Thursday, September 13, 2012

What Every Social Worker Needs to Know About Financial Self-Care

What is financial self-care? Have you heard of the term Financial Social Work and wondered what it was referring to?

Today's interview is with Reeta Wolfsohn, CMSW, the developer of Financial Social Work and founder of the Center of Financial Social Work.

In essence, Financial Social Work is an innovative financial self-care toolkit that could enable both you and your clients to have a healthier financial future. As Reeta explains, Financial Social Work is a “behavioral model that moves clients beyond basic needs with a psychosocial, multidisciplinary approach focused on the thoughts, feelings and attitudes that determine each person’s relationship to and behavior with money.”

One of the key underlying premises is that the relationship that you have with your money is what drives your financial behavior (i.e., how much you choose to spend, save or not save) and it is your financial behavior in turn, which determines your financial circumstances.

Reeta Wolfsohn, CMSW
So without further ado, Reeta, how would you describe financial social work?

Financial Social Work changes the conversation about money. It provides a different way of thinking about money and it offers a better way of working with clients around the role of money in their lives, problems and issues.

Financial Social Work provides professionals and front line staff with the tools and skills to understand how their relationship with their money drives their financial behavior; how their financial behavior defines their financial circumstances; how their financial circumstances ultimately determines their emotional and financial stability. 

Experiencing the work personally facilitates success when implementing it professionally.

Financial Social Work is an interactive, introspective behavioral model which is multi-disciplinary, strengths based and heavily psychosocial and incorporates on-going education, motivation and support.  

In addition, Financial Social Work:
Motivates men and women to choose to be in a better place.
Provides the information and insight to make more knowledge based choices and decisions.
Supports change with a clear “Change process” and success with “Five Specific Steps to Success.”
Teaches how to anticipate, prepare for and cope with setbacks and disappointments.
Incorporates validation, recognition, encouragement and a self-assessment process which nurtures sense of self, self-worth and self-confidence.
Expands self-awareness and personal growth, as well as increasing financial knowledge.
What led you to first develop and ultimately specialize in financial social work?

I had my own special event company in NY for 18 years before returning to graduate school for my master’s degree in social work. In grad school my master’s thesis was on women’s issues which eventually led me to create (and license) the word “Femonomics” and create the Femonomics Institute in 1997.  

For me, the definition of the word “Femonomics” is “the gender of money” (based on the fact that women earn less, are traditionally charged more–for products and services–and because women live longer and comprise 75% of the elderly living below the poverty line.)  

Over time the popularity of my work made it less gender-specific and more behavioral in nature which is when it became Financial Social Work and the Center for Financial Social Work. Since then we have certified men and women who work with an incredibly wide range of populations and practice across the country and around the world. 

Both social workers and their respective clients tend to be rather overwhelmed with a huge “to do” list of issues to be addressed… How important do you think it is for social workers and other mental health professionals to study about and include financial social work as part of their work with clients?

When you stop to consider the many varied and serious problems and issues clients bring to social workers/mental health providers (domestic violence, poverty, divorce, homelessness, food insecurity, depression, anxiety, insomnia unemployment, underemployment, outpatient planning, etc.) you can’t help but recognize that money (or the lack thereof) is foundational to many if not all of them.  However, the approaches, methods and modalities practitioners use in client work rarely incorporate or address anything financial.

Money is the elephant in the room of every client session; it remains the last great taboo topic.  Not discussing its role in the presenting problem is a disservice to the client and a setup for client failure and recidivism.  Certainly basic needs always take precedence, but understanding the financial component of client problems and working strategically to address their role in each client’s life is critical to achieving successful outcomes.

To be totally clear, Financial Social Work is an important part of all client work both clinically and practically because money management is a core life skill too long ignored by our educational and mental health systems leaving too many men, women and families emotionally and financially unstable.

Money can be a sensitive topic for many people. How would you suggest getting clients engaged in an initial conversation about this subject?

Interesting question since September's free monthly FSW webinar is on engaging clients in financial behavioral change.

The simplest way to engage clients in this discussion is by including financial questions on an intake.  This provides a snapshot of the client’s financial situation and an opening for the money discussion.

One of my favorite activities for initiating money talk is through the use of the “Money Story.”  
Below is the "Money Story" webinar provided by Reeta last winter. 

The “Money Story” is a wonderfully nonthreatening, respectful method for connecting clients to why they are where they are and to where they want to be in the future - crucial information which is foundational to change. One thing to remember is when clients know it is safe to talk about money, they are far more likely to do so.

While I believe everyone needs a Personal Spending and Savings Plan, FSW is about helping clients discover the benefits of changing their financial behavior by understanding and improving their relationship with money because when clients know what’s in it for them, they have a reason to change and are much more open and enthusiastic to learning the skills and the tools needed to do so.

What are some questions that you would ask a client in order to find out how healthy he/she is financially?

As discussed earlier in the interview, asking the right questions on a client intake provides a cursory picture of the client’s financial situation and a context from which to open a dialogue about money.  

Rather than any hard and fast questions for opening the money talk, look and listen to how clients describe their financial circumstances within the context of their lives in order to recognize how and when to introduce this important subject. 
Avoid trying to put the client on a budget (no one likes the “B” word) or to urge clients to reduce spending.  
In your recent webinar on the 4R’s of financial behavioral change, you referred to the 4 R’s as: recognizing the advantage to taking control of your money and gaining control of your life, reinventing your relationship with your money, restructuring your financial life and reinforcing long term sustainable financial behavioral change.

Do you believe that mental health professionals interested in providing this type of financial counseling to clients need to explore/apply the 4 R’s of financial behavioral change themselves?

Early callers to the Center for Financial Social Work (FSW) often shared feelings of needing this work as much or more than their clients.  I quickly realized I needed to create the certification as a personal journey to a better financial future for each of our students so my colleagues could benefit personally from Financial Social Work as well as professionally.

One of my goals for our FSW graduates is for them to be hopeful, helpful, positive and healthy financial role models and resources as well as referral sources for clients.  The certification accomplishes this outcome by having them experience sustainable, long-term financial behavioral change personally, therefore they know what they are asking their clients to do and can be more compassionate and present throughout the process.

The 4 Rs is just one way I frame financial behavioral change to make it more engaging and achievable and to assure that everyone who attended that webinar had specific, achievable steps to implement.  I also frame it as “Financial Self-care” or any other number of ways to change how people think about and interact with their money.

Although financial problems and issues are not traditionally addressed in clinical work with clients, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t foundational to the depression, anxiety, insomnia, health, relationship, addictions, or other challenges clients bring to mental health providers.  They are.

Money represents different things to everyone which allows each of us to customize our financial concerns.  Not surprisingly many of us share similar financial worries:  feeling inadequate when it comes to finance; not having enough money; being homeless, hungry or unable to provide for our family; not being able to pay for college for our children (or ever repay student loans,) filing bankruptcy or experiencing foreclosure, never being able to retire, etc., all of which impact emotional stability and well-being.

It is easy to ignore clients’ financial problem and issues when so many other client concerns need to be addressed; it is even easier to ignore them when the practitioner has his or her own financial challenges to cope with and/or doesn’t feel confident or competent to do so.  It is a prime example of “healer, heal thy self.”

So yes, I sincerely believe mental health providers need to be more money-wise personally in order to be more likely to address money problems with their clients. 

Could you describe the certification process?

The certification is self study and self paced - our students have 6 months to complete (the majority complete it in around 3 months.)  Once registered, an online account is created from which they can download each of the five workbooks.  

When they have completed the certification they can request the online exam (it is offered on the first and the third Wednesday of each month.)  They have two weeks to complete it.  The cost of the certification has been $349 since we began offering it in 2003, but will go to $499 on January first due to the ever increasing cost of being in business.

We do offer a 10 week online version for organizations that wish to have a group of their staff go through the certification together.  These weekly webinar sessions allow me to provide more in-depth training on the workbooks as well as additional materials not included in the workbooks.  

How would you go about working with a couple vs. an individual regarding the 4 R’s of financial behavioral change? Also what about the individual who feels that he/she is “protected” by his/her partner with regards to the household finances?

Money is the number cause of divorce, the number one stressor in people’s lives, and the driving force behind the feminization of poverty, domestic violence and many forms of abuse.

“Trusting” the financial component of your life to another person makes about as much sense as trusting someone else to breathe for you.  Like it or not, life revolves around money: where you wake up each morning, the clothes, food, car, education, etc., which you do or don’t have are based upon your financial circumstances.  

Working individually with a client allows the client to explore money within the context of his or her own life experience.  Working with couples requires helping each spouse/partner to connect to their individual financial feelings and beliefs while working to craft a framework from which each can learn to respect the other’s position and to work together to develop the skills and tools to improve their financial stability. 

When working with couples I give each an individual assignment (they may or may not be the same depending on each person) and also give them an assignment to work on as a couple.  Session time is when the couple practices listening and communications skills and while discussing their problems and their progress.

All client work is done within the structure of the presenting problem(s) not as lessons in money management.  Financial Social Work is as much about personal growth and awareness as it is about expanded financial knowledge because sustainable financial behavioral change requires both.

How receptive are you finding universities, colleges and agencies to the innovative concept of financial social work?

Financial Social Work brings a new dynamic to the practice of client mental health work and delivery.  Its ability to help men and women make better choices in all areas of their lives including the financial component makes it an important and valuable contribution to the mental health profession and the clients we serve.
Financial Social Work absolutely needs to be brought to scale through colleges and universities and agencies.
I first brought it to the University of  Maryland around five years ago and to numerous other colleges and universities about the same time;  it has been taught as an online elective at the University of Kentucky since the fall of 2011 by one of our certified graduates using the Center’s curriculum;  I presented at the CSWE the past three years. 

Agencies, particularly community action and United Way agencies, have recognized the relevance and the need for FSW for many years.  This is evidenced by their certifying or funding certification for multiple personnel.

Furthermore, just this morning, I was invited to contribute to the new publication Encyclopedia of Social Work Online (ESWO), to be launched by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and Oxford University Press (OUP) in 2013. 
What are the aspects of your work that you enjoy the most?

The work I do fulfills me on every level.  Having the opportunity to help people take control of their money and gain control of their lives and knowing how meaningful and life changing that experience is makes all of the time and work I put in worthwhile.

My work is my passion and my mission in life.  It doesn’t feel like work because it means so much to me.  Except for spending time with my three-year-old twin grandchildren (Hannah & Robert), I am either writing, teaching, training or keynoting about the psychosocial aspects of money or trying to create new materials/methods for making the process of financial behavioral change more engaging, understandable and manageable.  

Knowing that my work has helped all of our students and graduates to improve their own lives as well to help their clients to increase their personal awareness and growth and  expand their financial knowledge is incredibly rewarding and keeps me doing all I can to reach more people and to make financial social workers and mental health workers leaders in the emerging field of financial capability.

What are the parts of your work that you find most challenging?

In these very difficult economic times there is an ever growing need for services but an ever diminishing availability.  I am always frustrated at not being able to reach more people with the message that there is always hope; it is never too late to improve your financial future.

Finally, what key pieces of financial advice would you offer recent MSW graduates or social workers?

Ten Financial Social Work Tips and Basics 

1. There is always hope!
2. Know you have the right, the ability and the responsibility to take control of your money and gain control of your life.  Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen over time.
3. Money isn't bad or good; it isn't the enemy; it isn't the root of all evil. Money has no special powers other than the ones you give it.
4. Connect with the financial component of your life. Improving your relationship with your money will help you to identify how to change your financial behavior to improve your financial circumstances.
5. Make friends with your money - Allow it to nurture you rather than to control you.
6. Choose.  Every life is filled with choices.  Make choices which prepare the way for better outcomes in the future than in the past.
7. Believe. Believe in yourself first and foremost; doing so acknowledges your inner strength; allows you to access it at all times; is the essence of self-empowerment.
8. Make a clear commitment to change. Put it in writing along with plans for overcoming obstacles and challenges.
9. Know what you want your money to do for you; what money represents to you. This knowledge will clarify your financial and life goals.
10. Be more self-accepting – When you spend your time criticizing yourself, you stay stuck feeling unworthy and undeserving of a better future; you are less likely to strive to become more money-wise.  Accept yourself just as you are as you continue to work to become the person you want to be.

Thanks so much, Reeta, for providing us with this valuable introduction to financial social work!

You may follow Reeta on twitter at @FinancialMSW or visit her on

What questions/comments come to your mind about financial social work? Do you have any concerns or questions for Reeta about engaging in this type of work with clients? 

You May Also Enjoy:
Self-Care for Mental Health Professionals
Continuing Education: Optional or Obligatory?
Technology Tools for Clinical Practice
Innovation in Social Work
Dialectical Behavior Therapy - A Mindfulness-Based Behavioral Therapy

Financial Social Work eBook
Social Work Matters: Power of Linking Policy and Practice


  1. This was a much needed post for me to read right right now. And although, I feel the post has actually has helped me, I am wondering how does an MFT work with only financial issues with a client? Isn't it out of scope of practice? I have a client that I am really struggling with right now because when the client talks about financial issues, I always feel the need to focus in on the connection with his relationships (children, dating, etc.) instead of financial matters because MFT's are required to work within the confines of a relationship issue. I have thought that discussing a budget would be completely out of scope of practice, just as discussing a diet with a client would be. I understand different psychology disciplines (LCSW's, MFT's, Ph.D, etc) are able to work with different issues. However, I have really been struggling with this because it has become more clear to me that my client only wants to discuss financial matters. As I mentioned, I am comfortable talking about financials with a client as long as they relate to relationships, but I have recently been feeling like a referral to a money coach is much needed in this particular case and that it is becoming out of my scope of practice. Could you please help me to understand how an MFT could ethically work with financial issues? How might I continue to work with this particular client under my license? And when it is appropriate to refer due to out of scope of practice? I very much appreciate this! Thank you.

  2. Hello Laurel and thanks for your excellent comment. I am not an MFT so can not address how to incorporate money within the boundaries and ethics of your profession. However, I have always believed that therapists who avoid or ignore the financial component of the presenting problem/issue do a serious disservice to clients because money is a part of everyone's life and by evading it the message to the client is that that is acceptable behavior when it absolutely is not and can only jeopardize progress and change in client work. I would be happy to discuss this further by phone or e-mail both of which can be found on our website. Thanks, Reeta

  3. Hi Reeta,

    If I may interject, do you think you could please clarify how the guidance that you are providing via certification differs from that of a financial advisor (and when you would recommend referring a client to a financial advisor)? By doing so, you may help eliminate any concerns that a social worker or any other mental health professional may have.


  4. Thanks Dorlee for providing me with the opportunity to clarify my response. It seems I neglected to explain that Financial Social Work students and graduates are taught that certification makes them more knowledgeable mental health providers with the ability to recognize how money factors into their clients’ problems and to integrate FSW in their client work; it does not make them financial professionals, planners or advisors. FSW graduates DO NOT give financial advice. Referrals are just as important a part of FSW as in all other types of counseling. Knowing and addressing the financial component of the client’s life and problems facilitates Financial Social Work practitioners in helping clients navigate the often intimidating world of finance and reduce the distance between a referral and a follow-up by providing compassionate, trustworthy resources and referrals in consumer credit counseling, bankruptcy, divorce, investing, etc. Many of our graduates do specialize in Financial Social Work but most integrate it into their traditional practices; most of our non-social work and non-counseling graduates use it in not for profit settings as part of financial literacy and asset building programs.

  5. Reeta and Dorlee,thanks for this.

    I am sending this ASAP to my current and recently graduated supervisees. I make it a point to talk about money with them consistently in our supervisions and in the classes I teach. Every semester I hear students lament how they have gone through graduate school without anyone ever mentioning money or having a business plan!

    I usually tie this disconnect to our discussion of gender and how social work as a largely female profession has often re-enacted the paradigm women have encountered in their work and money lives: Be silent, don't ask for money, and be grateful for what you're given.

    As a male social worker I feel that part of my being an ally is to share the more privileged attitudes I was taught as a man: Speak up, you're worth a lot, and go out there and knock 'em dead in your work. I try to correct folks gently when they call social work a "female-dominated profession," because there is a big difference between higher numbers of women in our profession, and domination vis a vis power. Men in social work tend to have an easier time getting hired, command higher salaries, and advance more quickly than our female colleagues, and that is domination and privilege in my book.

    Reeta, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the relationship between money and ambition, and issues you see arise from that relationship.

    Thanks again!

  6. Mike,

    I could not possibly agree more with you on each of the excellent points you made and so appreciate your taking the time to share them. I believe that social workers have the education, training, experience and skills to truly be the best agents of sustainable, long-term financial behavioral change.

    Unfortunately, money is rarely a part of the social work curriculum (although I am hopefully making inroads to change that) as my curriculum is being taught at the University of Kentucky. Over the years, I have heard
    two prevalent themes from social workers: we shouldn't talk to clients about money, and I have too many of my own financial problems to be able to help anyone else with his or hers.

    When you bring up the relationship between money and ambition I think you are raising the issue of self-esteem, self-confidence and sense of self. When those are lacking. people tend not to believe they can be successful. Instead they choose to remain in jobs they are unhappy with, as well as unhealthy and even toxic relationships, because they can't imagine a better future for themselves. That isn't lack of ambition but lack of self-worth, and it impacts every area of a person's life by closing the door to hope. These feelings often result from confusing self-worth with net worth and what you have with who you are. I could go on.

    Money and change are complex topics individually, let alone together, but with the right training and understanding, it is possible to not only engage clients but to get them excited about taking control of their money and gaining control of their lives.

    I hope to continue this dialogue with you,

  7. I agree completely that money is one of the last taboo topics, especially in social work. I also agree that social workers need to start by examining our own relationship to money. I've found that this comes up a lot with my consultees (especially women) who are establishing a private practice -- they are very uncomfortable setting fee structures and most of them undervalue their work and their time. I've found that people's beliefs about themselves and the world are usually reflected clearly in their relationship to money. It was always a topic that came up in my ongoing work with trauma survivors.

    Reeta, I'm intrigued by your new method, "Financial Social Work." In this age where we (i.e., practitioners and educators) are being asked about the evidence base behind what we do, I'm wondering if you can point me to any outcome studies on Financial Social Work--I would be interested even in some good case studies that include behavioral outcomes.

  8. Nancy,

    I couldn’t agree more that all practitioners should know/want to know more about the evidence base regarding the methods incorporated in client work.

    In truth, the creation of Financial Social Work has required over fifteen years of my full-time attention to building the knowledge base, developing the certification and client program and addressing the needs of our students, graduates and the organizations implementing the work. It has been creative and rewarding work that has demanded unwavering dedication. However, only recently has it begun to be recognized for its relevance to the social work and counseling professions.

    I welcome any and all research of my model. Unfortunately, cost and access to research is limited. A very small research project was done through UNC Chapel Hill’s school of social work in 2009; I presented with the researcher at CSWE in Portland, Oregon in 2010 (I can provide you with the publication which resulted.) Currently, my model is being extensively researched in Pennsylvania. This project is a multiple-year undertaking working with clients in three transitional housing agencies and one behavioral health setting.

    The majority of the “evidence” on Financial Social Work is anecdotal. However, the countless client success stories (shared by our graduates) attest to how the work engages clients and facilitates financial behavioral change, as well as those personal stories shared by our graduates on how the certification has helped them to take charge of their own financial futures.

    Additionally, the large number of agencies and organizations who certify ten, twenty, thirty employees and/or even their entire staffs demonstrate the relevance and need for Financial Social Work’s behavioral approach. They serve as referral sources for FSW to other agencies, organizations and practitioners focused upon ending poverty, building assets and helping individuals to improve emotional and financial stability.

    I would be happy to put you in contact with some individuals who could explain how FSW makes a difference within their organizations, for their staff and for their clients. Just let me know.

    I hope this is helpful, Reeta