According to a March 2021 survey conducted by the American Psychological Foundation, 72% of Americans report feeling stressed about money at least once per month. That stress, if not managed correctly, can trickle down to every aspect of a person’s life. In this episode of The Agent of Wealth Podcast, Marc Bautis is joined by Kelly Moylan, a licensed psychotherapist and practicing clinician with over 20 years of experience in a number of mental health and medical settings. Together, the two discuss how to relieve and cope with financial stress.
In this episode, you will learn:
- When to seek help for financial stress.
- What to expect from a typical engagement with a therapist.
- Common financial stressors and suggestions for relief.
- How to reframe your mindset from believing that money equals happiness.
- And more!
Welcome back to The Agent of Wealth Podcast. This is your host, Marc Bautis. On today’s show, I brought on a guest: Kelly Moylan. Kelly is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in treating adults and adolescents experiencing anxiety, depression, work and relationship issues. She’s been a practicing clinician for 25 years and has had her private practice for more than 12 years. Kelly, welcome to the show.
Hi Marc, thank you. I’m very happy to be here.
Great. I’m excited to talk about today’s topic: Stress and anxiety that people have about their money. Many people have experienced troubling times in the last year and a half, both with the COVID-19 pandemic and with the financial impacts of it.
The Impact of Financial Stress
Yes, absolutely. Financial stress is one of the more intense stresses that we feel. When people feel financially insecure or financial stress, they’re more likely to panic than with other forms of stress — such as relationship stress or family problems. There’s something about financial stress that pushes an urgency and a panic button for a lot of people.
I also find that the layering of financial stress on top of the COVID-19 pandemic is very challenging. The pandemic has left us feeling like our day-to-day is so unknown and out of our control. Over the years, in my practice, I’ve come to believe that the two hardest things for human beings to experience are loss and the unknown. We don’t want to lose money, people, relationships, things and experiences. We also always want to know what’s going to happen.
So the combination of the pandemic leading to financial hardships for many — or even if people were financially distressed before the pandemic began — has really multiplied and exacerbated a lot of stress.
Yes, and I see it in my business, with my clients. To some extent, everyone thinks about money. But at what point does thinking about money become a concern that transforms into stress and anxiety? At what point should a person seek out help from someone like you?
When to Seek Help for Financial Stress
It’s a little bit different for everyone. If someone is at a point where they feel like their financial situation is out of control and they can’t figure out how to cope with it, that’s a good time to seek help.
This could be everything from a person in debt, a person who is having difficulty with employment or a person whose overspending. Obviously, there are a million different financial problems we could name. When that problem becomes all consuming — they can’t think about anything else, they can’t get their hands around it — it’s time to reach out for help.
Like I said, people often become incredibly anxious to the point of panic about money. If you’re feeling obsessed and all-consumed, you can’t think about anything else, that’s not necessarily going to lead you to improving the situation, is it?
At that point, your anxiety or difficulty managing your financial situation has become a problem unto itself. It has become an emotional problem. If you’re able to get help with that emotional problem, you’ll get some perspective — and hopefully some relief — from the emotions… making it easier to make financial decisions, choices and behaviors. These are what will improve your financial situation.
So let’s say someone listening is obsessed about money to the point where they realize it’s time to get help. So, they reach out to you. Where do you start? What does an engagement look like?
What to Expect From a Typical Engagement With A Therapist
Usually someone gets my number or email through a friend, family member or the internet. A lot of people use Psychology Today (psychologytoday.com) to locate a nearby therapist, using their well-maintained searchable database. There, you’ll see a picture of me and my biography. This network is great for those seeking help, because they can search for a therapist that fits their needs without having to go to a bunch of sessions/meet-and-greets beforehand.
So, how people get referred to me varies. But once someone is referred to me, we have an initial session. In this session, I like to just listen and let the person tell me why they’re there, what’s bothering them and what they’d like to be different in their lives. I’ll ask them what they’ve tried that hasn’t worked that’s led them to seek help. Then, I’ll usually ask some clinical questions to understand the depth of the symptomatology, because sometimes if the main stressor in your life is financially related, it could lead to clinical depression or clinical anxiety, for example, which is a different level of treatment than just problem solving about the behaviors and the circumstances of what they’re experiencing.
I do a lot of listening and asking questions. Everyone’s life is full and complex, so the primary problem that may bring a person to therapy is actually connected to everything else in their life. For example, for financial stress, I’d guide them to understand how their finances may be affecting their family, relationships and own mental health.
Then, after a few sessions, I can usually begin to understand what the roots of the problem are and start to do problem solving to unpack the ways in which the person can move forward differently to relieve that stress.
Common Financial Stressors and Suggestions for Relief
Is there a “prescription” — for lack of a better word — dependent upon a person’s situation? I know you mentioned sometimes it can be a clinical diagnosis, but otherwise? So many people have come to me with different financial concerns and issues, but one I see a lot is people wanting to keep up with the Joneses… “The neighbors bought this, so now I want to have this.”
Another common financial stressor I see is in retirees and pre retirees. In and of itself, retiring is an emotional decision. But I see a lot of clients who have built up assets over their working years, but get too anxious to draw on them in retirement. So they live way below their means.
I also see people that are so infatuated by a net worth number or a balance sheet, and all they’re focused on is increasing that number over time.
Others, and I’ve been seeing this more and more, are addicted to social media — or CNBC — and they make short-sighted financial decisions one day, then another again the next. It becomes obsessive and addictive.
These are just a couple of examples. How do you take these and go to the next steps of problem-solving?
I see all of the examples you mentioned in sessions with my patients, whether they have come to me with a financial issue as their primary concern or not. Every scenario that you just described is something that I’ve seen, in different patients over time. They’re very human things.
Like you mentioned, there’s this keeping up with the Joneses mentality in our society. We’re socialized to focus on what we have and how we look, and we compete with others in that way. People become envious of other’s (and their belongings). They’ll think ‘Well, if this person has this type of house or car, what does it say about me if I don’t have that type of house or car?’ I call this dynamic “compare and despair.” When you compare yourself to other people in terms of possessions, you will never be satisfied, right?
Money Doesn’t Equal Happiness
Nothing is good enough if that’s your mindset. If your mindset isn’t:
“What kind of a house do I want for myself, for my family?”
And your decision-making is based more on, “What kind of house is going to impress other people?” Or, “What kind of house is going to make me feel like I’m better than somebody else?”
You’re never going to feel satisfied.
It’s very tempting. And it’s a very human thing, so I’m not criticizing anyone who does it. We all do it at times. But it’s not the route to happiness. It’s not the route to satisfaction, because there’s always going to be somebody who has a bigger house, a better car, whatever, and it prevents you from appreciating and enjoying what you do have, right?
You may live in a lovely house, but when you see someone who has a “better” one, yours suddenly looks like a hovel. So you lose perspective when you make comparisons, and it’s extremely tempting to make these comparisons.
How to Focus On The Bigger Picture
To your point, with social media, we’re more encouraged and tempted to make comparisons than ever before. The net effect of social media, research shows, is it makes you feel bad about yourself. With regard to what you were saying about having never-ending access to so much information, some people are trying to live their lives at the speed of light. Do you know what I mean?
So people must be making financial decisions at the speed of light, and getting whiplash watching the market go up and down and trying to keep track of it. I’m sure you have different clients with different goals, and I’m not a financial advisor, but that sounds to me like it’s not the most intelligent, sound approach to managing your finances. It’s always better to hold onto some larger perspective. And it sounds like what you’re seeing is people getting so caught up in data that they go on the emotional roller coaster of the ups and downs of the markets… so much so that they forget to look at the big picture. And then they’re living on a rollercoaster of stress because it’s too much information and then addiction to that information.
Yeah. We get hit every day with a fire hose of information — whether it’s from the media, colleagues or friends. Everyone’s saying, “Do this, do that.” And sure, some advice may be valid, but some may not. Like you said, we see it on social media and hear these stories. We think, ‘this person did this, so why am I not doing this? Should I do this?’ There’s always that fear of missing out, which is another cause of people’s financial stress.
Financial stress is just one type of stressor. And for a lot of people, it’s not the only stress that they have going on. Do you take a similar approach to me, as a financial advisor, and look at the person from a whole, then drill down to all the stresses/root causes? How do you build the picture of what’s going on?
The Importance of Understanding Your Relationship With Money
Absolutely. One of the things that you learn becoming a clinical psychotherapist is that the presenting problem is never the real problem. There’s always more to the story. Or if the presenting problem is in fact a legitimate problem, it’s like the trunk of the tree and it has an elaborate root system underneath it.
So whatever the problem is that the person is coming in talking about, it didn’t start yesterday and it’s not unrelated to everything else in their lives. So, I absolutely do the same in my work. I think that people who tend to get overwhelmed financially, are overwhelmed by anxiety, and there’s a reason for that, right? Life is stressful — I’m not going to pathologize anybody for feeling anxious about living life in these times. Being a human being is hard, even when you’re not in a global pandemic.
So we all experience anxiety from time to time. But if people come to me because they’re overwhelmed with stress, anxiety or depression of some kind — and financial issues are part of the focus — I’m also interested in seeing the bigger picture of how the problem came to be. I’d ask: Has this always been a problem?
What I find remarkably telling and useful in helping people overcome their reactions to financial stress. We’re never going to live stress free. So what I help people do isn’t get rid of stress, but learn how to have different coping mechanisms for it. If financial issues are a significant part of the person’s story, then we’re going to work on understanding how they developed their relationship with money.
Everybody has a relationship with money — just like everyone has a relationship with food, sex, and so on.
I ask a lot of questions and see if I can draw a picture. I’ll try to determine:
- What is this person’s relationship to money?
- Why do they think this way about money? Is it the influence of their culture, or something else?
Intergenerational Effects on Your Money Mindset
So often it has to do with intergenerational factors. Retirees who are fearful of overspending might become overwhelmed because, for example, their family has lived in poverty before. Or perhaps they survived the Great Depression and have an understandable but exacerbated fear of scarcity.
With that kind of situation, I would want to work with the person to understand how to find a balance between allowing themselves to enjoy what they’ve earned, but not blowing through it so they feel insecure. It’s about finding moderation.
Many times, it takes facing some historical information. Even if our parents don’t teach us about money directly, we learn a lot from seeing what our parents do or don’t do with money.
Oh, yes. Kids are sponges. They pick up on everything.
And once I get into asking people, “What was your financial situation when you were growing up? How did your parents manage money?” They say, “Oh, my parents always fought about money.” Or, “My parents never talked about money.” Or, “My dad always wanted to spend money. My mother always wanted to save money.” Or, “My parents ignored their money. They didn’t manage it at all.”
Sometimes people have internalized their parents’ approach to money without even realizing it. And sometimes they’re in a backlash against what their parents did with money — because they saw that it didn’t work for them. A lot of what people do around money is very reactive and not mindful.
One thing I will say, which I hope is a piece of useful information for any financial challenge that people approach, is: Financial security does not equal emotional security. A lot of people believe that it does. They think, ‘Well, if I had more money, I would worry less. I’d be happier. Everything will be fine.’ But when they get to that point — that goal — and don’t feel relaxed, they feel the need to raise the amount of money needed for happiness even higher.
In reality, the reason they don’t feel relaxed is because something else is preventing them from it. Financial security is certainly a better place to be than financially insecure. However, financial success and financial security do not equate with happiness.
Research has shown that what provides people with the deepest sense of security and happiness over the course of a lifetime is relationships. Some people work to the detriment of their relationships, so that they can have a certain amount of money, which they think will make them feel secure. But it doesn’t. Why? Because they don’t feel secure in their relationships.
From this conversation, you can tell that there is some crossover with what each of us do.
I’m not a psychotherapist and you’re not a financial advisor. But, we both talk to people about financial planning and decisions, while crossing into the realm of emotions, their relationship with money and the stress involved in it. So we’re both having those conversations trying to get at someone’s relationship with money.
I know the answer is probably dependent on each specific engagement, but how long is a typical engagement with a patient? Do you meet once a week, every other week or once a month? And how long does it take to really make improvements?
It depends on the person and the situation. People come to therapy for different reasons at different times. Sometimes people come for a very specifically defined issue that they’d like to get some help with, and when they feel like they’ve resolved that, they move on. Others initiate therapy for something specific, but stay in therapy after it’s resolved because they see therapy as a means to mental health maintenance.
I agree with the latter mentality. What’s better than meeting with someone, once a week, and having the opportunity to say anything you want? What’s better than talking about yourself the entire time? It’s all kept confidential. People enjoy the download and support, and the analysis that I can provide.
I usually meet with patients once a week. Sometimes, I will see a patient every other week if we’ve been working together for a while and everything is stable in their life. In those cases, we’re staying connected to the relationship — they can continue to have the outlet of a safe place to talk and be supported by a therapist who knows them well. And, occasionally I’ll work with people twice a week if they’re in distress or in crisis and need additional support. This is most often the case for new patients.
But the frequency of meeting weekly — at the very least — gives the patients momentum. Sometimes people want to come every other week to save money or to save time, but you tend to get less bang for your buck that way. I imagine that this is also a crossover into the work that you do. It is extremely helpful to work on the relationship with patients over time.
Yeah, absolutely. So, we’re just about out of time. Kelly, I’d like to thank you for being on the show. You gave some great insight into how someone can improve their relationship with money, reducing stress and anxiety. How best can someone reach out to you?
On my website, kellymoylan.com, you can find my contact information. You can also find information about how I work, who I work with and what my experience is. If anybody listening would like to contact me, that’s the best way to do it. I really enjoyed talking with you. I think a lot of people don’t talk about money, or don’t want to talk about money, or think it’s not okay to talk about money. Some people think they should just have it figured out already, which is not the case. So thanks for having me.
Perfect, thank you. We’ll link to that in the show notes.
Thanks again. And thank you everyone for tuning in to today’s episode.