A Financial Therapist Explains How To Mind Hack Your Overspending Habits

Most of us view money as a problem. It comes with a slew of questions we just don’t have the answers for. How do we get more of it? How do we spend less? Where should we invest it? What should we use it for? Will we ever have enough?

Luckily, the onus of solving these financial dilemmas doesn’t rest solely on us. These days, the financial advice market is flooded with experts – on social and IRL – ready and waiting to put their hard-earned knowledge to use in the name of fixing your bottom line. They go by many names – financial planners, debt counselors, money coaches, accountants – and they specialize in different areas, but they all deal in cold hard figures on bank statements that give them a roadmap for fixing your money problems. But what if you need a hand diving into how those problems developed in the first place?

Those wanting to be a bit more proactive when it comes to financial decision-making might need to take a more psychological approach to money matters, and that’s where a fairly new form of financial advising comes in: financial therapy. According to the Financial Therapy Association, financial therapy is “a process informed by both therapeutic and financial competencies that helps people think, feel, communicate, and behave differently with money to improve overall well-being through evidence-based practices and interventions.”

“It’s just changing the way we think, feel, and behave with our money,” Nathan Astle, a Certified Financial Therapist and founder of Relational Money, tells Uproxx.

Astle was finishing his graduate degree in family therapy at Kansas State University when he stumbled into the field. In talking with mentors and his own therapist, he realized money was at the root of a lot of his mental health issues.

“I hated money,” he shares. “Hated talking about it, hated thinking about it, and it was because I associated it with all these negative experiences I had when I was a kid. And then, it affected how I behaved as an adult.” That animosity toward money even carried over into Astle’s relationship when he tried to put a budget together after getting married.

“When I got to school and I was doing all this therapy stuff, I realized, ‘Oh, this goes deeper.’ It’s not just, ‘Do a budget.’ It’s a personal thing.”

What Is Financial Therapy?

The best way to define financial therapy might be to point out how it differs from a more well-known area of money advisement – financial planning. According to Astle, financial planning tends to be focused on long-term numbers.

“They’re trying to get you to retirement or to save for a house, whatever your goal is, but it’s mostly a plan about how we get the numbers where we want them to be,” he explains.

Financial therapy, however, is all about examining how we experience money.

“We might focus on behaviors like shopping or overspending, but the end goal is fundamentally different,” Astle continues. “Where financial planning is focused on a financial outcome, financial therapy focused on overall wellness. Financial planning advice in general has been very narrow and very math-oriented, and money is inherently an emotional experience. We can’t have a math answer to what is often an emotional problem. That’s not going to work forever.”

Who Could Benefit From Financial Therapy?

Now that we’ve better defined financial therapy, the next step is figuring out if it’s the right path for your money needs. Astle may be biased, but he thinks most people can benefit from financial therapy. Those who really need his services though tend to fall into certain categories.

“I would say it’s especially important if you are struggling to make a change,” he says. “If you have maybe some behavior that you’re like, ‘I know I need to do this thing more, but I just can’t. There’s some mental block here that’s keeping me from being able to engage in this thing.’ Or if you’re noticing huge amounts of distress when you think about money, talk about money, and if it’s showing up in ways like, ‘I get so anxious when I think about money that I never open my bank account statements.’ If it’s keeping you from making adult decisions around money, then it would be beneficial.”

Younger generations – the Gen Zs and Millennials of the world – might also be prime candidates for financial therapy. That’s because, according to Astle, we’ve experienced an economy that’s radically different from that of our parents. Because of that, Millennials and Gen Z might be stuck with some nihilistic views when it comes to planning our financial futures.

“I think there’s quite a bit of avoidance because as a generation, they’ve lived through a ton of traumas, and I think they’re kind of disenchanted with a lot of things,” Astle offers. “What that does behaviorally then is it’s less likely they’ll put the effort into making a solid long-term financial plan. They might be more hesitant to invest and invest early, which we know is a huge predictor of long-term wealth, including retirement. I think what happens is a lot of people get discouraged and then they don’t do things that could prevent a lot of heartache in the future and in the present.”

Another emotional issue younger generations struggle with that could affect their bank accounts is shame. We’re constantly being marketed to, being sold what Astle calls “shoulds.”

“We should have this,” or “I should be doing that.” We compare ourselves to our peers, to influencers, to celebrities, and when we don’t measure up, it affects not only how we see ourselves, but how we spend on ourselves too.

“There’s a lot of shame we have collectively around money, about how we’re supposed to have more, how we’re supposed to not have spent it this way, how we’re supposed to have all these things,” Astle says. “Shame is the enemy of change. We don’t beat ourselves up, we beat ourselves down. And so, we have to be able to give ourselves some grace and some compassion and make plans coming from a kinder place to ourselves.”

To do that, Astle gave us a few tips for curbing impulse spending, a common struggle for the over-marketed to millennials and Gen Z crowd.

Tip #1: Name It, Tame It

This is a basic tenant of therapy in general, but it works especially well in your finances. To fix the problem, you need to be able to identify it.

“If you can name it, you can tame it,” Astle says. “So, when you’re like, ‘I want to go shop,’ or, ‘I don’t want to look at my bank account,’ try and name the emotion that you’re feeling. I really like a tool called the Feelings Wheel. It’s just an image, but it’s a really good tool for describing emotions that you’re having.”

“So, that’s a starting point,” Astle continues. “’What am I feeling before, during, and after a financial choice?’”

Why do this? Because finances are an inside job.

“If we’re trying to change the way we approach our finances, it might be math decisions, but a lot of times with our day-to-day stuff, it’s about emotion regulation,” Astle explains. “It’s, ‘How do I deal with an uncomfortable emotion?’ And that can lead to huge retail therapy [binges] or just a little thing here or there that adds up both financially and emotionally.”

Tip #2: Write Down Your Money Story

Again, what therapist doesn’t hype the wonders of journaling? But, instead of jotting down your feelings in the present, Astle wants you to put pen to paper as a way to recap your financial journey thus far.

“We call it your money story,” he explains. “It’s just telling someone your life story by saying, ‘What money messages, experiences, and lessons did my parents teach me and what did I feel? What do I believe because of the experiences that I’ve had?’”

Identifying where some of your biases towards money, or some of your worst habits might have originated from gives you useful insight into how best to correct them. If your parents argued about money constantly, you might view it negatively and avoid it altogether. If finances were tight growing up, it might cause you to stress more when it comes to your own bank account. If your family was constantly buying new – cars, clothes, homes – it might make it difficult for you to understand the concept of saving and budgeting. If you can glean those messages and reject or alter them, you can build a stronger financial foundation.

Tip #3: Take Five

Time fixes all things, even our overspending habits. We live in a very impulse-driven society that thrives on one-click-buying prompts, coupon codes, and influencer-sponsored Amazon storefronts. Before you give any of them your money, take a few minutes, a few hours, or maybe a few days to sit with your future purchase.

“Give yourself time between stimulus and response,” Astle suggests. “If you want to buy that book on Amazon, it’s okay to put it in your cart. We don’t shame ourselves out of financial behavior. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t need that.’ That’s not really a long-term solution.”

Instead, Astle advises that people hold off on checking out for a day or two. “It’s kind of a mindfulness skill. You’re allowing yourself to be in a different emotional state. If you still want the thing after some time, after some thought, and after you’re in a different emotional state, then there’s less guilt there. It’s like, ‘No, I genuinely want this thing,’ and not, ‘I’m having an impulse.’”

While we can’t promise that following these tips will 100% make you feel better about your finances, they’re a great prompt to evaluate your situation and consider whether a financial therapist might be a help.