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Is Affordable Therapy a Mythical Unicorn?

Try these 12 tips before giving up.

Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash
Is affordable therapy a thing?
Source: Nik Shuliahin/Unsplash

Even with all the resources in the world, a good therapist can be hard to find. Add to this budget constraints, and it can feel harder than finding fur on a rattlesnake.

Folks may tell you, “That’s just what it costs. Can you really put a price on getting the help that you need?” On the other hand, “Um, yes you can.” The view that money should be no object in the quest for mental health is drastically out of touch with the financial realities of most of the world. Therapy should not be a source of undue financial hardship. Everyone deserves support regardless of their capacity to pay.

If you keep running into dead ends in your search for the seemingly mythical unicorn or an affordable, quality, “right fit” therapist, try the following. Some of these tips may sound rudimentary—but they aren’t always obvious to first-time seekers amidst an incredibly complex landscape. As always, take what works for you and leave the rest behind.

  1. Be honest with yourself about your budget. There can be an initial sticker shock when you see the cost of individual therapy. Costs generally range from $65 to $250+ per session—the higher end of that is standard in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. If you’re able to do this, great. And if you're one of many who can't currently afford these fees, come up with a number that may feel noteworthy, but that won’t cause long term strain. This clarity will help your search. Psychology Today is one example of a therapist search engine that enables filtering by fees.
  2. If insured, call your insurance company. Ask about your mental health benefits. There’s often a limited supply of “in-network providers,” so you’ll also want to ask, “What are my out of network benefits?” A therapist outside your network can provide a receipt that you can submit for (usually partial) reimbursement, depending on your policy. Make sure to get very clear here. For instance, some insurance companies will only reimburse sessions with specific types of providers. Often there is a maximum reimbursement for the year.
  3. If you’re employed, ask your workplace. Are there any mental health resources you’re entitled to as an employee? More and more organizations recognize the benefit of supporting employee mental health.
  4. Ask your doctor. Primary care doctors are often quite familiar with healthcare resources including counseling. Let them know your budget constraints.
  5. Check your county website. Thankfully there are community resources and non-profits that offer free or affordable therapy resources, and a county website can be one source for discovery. There aren’t enough to meet the need, but they offer great care, and are generally very open to helping with referrals.
  6. Ask any practitioners you wish to see. If the practitioners you’d like to work with aren’t affordable for you, ask if they offer any “sliding scale” spots, or if they may be able to recommend other resources within your budget.
  7. See a therapist in training. You can often see a therapist who completed years of training but isn’t yet licensed for a reduced rate. There’s some evidence showing therapists in training can be as effective (sometimes more) as experienced clinicians due to ongoing weekly supervision, a learner's mindset, and deep commitment to the work. You can find incredible therapists in this category at therapist training centers, universities with counseling programs, or private practice therapists who supervise interns.
  8. Seek out other types of credible (but non-licensed) providers. Many organizations are testing and creating innovative ways to meet the high demand for mental health services amidst a scarce supply of affordable options. For instance, peer counseling is shown to be tremendously effective and is getting increased attention and funding for an affordable approach to meet the surging demand for care. No-cost options like 12-step programs have been supporting folks with lifestyle changes and recovery for decades.
  9. Reap the benefits of tech. Mental health tech is booming (even as funding for start-ups in the non-clinical wellness space slows), and with this comes a variety of affordable offerings. Leverage apps, but try to source your choices based on credible recommendations (like this list via the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences).
  10. Control the dose. Many therapists focus on or specialize in short-term therapy, which can be both effective and cost-effective.
  11. Cut to the chase. If you have a specific challenge, try to see someone who specializes in that challenge so that you aren’t investing in solutions that lack promise. For instance, if you know you have ADHD, and also feel depressed or anxious, look for someone who understands both. If you’re looking for help with your relationship, see a couples counselor.
  12. Stay discerning. The most important factor in successful therapeutic outcomes is what we call “goodness of fit.” Low-fee doesn’t have to equate with low-quality. Again, you deserve quality care regardless of your capacity to pay.

Good luck with your search! If you have simple tips or strategies that you think could aid readers in their search for an affordable therapist, please reach out!

To find a clinician near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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