In my psychotherapy practice, I have worked with people who run the gamut from exceptionally wealthy to those who can barely survive on their very limited resources.

The subject of money and its role in peoples’ lives comes up frequently in sessions and in a variety of ways, aside from the issue of the fee for the therapy itself. With individuals, the concerns tend to center around the cost of living reasonably well in New York City and managing the familiar demon of financial debt.

With couples, the worries are much the same. However, a common debate occurs when different priorities and values create conflict between marital partners regarding what is and is not affordable.

Money issues, too, are often an indirect means of expressing other beliefs and fears that people hold, perhaps without being consciously aware of them. 

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One example of this phenomenon was apparent in the therapy of a wealthy investment banker who, despite his high six-figure annual income, told me that he was convinced it was impossible to afford to raise a child in New York City. The many people he knew who were raising one or more children in New York on a fraction of his income had no impact on him, whatsoever. Further therapeutic investigation of this rather curious and strongly-held belief revealed a man who was frightened to become a father, traceable to his own painful history as a child in an unstable and unhappy family. “I can't afford to raise a child” really had nothing to do with money. He could afford a child financially, but not emotionally. He was helped by being able to recognize how a long-held “money issue" had nothing really to do with money at all.

Another patient informed me that despite his need to develop an exercise program for health reasons, he was not able to afford a membership at a local gym because the $900 annual membership fee (which could be paid at $75 per month) was “way too expensive” for him. It was helpful that I happened to know that this same patient thought nothing of frequently ordering $150 bottles of wine when he ate out several times each month! He had never made the “can afford/can't afford” connection.

Another patient complained in a marital therapy session that a raise for the nanny (whom he did not particularly care for) was “out of the question” since it was “a budget-buster.” When reminded by his wife of the price he paid for two tickets to the World Series for himself and his son ($900 each!), he realized how little the issue being discussed was money-related.

There are many more examples like this. I treated a man who “couldn't afford” a vacation involving air travel who was actually deeply afraid of flying. There was the woman who claimed “financial hardship” made it “impossible” to pay an entry fee to a social event who was terrified of the rejection she might suffer if she attended. There was a patient who could “no longer afford” the training program in which he was struggling to survive when he was actually wrestling with a fear of failure.

We are all vulnerable to making judgments such as the ones described above. It is especially helpful and self-enlightening when we “dig a little deeper” in order to determine whether we are being truly honest with ourselves or if we are substituting money concerns for a different and entirely unrelated issue—perhaps one that we need to address with a mind toward personal growth and change.

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