[Key Words: finances, financial skills, demands of life, making a living]
In the world of counseling today, talking about one’s finances is almost a hush-hush experience, where some counselors might confess that they talk about the filthy lucre behind closed doors. Having taught at the university level for a number or years, I have had more than several students approach me, almost apologetically, with concerns about making a living as a counselor. It is as if such a thought should never cross the mind of one wanting to enter the career world of psychotherapy. Additionally, I have lost count of family members, friends, numerous clients, and acquaintances who had major concerns regarding their finances. Given today’s climate of recession, bankruptcy, government bailouts, inflation, and credit expansion problems, why would we think that people’s finances would not fall front-and-center of their concerns? From an existential perspective, people’s finances belong to the personal dimension. Moreover, while society, the group or the herd might have rules concerning how people think about money, from my perspective, such decisions involve freedom and responsibility on the part of each individual.
Beliefs about finances, like many other aspects of our lives, are grounded in our values, values of which we may be aware or unaware. Finances speak to our ability to continue our work, and to a degree as to whether we succeed or fail, not so much as a measuring stick, but to our ability to carry on our work the way we desire. The financial world is a reality that makes demands on us, as Viktor Frankl would phrase it. To face and deal with that reality does not mean that we need to make money our ultimate value. But we do need a sound understanding of what it means to make a living and to develop skills around money. I want to address two issues in this essay: 1) the finances of the therapist as a legitimate concern; 2) the importance of talking with clients about financial problems.
The Right to Earn a Living
For some reason, many counselors enter the field with the experience that thoughts regarding making a decent income for themselves and family produce guilt trips. After all, is it not true that one of the fundamental values for the counseling profession is altruism? Let me say something up front that might shock many of my colleagues in the counseling world: I am not an altruist. However, that fact has little to nothing to do with my concern for others’ well being and the empathy I can have toward them. I have a strong desire to see people achieve fulfilling lives for themselves and to do well in life – in other words, to carve out the good life for themselves as they see it. As one who approaches counseling philosophically, I believe that one of the most important questions that individuals can ask revolves around the kind of lives they want to live. My approach to counseling challenges people to take stock of their lives. What do they want in life? Are they clear as to what values they hold? Are they living in alignment with those values to which they claim to adhere? And what skills do they need to develop to create the kind of life they want for themselves? To explore such questions, one cannot avoid discussing work, career, or making a living, however one desires to phrase it. Financial stability is an important and worthy goal that people pursue. As any worthy goal, it requires constant development and acquisition of skills, discipline, understanding, and wisdom. As we discuss financial matters and concerns with our clients, we too, as counselors, must come to grips with financial challenges for our lives.
One of the existential writers and therapists who has influenced my thinking is the Logotherapist, Viktor Frankl. Frankl, due to his experiences, emphasizes an idea that somewhat contrast our age of entitlement. He asks people to consider the question what life demands of them. I know in our present zeitgeist, where major financial firms are bailed out by the taxpayers, and we witness so-called successful people seek avenues to avoid the choices they have made, we would prefer to demand from life rather than meet the demands of life. For some, Frankl’s challenge may sound too objectivist, but I don’t believe it is. Some might believe that such a perspective privileges a particular view of reality over another, but I believe that notion is short-sighted. I will say plainly – if one believes that he or she can pursue a private practice in therapy and not consider what it takes to make a living, then a cold, harsh, financial reality will come crashing down on such naiveté. One might think it would be better if such concerns were not part of life. But aside from utopias, the fact of the matter is that resources are scarce. People will choose how to allocate those resources, and that includes their choice as to whether or not to engage therapy. Having insurance does not necessarily alter that choice or the need to choose how one should properly allocate his or her resources.
Consequently, therapists must consider what they offer clients, how much they charge particular clients, and how they assess whether or not what they offer is serving clients well. All these concerns go hand-in-hand with being an entrepreneur. And whether beginning practitioners like it or not, if a private practice is their target goal, then they had best be entrepreneurial in spirit. Counselors need to realize that there is nothing wrong with considering it important to deal with questions about financial matters, and that there is everything right about wanting to succeed both professionally and financially at what they do. In fact, if they do not succeed financially, then they will less likely possess the means to offer their services to those who need and desire them. More importantly, counselors, like anyone else, need, individually, to struggle with the questions as to what kind of life they want to live, how they wish to engage life, and how their values impact the way that want to work and make a living.
Life makes demands on us. There are no utopias. Being a private practitioner demands certain skills that we must develop – financial skills, organization skills, marketing skills, and communication skills that inform prospective clients what we have to offer. Our relationships to clients are important, but they are, nonetheless, professional as well as therapeutic. As a private practitioner, we have the right to labor at earning a living. (I did not say we have the right to make a living; we have the right to try to earn a living. We may indeed fail at that pursuit.) We have the right to offer our services in a market that will sustain what we have to offer. We need not experience any guilt concerning our professional endeavors to succeed. Nor does anyone own our skills. As private practitioners and licensed counselors, we have studied, trained, and continue to develop our skills. We do not owe our skills to anyone at their discretion. Simultaneously, we can offer our skills to those in need based on their situation and abilities to seek our services. Negotiating and navigating such professional decisions are a part of life and make up the myriad of choices we all make day-in and day-out. Licensed counselors are entering a competitive market. Economic times now demand belt-tightening. How we offer our services and communicate the importance of what we offer will go a long way in helping us continually connect with a clientele that desires to seek us out. If counselors feel guilty about making a living, they will face a difficult time in carving out a place for themselves to offer their skills to those who desire and need them.
Clients search for YOU as a professional. Make sure you have what it takes to be one.
Clients and Their Finances
It seems as though one of the great taboos, to hear practitioners talk, is to discuss with clients their concerns about – shall I whisper it – money (shhh!!). As I stated above, I know very few people who have not struggled with financial concerns at some time in their lives. Presently, we exist in a culture of debt. Over the years, I have talked with numerous people – family, colleagues, friends, and clients – all of whom have struggled with debt and over-spending. Once again, I turn to Frankl’s dictum: life makes certain demands on us. One of the basic themes of existential thought is freedom and responsibility. When we make certain choices, consequences ensue. If we spend more than we make, then we end up paying for it in ways we did not intend. Along with a culture of debt, we also have a culture bathed in immediate gratification. In fact, these two outlooks on life go hand-in-hand. From what I have seen in working with people, delayed gratification is a task that is difficult to learn. (And I include my own experiences in that cultural assessment. I had to work my way out of $40, 000 dollars of credit-card debt.)
One of the things I am aware of as someone who approaches life from an existential framework, is the tendency we have to blame others for our circumstances. Although I am not defending all the practices of credit card companies, they nor anyone else held a gun to my head, forcing me to spend myself into a large amount of debt. I could wish the world to be make up otherwise, but it is not. (Today, I could possibly petition the taxpayers to bail me out of that kind of debt; but that would be the ultimate in existential bad faith!) Consequently, in talking with clients about the choices they make, I think it is extremely important not to avoid talking to them about money when the subject emerges – as it often does. One of the services that I ultimately want to provide is to help people get out of debt. I am not, nor do I want to be, a certified or licensed financial planner, but I am building a referral list of good ones out there to whom I can refer clients. But one of the things about which I can talk with clients, as one who has walked in their shoes, is about the skills it takes to become debt-free. I have recently purchased some books by Dave Ramsey, who has helped a large number of people escape the chains of debt. I think people in debt would do well to work and train with him.
Part of the good life is financial stability, like it or not. Resources are scarce. How one allocates one’s resources is a skill set that needs constant development. How one thinks about money is important to one’s existence, and financial savvy is an important skill to develop and apply to living. It’s an important skill, not because money should rule us, but for the very reason that it should not rule us. When people are in debt, money can easily rule them and become their only focus and worry in life. Skillful and wise living regarding finances does not mean that money must rule one’s life; however, such skills can mean that money never has to rule one’s life.
As I close this essay, I want to make the claim that finances and our beliefs and values around money contribute heavily to how we pursue the kind of life we want. Consequently, discussions about money are real life discussions, both for therapists and for clients. We should determine how we want to make a living and how we relate to our various clients who possess diverse means for paying or our services.
In making such a claim, however, I want to clarify what I have not said. In this politically-correct age where rhetoric is king, I can already hear and feel the words being stuffed into my mouth that I never once uttered nor intended to utter. One, I do not think that money should be the ultimate goal for pursuing any kind of work or endeavor. In fact, from the perspective of my values, the love of money can lead us to become lost as to what we are truly about and the real successes that follow from embracing who we are individually. How one relates to money as a goal, however, is an individual choice. Two, although I do not embrace the philosophy of altruism and notions about the common good as it is espoused these days, that fact does not mean I do not care for other people’s well-being, or that I do not have the desire to see others fare well in life as they pursue it. Indeed, one of my inwardly, satisfying experiences is to see people pursue their personal meaning in life and find their place in life’s journey, as we all seek to do. I also believe that if we develop skills around spending and saving, we will have more to give to those in need as they cross our paths. Whether we give or not is a matter of individual values and choices. As any choice, it has consequences. I believe giving can inspire our spirit, as long as it is not coerced or done to alleviate some guilt trip we have experienced around money. Third, I believe we should find ways to work with clients who are financially strapped. If we each do that as individual practitioners, I think we can meet many individual’s needs as we encounter them. And finally, I am not saying that money or income should be something that rules every decision we make. Nor am I saying that money is the measure of success. In fact, I firmly believe that if we develop skills around finances, money will become less of a concern, as indeed it should be, at least in my hierarchy of values.
Life makes demands on us. Skills revolving around finances and a healthy view of money are a couple of those demands. We could wish otherwise, and find ourselves at the mercy of bad decisions regarding money. Or we can engage the demands of living, and learn to live life skillfully, which at least involves the choice of intelligently and wisely deciding how we want to make a living and use our money. We have bills to pay, mouths to feed, and a future where we grow old and possibly cannot work the way we do in our younger years. No one else can make choices for us regarding those realities. If you want to be an altruist, that is fine; but do not fall victim to other people’s altruism and the rules they will have for you regarding money or success. That is something each individual must carve out for him or herself.
I have been on the other side of bad decisions about money. Presently, I am on the opposite side; I hope I never go back.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/December 15, 2013