Tensions at home were mounting after Jeremy Field lost a second construction job as the recession hit.
He spent his days on the Internet and the phone looking for work. His wife, Kelly, who had been home caring for their toddler son, reluctantly returned to teaching preschool. But her part-time work meant a huge cut in wages and benefits, forcing them to sell a car and slash Christmas spending.
Kelly Field pushed her husband to keep searching. He was discouraged and it was hard watching her leave for work in the morning.
"It never was to the point where we were yelling and screaming at one another," said Jeremy Field, 30, who has a degree in construction management. "But there definitely was some tension that could be felt."
So the Fields were eager to participate in a study at the University of Georgia aimed at merging the realms of therapy and financial planning. The couple, who live in Athens, Ga., walked away applauding the blended approach, which is being tested at Kansas State University as well. A Nashville therapist and his son also have started writing about the subject.
"I loved the fact that they were together because all the people I know who are married, their biggest problem is money and who is spending what and not paying the bills," said Kelly Field, 29. "I hear that so much, people having blowups and fights. I thought, this is genius to talk about both."
Researchers say the timing for the broader approach couldn't be better as families feel deeper financial woes in the poor economy.
The recession "certainly gets everyone's attention," said Ted Klontz, the Nashville financial behavioral consultant. "They are open to a lot of ideas they weren't open to before."
In the past, people like the Fields, struggling with financial issues that put a strain on their marriage, have left both therapists and financial planners with questions unanswered.
Experts say therapists are taught to look for mental health causes for problems, not monetary ones, and haven't traditionally learned how to help their clients budget or reduce debt. So questions would arise when counselors met with widows consumed with grief who were also nervous about learning to manage their finances.
"When something financial does come up in a session that provokes a lot of anxiety, it becomes glossed over or just rolled up with another problem," said Kristy Archuleta, a financial planning professor at Kansas State who is also a licensed therapist. "So you might work on another problem that has some impact on the finances, but you never address the finance issues that are going on."
And most universities aren't teaching financial planners to address the causes of people's spending behaviors, such as spendthrifts wed to overspenders who learned their habits by how their parents dealt with money.
"They don't have any clue what to do," said John Grable, a financial planning professor at Kansas State University. "What we are finding is if you exclude the really high net worth individuals — the people who can write a check to have a planner and a therapist, and you just think about middle America — a lot of middle America is facing financial and marital problems both. Where do they turn?"
About 30 practitioners nationwide have begun combining the specialties. But there had been little research about how best to do it until recently as the universities in Georgia and Kansas began experiments and the Klontzes started writing about it.
"You would think this would have already been done, but what we are finding is that this is really the first time where therapists and financial planners are actually talking back and forth and kind of trying to see how therapy issues and financial issues interplay," said Grable.
The University of Georgia says results from its initial tests of the effectiveness of the approach, published in Family Therapy magazine, are promising. The article outlined the program and included raves from participants, including men who had gone to the sessions only for the financial counseling but were surprised how effective the therapy was.
Joe Goetz, a financial planning professor at Georgia, hopes the research will "start a movement" among practitioners. Kansas State, meanwhile, hopes to publish its initial results in the next six months.
Klontz, president of Klontz Consulting Group, helped write a study published in the journal Psychological Services in 2008 that reported success in treating more affluent people with destructive money habits such as overspending and hoarding — part of emerging research into money disorders that previously had been confined largely to problem gambling.
For the Fields, meeting with a financial planning and therapy student for five hour-long sessions encouraged them to examine where every penny was going and talk about how to handle the stress without hurting their marriage.
"I think we were more able to more openly communicate about where we were spending our money and how we felt about the job situation," Kelly Field said. "Sometimes at home you just get frustrated and kind of blow up when you talk about it."
Her husband, who is doing odd jobs and is training to become certified as a home energy auditor, agreed.
"It definitely helped us realize that there are ways that you can take the financial strains and be able to live with them comfortably and not take things out on each other, because it's very easy to do."
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