or [they have] a very rigid list of this is how you're good with money. You need to do all these things. And if you don't do all these things, then you're not smart with money. There's shame in that.
So it's just, with every person, finding that spot that's really painful and just sitting with it and seeing what comes up when you dig a little deeper in that spot."
There Isn't a Perfect Finance "Diet"
Celia made the comparison that there isn't a perfect financial plan for everyone any more than there is that one perfect diet. We're humans with bodies and minds as unique as our fingerprints.
"There aren't fixes in humanity; there's healing."
Yet just like the diet industry has its "fixes" for our health, finance culture has become like this as well. Yet, no amount of money you have or your financial status will really change the way you feel about money. That's more deep-seated than a simple financial plan. Similarly, simply changing your diet won't erase what drove you to binge eat in the first place.
Having a healthy relationship with your finances may look as different and varied as a human body. What works for us may not work for you.
Celia uses the language of values. She helps every client/couple understand their values first. You have to know who you are and what matters to you before you can address a financial plan.
There are some standards that work for everyone. In the US, we don't have a government-funded pension system. We are all responsible for our own retirement - so knowing how you'll handle retirement and end of life is necessary for everyone.
Credit card debt can cripple you. Interest rates can be incredibly painful. This is another that works for everyone - there isn't anyone who thrives with credit card debt for long.
Let's Talk Retirement and Illness
Now for those working traditional jobs, it may be retirement is that big carrot dangling in front of you. Yet for you entrepreneurs, it might be something you've blown off.
Let's be very clear - we all will navigate the end of life. Retirement may be a longer wiggle room in between working hard and the end of life for some people. And others may continue to work in some fashion all the way through.
Do you have a plan for if you couldn't work tomorrow? Do you know what will happen - and how you'll pay for it if you have a stroke, get in an accident, or for whatever reason can no longer work?
What if you are mentally or physically unable to work? Our life expectancy keeps getting longer - if you retire at 65, you could potentially be looking at another 30+ years. Are you financially prepared for that if you were unable to work anymore?
"If you belong to a culture where it's each man for themselves, how do you feel about asking your children to provide for you? Your adult children who potentially have their own kids? How would that feel to you?
Sit and imagine what it would be like to go to your kids and say, "I thought I was going to work for the rest of my life and I can't. Can you help me pay my mortgage?"
Or you can prepare for that day and your children will thank you."
Celia discussed three essential pieces to financial health: basic financial literacy, life math, and emotional honesty.
Instead of looking at whether or not you're a math person, recognize that most high-level math isn't truly necessary. Basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are about all you need. If you know how to use a calculator, you're pretty well set. Think about what you really use math for. Calculating percentages, multiplying/dividing fractions, and measuring pretty much cover the majority of what people need to know.
Life math is just changing the way we think about whether or not we're good at math. There is school math, career math, and then basic life math - and that may be all you need.
I recently watched this TED talk with my family and it really took the pressure off for how deep we were going with math.
This is a great reminder of delight-led learning. Since we believe learning is a lifelong process, we're open to learning the math we need to know at any point. The truth is, if you dream of being an engineer, a scientist, a researcher, or a mathematician, you're going to learn the higher levels of math because it aligns with your passion.
When you need to know it and are motivated by your desire, you seek to learn it.
When Do You Need A Financial Therapist?
With math, it seems we're all expected to be experts at finance without the exposure, education, and cultural healing that would help build confidence and understanding with it.
If you can't think about money without having a somatic reaction, that's something to pay attention to. If you get a lump in your throat, start sweating, if you want to run out of the room or stick your head in the sand, that's a red flag.
If you're in a relationship where you can't bring money into the conversation without going into immediate conflict, that's an escalating iceberg. If you can't change your behavior, if you know that something is off and you just can't get to that shift, that's where you bring in someone to help you understand and heal. When healing and understanding fall into place, you have the incentive and ability to go forward in a different way.
Sometimes you have to step outside of yourself in order to see what your blind spots are. Asking for help is a very noble thing. It's not a weakness or giving up; it's recognizing your strengths and the beauty of humans helping humans, with different strengths and perspectives that can create a synergy when you work together. The uniqueness in each of us strengthens all of us, right?
Check out Celia's self-paced "Money Roots" program as a free resource to get started and learn.
Sign up for her weekly letters, where you'll learn so much about finances and the emotions around them. And dig into what your purpose for money in your life is truly about.
I am a huge advocate for financial therapy, and going deeper than just the money. Look beyond the numbers to the emotions around it, and seek the support of people just like Celia.
That can help you to gain confidence on what your purpose for money is, how to cultivate it, create it, and be good stewards of it in your life, and ultimately how to celebrate how the uniqueness in each of us strengthens all of us.