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Why Talking About Money Is So Confusing in Therapy
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Our internal (and collective) conflicts over money run deep. They often trick us into thinking something is about money when it isn’t.
We have a lot of emotions tied up in money—and they connect to issues as deep as our survival instincts or primal wounds from childhood. We don’t like to spend when we don’t feel safe. We don’t like having to pay for what we should have gotten for free in childhood.
When Money Isn't the Issue, What Is?
When it comes to therapy, there are signs you can look out for that money—or at least the specific rate you’re paying your therapist—isn’t actually the issue. These include:
- You’ve never quite believed therapy can actually help you.
- You feel like you’re not getting much out of therapy anymore.
- Something happened in therapy that made you mad at your therapist.
- You suddenly have a problem with the rate you’re paying even though your income and budget haven’t changed.
- You’re doing work in therapy that is bringing up difficult feelings or anxiety around money.
- You’re feeling frustrated in other areas of your life, especially areas having to do with money, like work, or relationships that feel draining.
These are all signs that the issue is something emotional that wouldn’t be solved by paying a different rate. The main issue with trying to negotiate rates for any of these reasons is that paying a lower rate won’t actually solve the problem you’re trying to solve.
Negotiating therapy rates won’t help if the issue is actually that you’re mad at your therapist or can’t emotionally invest in therapy enough right now to get something out of it. In fact, trying to get “cheap” therapy so you don’t have to think too much about why you’re there can mask important issues. Nothing wastes more money than paying for therapy when you’re not ready for it or when it’s not the right time.
Sometimes, the solution to the issue is to quit, take a break from therapy, or find a different therapist. Sometimes the solution is to explore issues around security and self-worth in therapy in greater depth. Sometimes it’s to work on issues in other areas of your life that are making you feel like you’re giving too much to others and not getting enough in return.
The good news is that the road to the solution is always the same in therapy: talk to your therapist about it. Therapy is a safe place to discuss difficult topics, and your therapist is qualified to help you figure out what’s actually going on and to help you resolve it—whether it’s the rate you’re paying or something else.
We’ve shared our tips on how to negotiate fees with a therapist, but there’s more you need to know to be successful. Knowing when to negotiate fees—and when it’s a bad idea—is essential for a good outcome. Because in the end, what you pay is only half of the equation. The other half is what you’re paying for—which, ideally, is therapy that’s actually helping you.
And there are so many reasons you might think the problem is what you’re paying when the problem is actually something else. Our internal (and collective) conflicts over money run deep. They often trick us into thinking something is about money when it isn’t. But there are signs you can look out for that money—or at least the specific rate you’re paying your therapist—isn’t actually the issue. Read on to learn what they are.
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How to Know When Money Is the Issue
Not all therapists are open to rate negotiations, but it’s not rude, and it doesn’t hurt, to ask. Most won’t be offended if the reason you’re asking is that you really can’t afford their standard rate. Many will be open to working with you to find a number that works for both of you.
However, they’ll be significantly less receptive if you can afford their rate but would just like to pay less. This doesn’t mean you only have a right to negotiate if paying a therapist’s standard rate would mean you literally couldn’t afford to eat. Everyone has a right to enjoy more than the most basic necessities in life.
What it does mean is that before you negotiate rates with a therapist, you should know what you actually can afford. So, your first step before you do anything else is to sit down and take a look at your budget. This will tell you how much you can set aside for therapy.
For More Information
For more information about budgeting for therapy, you can read our article, “Deciding How and What to Pay for Therapy.”
In that article, we go over the different payment methods you can use for therapy, review the pros and cons of each, and give you information that will help you decide which is your best option for getting good therapy that fits your budget.
Keep in mind that it’s valid to create categories for “fun” spending or for things that other people might say aren’t essential, but that you know are essential to you. We’re not going to tell you that if you want to get therapy, you shouldn’t ever get avocado toast or go to that fancy coffee place you like. It’s okay to have a category called “Fun Nights with Friends.”
We think those simple pleasures are fair things to include in your budget. But we will say that you should be reasonable, and fair. If you’re spending hugely in every other area of your life but suddenly want to penny-pinch when it comes to therapy, something else is probably going on.
When You Might Think Money Is the Issue, But It Really Isn't
There are emotional and psychological factors that affect how we think about money. When these issues come up, we often try to deal with them by withholding money. Many of these issues come up in therapy.
What Else Might the Issue Be?
Here are some reasons you might feel uncomfortable about what you’re paying for therapy when the issue doesn’t actually have anything to do with your budget:
- You don’t know why you’re going to therapy or you don’t actually think you need it.
- You’re going to therapy to make someone else happy and aren’t really going for yourself.
- You feel like you need therapy, or at least some kind of help, but you don’t trust or believe that you’ll actually get anything out of going to therapy.
- You lack a strong non-professional support system and difficult feelings about that come up when you look at what you have to pay for your therapist’s professional support.
- You have been traumatized or otherwise feel unsafe. In response, your survival instincts are activated and they’re telling you that you can’t afford to spend—even when you can.
- You are burned out or at a toxic job where you’re not being treated—or paid—fairly, and you resent having to pay your therapist more per hour than you make per hour at work.
- Something happened in therapy that upset you, and resentful feelings make you want to withhold money. (That anger could be justified if your therapist made a mistake or is simply a bad therapist. On the other hand, it could signal that you are unearthing painful feelings or memories and that therapy is actually working.)
- You’ve been in therapy a while and feel like you’re not getting a lot out of it anymore, but you aren’t comfortable with trying to find a new therapist or simply quitting.
- You’ve been in therapy for a while and are starting to experience transference. Deep down, you wish your therapist could take care of you in the same way a parent would—without asking for anything in return.
One thing all of these reasons have in common is that they’re not really good reasons to ask your therapist if you can pay less for therapy. They all point to another course of action you need to take. Sometimes, what you need to do is to take a break or quit therapy altogether. Sometimes, you need a different level of care (sometimes lower, sometimes higher) than therapy. Or, you may need to reassess your therapy goals and dive deeper into other areas of your life.
When Money Isn't Actually the Issue, What Is?
An important hint that money isn’t actually the issue is when you want to negotiate rates in the middle instead of at the beginning of therapy.
There are valid financial reasons you might need to ask to pay less after you’ve been in therapy a while. It totally makes sense to renegotiate rates if your income has been reduced or your expenses have significantly increased. However, chances are just as good that what has changed or isn’t working for you is something emotional that wouldn’t be solved by paying a different rate.
If you feel like therapy isn’t worth what you’re paying for it, that might mean your therapist isn’t a good match and isn’t helping you that much. Of course, you’re naturally not going to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth if you’re seeing a bad therapist! Though that’s not the only reason therapy might not be working for you.
Making progress in therapy depends on your motivation and the extent to which you see it as a worthwhile investment. You can be seeing the best therapist in the world, and if you're not really in the right frame of mind to focus on therapy, it won't do that much for you. Feeling like therapy isn't worth what you're spending may simply mean it's not the right time for you to be in therapy.
It’s also important to understand that it takes time to see results from therapy, especially if you’re working on deeper, more complicated issues. It takes the first few sessions just to establish your reasons for being in therapy and to figure out what kind of work you’ll be doing together.
What Should You Do If Money Isn't Actually the Issue?
If you’re just not getting much out of therapy anymore, you probably need to do one of three things: quit, switch therapists, or take a break.
But lack of progress isn’t the only reason you might be wanting to pay less for therapy. Sometimes you’re seeing the right therapist at the right time, and you’re uncovering painful feelings about issues you need to address elsewhere in your life.
What Might You Need to Change Instead?
Other things you might need to do include:
- Make more investments in other areas of your life, especially your social life;
- Address circumstances in your life where you’re not asking for what you’re worth, such as at work or at home with a partner; or
- Set healthy boundaries around your time, money, energy, and labor with people other than your therapist.
It never hurts to explore the thoughts and feelings that come up around what you’re paying for therapy. By all means, talk to your therapist about it! This can help you figure out if your feelings are pointing to a personal issue you need to address instead of a budgetary issue.
And this is exactly what your therapist is qualified to help you do! Good therapy can unlock the mental changes you need to make to ask for a raise, get a better job, or leave an emotionally draining partner who’s holding you back.
Our Inner Children Don't Understand Having to Pay for Therapy
In other words, the closer you get to your therapist, the more a deep inner part of you starts to see them as a caregiver. That part of you is what many people like to call their inner child.
When you’re experiencing transference, your inner child may feel like your therapist should love—er, help—you for free. Like a parent.
It’s natural to yearn for what you didn’t get as a child. We all do. It’s natural, healthy, and human.
“Regressive” doesn’t mean “bad.” It just means you’re going back to something you didn’t resolve earlier in your life. Most of us feel this yearning in most—if not all—of our relationships.
That’s okay! It’s one of the things we come to therapy to work on and work through. It’s okay to feel upset about what you’re paying your therapist, even if the amount is fair and even if you can afford it budget-wise.
There are deep, meaningful reasons you feel the way you do. That emotion can be wonderful grist for the mill in therapy.
So, by all means, talk to your therapist about it, no matter why you’re feeling how you’re feeling. Part of what makes therapy so great is that it’s a safe place to explore difficult topics. Just understand that it’s not an accurate read on the reality of the therapeutic relationship to expect your therapist to care for you for free because of how awesome, deserving, or good of a client you are.
Therapy puts you in the spotlight. Your therapist invites you to forget their needs to some extent. But it’s helpful to remind yourself that your therapist has needs and to be fair. Real financial need is a good reason to negotiate rates; feeling like you deserve to pay less is not.
What Your Therapist Wishes You Knew
Chances are good your therapist cares about you. In fact, they probably care about you a lot. But therapy is their profession, and like everyone else, they have to get paid for their labor to survive.
In addition, to succeed in their profession—and to avoid violating professional and ethical codes—they have to maintain healthy boundaries between their personal and professional lives. They also have to successfully manage their own budget.
Why Do Therapists Charge So Much?
It can be helpful to understand why therapists charge what they do. Private practice therapists don’t get employer-based insurance. They have to pay their own insurance premiums and for all of their healthcare costs. They also have to pay:
- Rent for their office space,
- Legally required licensing fees,
- Costs for continuing education courses they must take to maintain their license, and
- Student loan payments for the education it took to get licensed in the first place.
It’s not your job to think about your therapist’s needs. Your therapist will be okay. They are making a living doing something meaningful that they wanted to do.
But it can help to alleviate frustration and resentment to realize your therapist is an imperfect person having to struggle to survive in an imperfect world—just like you. Their job is to set aside their needs when they’re with you, but they have those needs, all the same. This is why they charge what they do.
Most therapists want to improve access to therapy and other forms of mental health care. This is why most of them offer sliding scales and are open to negotiating fees. Even if they can’t or don’t negotiate, a good therapist won’t be upset that you asked. So please, talk to them about any concerns you have, including concerns about what you’re paying for therapy.
We have a habit of thinking money is the issue more often than it actually is. Yes, money is a real issue for most of us. But it often isn’t an issue in the specific way we think it is.
We try to channel our deeper stresses into smaller, safer containers—like the simple numbers game of money. By funneling our frustration into smaller problems that we can solve, we give ourselves small doses of emotional relief. The problem is, when we try to use the money to solve problems it can’t solve, we don’t address what is actually bothering us so much in the first place.
Negotiating therapy rates won't help if the issue is actually that you're mad at your therapist, hate your job, or can't emotionally invest in therapy enough right now to get something out of it. In fact, trying to get "cheap" therapy so you don't have to think too much about why you're in therapy can mask important issues. Nothing wastes more money than paying for therapy when you're not ready for it or when it's not the right time.
Therapy is a safe place to talk about anything and everything. It’s safe to bring up any concerns you have to your therapist—including concerns about what you’re paying. But when you talk to them, you might find out the issue isn’t actually what you’re paying and that the solution is something other than reducing your rate.
In either case, the way to find the solution is always the same in therapy—talking about it. So never hesitate to tell your therapist if you’re worried about what you’re paying! The answer may well be adjusting your rate, or it may be something else. Either way, your therapist can help you figure it out so you can move forward with greater confidence.
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.