The Best Therapy for Your Budget: Strategies We Recommend
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You can pay for therapy with cash, a debit card, a credit card, a Health Savings Account, or insurance. Using a credit card can help when you can afford therapy on a monthly basis but the timing of your weekly payments is tricky to manage. Using a Health Savings Account can help you save money by giving you a tax break and allowing you to save up for medical (and mental health) expenses ahead of time.
For most people, though, the biggest decision is whether to use insurance or to pay out of pocket. Using insurance can save you a lot of money—though not always—while paying out of pocket usually gives you more options and increases your chances of finding a therapist who meets your criteria.
Should You Use Insurance or Pay Out of Pocket?
Using insurance is a good choice when:
- You have an insurance plan with good mental health benefits;
- Your co-pay or coinsurance for therapy is an amount you can afford;
- It costs less to use your insurance than to pay a therapist’s sliding-scale rate; and
- You can find a therapist who meets your criteria who’s in-network with your insurance.
Paying out of pocket can be a good choice when:
- You have insurance, but your mental health benefits aren’t very good;
- Your co-pay or coinsurance for therapy is high and doesn’t save you much;
- There are limited to no in-network therapists in your local area or online;
- No in-network therapists meet your essential criteria for a therapist; and/or
- You’ve found a therapist who’s a great match who’s not in-network but who offers a rate you can afford.
If you don’t have insurance (or can’t or don’t want to use it), there are ways you can reduce your out-of-pocket expenses. Many therapists offer sliding-scale rates, discounted or pro bono sessions, or are otherwise willing to negotiate rates with you.
One of the best ways to find out if there’s an affordable therapist or program near you is to search the OpenCounseling affordable counseling database. We’re constantly adding new non-profits, publicly-funded programs, university community counseling centers, and other budget-friendly providers to our listings.
Where Can You Find Affordable Therapy?
You can get deep discounts on therapy—and sometimes can even get therapy for free—by going to:
- A community counseling center,
- A faith-based counseling agency,
- The public mental health system,
- A university community counseling program, or
- A charitable or non-profit mental health organization.
Look out for special programs that may be available to people who are members of a group you belong to. You may be able to get free or very inexpensive counseling if you are a veteran, a young LGBTQ+ person, or a victim of domestic violence, for example.
You might also want to consider online therapy, too. It saves you the time and money you’d spend on a commute, and you may even qualify for a discount. If you think online therapy might be the best choice for your budget and schedule, you can consider trying therapy with our sponsor, BetterHelp. You can get 20 percent off of your first month if you sign up using this link.
The most important thing is to know you have options. There’s probably more than one way to find therapy you can afford, and you can get great therapy even if you don’t have a lot of room in your budget. In fact, the affordable provider you’re looking for may be only a call or click away.
When you’re looking for a therapist, how much should you focus on cost? Shouldn’t other things be more important? This is, after all, a major investment in your future. It could change your life. Do you really want to go for the budget option when so much is at stake?
In many cases, you do! It’s good to be willing to invest in therapy, but you need to choose wisely if you want to make your investment successful. If you don’t pick a therapist whose rates fit your budget, therapy can quickly become unsustainable.
Read on to learn more about how to figure out a therapy budget and how to use what you know about your finances to choose a therapist who’s right for you.
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Why Do You Need to Know How You're Going to Pay?
To be able to choose a therapist who’s a good match, you have to know how you’re going to pay.
This is the only way to know if you’re even looking for a therapist in the right place. If you want to use insurance, for example, it’s a waste of time to research therapists who don’t accept your insurance.
Knowing how you’re going to pay is also the only way to make sure you can keep going to therapy for as long as you need to go. Therapy doesn’t always have to take a long time, but it’s hard to know how long it will take. You might think you have a single, simple therapy goal that won’t take too long to achieve, only to realize it’s just the tip of the iceberg and that there’s so much more you want to address.
Don't Expect a Quick Fix
In general, it’s a good idea to assume you might be in therapy longer than you originally planned. Maybe you’ll need to go for six months instead of three, for example, or you’ll want to go for two years instead of one. For this reason, you don’t want to pick a therapist who will max out your annual therapy budget in just six months.
Setting a sustainable budget for therapy can make the difference between being able to stick with it or having to give up before you’ve made real progress in your healing journey.
This is why the essential first step when you’re serious about going to therapy is to figure out how you’re going to pay for it.
What Are the Different Ways to Pay for Therapy?
To choose well, it’s important to know what your options are for paying for therapy in the first place. We’ve written another article that goes through all of these options in detail. You can read that article here.
When you pay for therapy using in-network insurance benefits, you’ll usually only owe a co-pay at the time of your session. This can be as low as $25 or $35. Using out-of-network benefits can sometimes save you money, but it can be tricky and have hidden risks, too. Read this article for help figuring out whether the risks might be worth it for you.
Using a credit card can help when you can afford therapy on a monthly basis but the timing of your weekly payments is tricky to manage.
Using a Health Savings Account can help you save money by giving you a tax break and allowing you to save up for medical (and mental health) expenses ahead of time.
When you pay with cash, a check, or a debit or credit card, you don’t necessarily have to pay a therapist’s full listed rate. Many private practice therapists offer a sliding scale.
While you’re researching which payment method you want to use, you’ll also want to be working out your therapy budget. You really need both pieces of information—how you plan to pay and how much you can afford—to be able to choose the right therapist.
How Do You Set Up a Budget for Therapy?
You set up a budget for therapy the same way you set up a budget for anything else. List the non-negotiable expenses you have every month, then see how much money you have left. That will tell you the maximum you can spend.
One of the trickier parts of setting up a budget is making decisions about what you can and can’t live without. How much of what you have left after covering your non-negotiable expenses is fair to set aside for therapy?
You’ll want to think about this carefully. Things you might be able to go without for a month might be tough to go without for a year. We certainly wouldn’t tell you to plan not to buy new clothes, concert tickets, or other things that bring you joy for as long as you’re going to therapy.
However, you do have to be willing to make some room in your budget, which may include making some sacrifices. If you’re not willing to sacrifice even a single idle streaming service or a gym membership you don’t use, it might be a sign that money isn’t really the reason your budget for therapy is so low. It might be a sign you’re not quite ready to commit to therapy and that it isn’t the right time for you to go.
What Do You Do If Your Therapy Budget Is Limited?
If your therapy budget is low, you’ll want to look for providers in your community that offer the lowest rates. These often include charity-based, non-profit, and publicly-funded providers.
It’s important, though, to understand which of these options are really options for you. Whether you’re eligible for publicly-funded mental health services, for example, will depend on how strict eligibility criteria are for those services in your state.
We encourage you to read our articles on faith-based counseling centers and university community counseling clinics. These are often great choices for budget-friendly counseling, and one or the other is available in most places. However, they’re not available everywhere, and they may not be right for everyone.
Should You Just Use Insurance?
Sometimes, it’s a no-brainer to use insurance. At other times, the decision is trickier to make. In theory, using insurance saves you money. However, in reality, whether it will save you money depends on your insurance plan and what affordable therapy options are available to you locally.
If your insurance documents don’t clearly indicate what your co-pay or coinsurance for therapy is, you can usually expect to pay whatever you’d pay for any other specialist visit. If you’re not sure, though, the easiest option is to call the number on the back of your insurance card and ask.
It can be especially tricky to figure out whether it’s worth it to use out-of-network benefits. There are lots of hidden catches that can end up costing you more than if you’d just paid out of pocket. If you’re considering it, we encourage you to check out our article on how to decide whether it’s worth it to use out-of-network benefits.
What Options Do You Have If You Don't Have Insurance?
At OpenCounseling, we’ve spent years building an exhaustive database of local non-profits, publicly-funded programs, and affordable counselors. We’re proud of our work and encourage you to start your research on finding budget-friendly mental health care with us. However, we know that we might not have every option for your area listed in our database and that there may be new options that we haven’t learned about yet.
For More Help, Try Our Guides
If you’re not finding what you need on the OpenCounseling search page, we encourage you to check out our page on your state’s public mental health program. On your state’s page, you’ll find numbers for local mental health crisis and informati...
If you’re not finding what you need on the OpenCounseling search page, we encourage you to check out our page on your state’s public mental health program. On your state’s page, you’ll find numbers for local mental health crisis and information lines that you can call (as well as locations of walk-in centers you can visit) to get referrals to affordable local programs.
The people who answer those helplines can also often help you figure out whether you’re eligible for publicly-funded mental health services. Many state mental health systems receive funding that helps them cover care for people who don’t have insurance. This can make it possible to see a therapist for no or very little cost if you meet eligibility criteria.
You can also reach out to private practice therapists to ask if they offer free or low-cost counseling (or know of any other local therapists or programs that do). Some therapists in private practice participate in programs that allow them to see people for little to no cost. Others have sliding fee scales based on income. Some even offer pro bono sessions.
Which Option Should You Choose?
There are times it’s worth paying more for therapy, but it’s not always easy to figure out when you should. And it can be hard to know what to choose when your options and budget are limited. However, answering any or all of the following questions can help you decide.
If you’re in a severe crisis that puts your or others’ safety at risk, please call a national or local mental health crisis line right away! But if you’re not in danger—you’ve just been in a slow-burning crisis and have been struggling to adjust for a while—therapy might be the right level of care. If so, you should consider how much more important it might be to find timely therapy than to sit on a waiting list.
It’s important to figure out whether the type of therapy you want to get would even be covered, though. Insurance only covers therapy when it’s for the treatment of a diagnosable mental health condition. Therapy solely for the purpose of personal growth isn’t usually covered by insurance. It’s worth asking a therapist you’re thinking about seeing whether they would be able to accept your insurance to cover what you want to work on with them.
If you’re already struggling to cover your bills, you may not be able to afford to pay out of pocket, or you may be able to set aside just enough to cover a discounted fee. Sometimes, you might be able to sacrifice a nonessential expense for a while.
Still, we encourage you to prioritize pricing even more than you might think you should. Finding a therapist who’s the right match is essential to having a good therapy experience, but it’s also easy to overthink it. More than one therapist might be a good match for you, and the best match is whoever you can keep seeing without having to stop just because of money.
One of the biggest decisions you need to make is whether to use insurance or pay out of pocket. It’s especially tough when you want to use insurance, but you can’t find an in-network therapist who’s a good match.
In some locations, you may be able to get therapy for free or for very low cost through the public mental health system, a faith-based counseling center, a university community counseling center, or a non-profit or charitable organization. We include many of these in our listings. Check out our affordable counseling search page to see if there’s any near you.
You can also find affordable private-practice therapists in our database. It’s a good idea to call a few therapists and compare their sliding-scale rates to one another. It’s also possible to negotiate rates with a therapist who feels like a good match but who charges more than you can afford. Don’t be shy about advocating for yourself to potential providers or being creative in who and how you ask for help.
Online therapy can be another affordable option, especially if you qualify for a discount. And when you get online sessions, you don’t have to spend time or money commuting to a therapist’s office. If you think online therapy might be the best choice for your budget and schedule, you can consider trying therapy with our sponsor, BetterHelp. You can get 20 percent off of your first month if you sign up using this link.
The most important thing is to know you have options. There’s probably more than one way to find therapy you can afford, and you can get great therapy even if you don’t have a lot of room in your budget. We encourage you to research what’s available to you locally and online. The affordable provider you’re looking for may be only a call or click away.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.