Psychology of spending: “What I learned about money and anxiety from an intensive financial therapy session”

Money therapy: “What I learned about money and anxiety from an intensive financial therapy session”

In a bid to help combat her money guilt, one writer tries financial therapy – and it reveals a lot more than just her spending habits. 

That sinking feeling that comes with checking your bank account after a night out or spending spree is one that’s familiar to many of us.

I’m not a stingy person, but when it comes to watching my hard-earned money leave my account, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of dread, whatever the expense.

Research from the Lloyds Bank’s Making A Statement campaign suggests that while financial wellbeing is more important to 57% of Brits than physical or social, only 54% of people check their bank statements weekly.

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Indeed, financial discomfort kicks in for one in five of us when we eventually do check our accounts and find that we’ve shelled out more than we expected.

Lloyds also reports that one in five 18-34 year-olds also want to be more in control of their finances, so could financial therapy be an answer?

“Financial wellbeing is about feeling in control of your situation or a sense that you have an understanding of the choices you make and are not acting irrationally or going against your best interest,” explains Vicky Reynal, a psychotherapist who specialises in financial therapy.

The psychotherapeutic principle behind financial therapy is that by making the unconscious conscious, you have greater control over it.

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“The way we deal with money often comes from old childhood patterns we have learnt – and we absorb them and they get in the way when we are adults and we try to make rational decisions,” Reynal shares. “We cannot ease the anxiety that gets evoked by money unless we acknowledge and experience our emotions. We need to recognise them and face them or else they will continue to distort our perception.”

Reynal tells Stylist that she has seen an increase in demand for financial therapy as more people become aware of its benefits. “Financial therapy has been growing as a field in the USA but in the UK there still isn’t the same awareness of it. I have also seen an increase in demand for therapy overall during the pandemic – I think addressing mental health issues is becoming less of a taboo and flexible working arrangements are making it possible for many people who couldn’t access therapy before to do so.”

But how can talking about your relationship to money and the emotions connected to it change how you actually spend it? I undertook a session to begin to find out.

Can financial therapy help ease my spending guilt?
Can financial therapy help ease my spending guilt?

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What happens in a financial therapy session?

“During sessions, we explore the client’s relationship with money, both historically and in the present,” explains Reynal. “I help them identify unconscious thoughts and associations to it, and we look at past experiences related to current behaviour. When money is getting in the way of relationships, we analyse those relationships to better understand what is being acted out through money and think about how else to resolve those issues.

“The goal of therapy is to help the client gain a deeper understanding of their difficulties so that they can implement the changes they desire. Understanding what is behind the difficulties helps one make different choices going forward.” 

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Trying financial therapy

In my session, Reynal starts by asking me to identify any problematic behaviours I think I display when it comes to money and that I would like to change. I tell her that, while I’m usually good at saving, I find it hard to balance enjoying myself with living within my means, leading me to feel extremely guilty whenever I overspend. I can go for weeks of meal-prepping and ‘no spend days,’ only to ruin it with a large purchase or rack up a significant secondhand shopping bill.

“Money is a powerful symbol, one that people use unconsciously to act out emotional issues,” she explains. “Often, the mismanagement of finances can be rooted in deep emotional issues that are unrelated to money itself. Instead, money becomes just a means to express needs or fears that sometimes are rooted in early relationships.”

“Think about your attitude with money in relation to your upbringing,” Reynal urges me. “To understand the reasons why you might have adopted certain attitudes and behaviours towards money based on the examples you saw around you. Why might you be using money the way you do? What does money stand for?”

I tell her that watching my parents work really hard to save up for Christmases and holidays instilled a strong sense of value and appreciation in me, as well as the need to go without luxuries in the present in order to have them in the future. 

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In the 45-minute session, we cover everything from feeling envy at the financial ease of others to navigating disparate salaries in a relationship. Through her coaching, I identify that much of my money guilt comes from feeling like I’ve ‘wasted’ my money in the present and not put it towards a more meaningful future goal.

And as I talk to Reynal, I begin to realise that my all-or-nothing behaviour when it comes to money is reflected in other areas of my life, too.

As a perfectionist prone to burning out, I often struggle to create a work-life balance that doesn’t leave me feeling guilty for not doing enough, or exhausted from doing too much. Even in the gym, I fluctuate between not working out at all to five or six times a week.

The way we spend money as adults can be linked back to our early relationships
The way we spend money as adults can be linked back to our early relationships

Reynal poses the idea of thinking about spending vs saving as more of a trade-off, with each having pros and cons for the present as well as the future. Going out to dinner with a friend brings the immediate satisfaction of socialising, as well as enjoyment of good food and drinks. It does, however, take up room in my monthly budget.

Staying in and saving, however, can feel rewarding knowing that it is the ‘financially responsible’ choice and allow me to treat myself to something else later on or work towards bigger goals in the future. However, in the present it can leave me feeling like I’m missing out or sacrificing too much of my enjoyment.

What I take from this is that I don’t have to morally agonise over every single choice I make. It’s of course important to have good financial wellbeing, and smart to make decisions now that will have positive impacts in the long-run. But spending money to enjoy ourselves isn’t a stick that we need to beat ourselves with. As with everything, in moderation, it’s perhaps the healthiest thing for us.

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Can financial therapy ease financial anxiety?

After our session, I feel immediately more in-tune with myself and my emotions, though Reynal stresses that financial therapy isn’t simply a one-time occurrence. To make lasting changes, an extended course of sessions getting to the root of problems is essential.

Unlike other kinds of therapy and coaching, Reynal doesn’t provide tips and tools for changing your relationship to money. Instead, she invites an exploration of deep-seated fears, thoughts and understanding to delve into the unconscious and discover how it affects our day-to-day behaviour. 

Overall, I found the experience extremely illuminating and it certainly inspired me to change some of my thinking around money, especially when it comes to guilt and shame around spending.

What surprised me most is how easily Reynal was able to encourage me to link my financial habits with those in other aspects of my life, painting a bigger picture of the way my emotions play into my everyday decisions.

Accessing private therapy is of course a financial privilege, but something I feel is absolutely worthwhile to help you get to know yourself – not just your spending – better.

If you, or someone you know, are worried about their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website, with NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS list of mental health helplines and organisations.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer. For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email

If you are concerned about money or are struggling with debt, charities like Stepchange provide free and impartial financial advice. 

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