When I first transitioned into a helping profession 25 years ago, I was moving from a short career in retail management. My motivation was to find some deeper meaning in my work and a sense of giving back to the world. I hoped that by working with individuals in crisis, I would help create change in their lives and, ultimately, the world around me. I sought opportunity for spontaneity, creativity and challenge.
The dull routine of a daily retail management career had felt deadening. I did not realize that I already held a version of money shame at that time. It felt wrong to be paid well to do something that was not serving the world in a positive way.
When I announced my plans to change my career path and life, I received mixed reactions from co-workers, friends and family members. On the one hand, they expressed admiration for my goal to help others; on the other, they voiced deep concern about my inevitable loss of income and prestige. Those around me repeatedly echoed the refrain of “you’ll never get rich.” But I ignored the warnings because my work in retail had left me feeling hollow despite the lucrative income. I accepted being the “underpaid caregiver” as part of what would make me feel like I was giving something back to the world.
Jumping ahead to today, I can look back and see that the warnings were correct. I did not get rich, nor do I hold a position of great importance or responsibility — at least in a corporate view of the world. I can easily imagine the discrepancy between what I have earned in a helping profession and what I may have earned if I had remained in the business world. Yet, I am OK with the decision I made because I can also imagine who I might be today if I had not met, interacted with and learned from the multitude of clients and co-workers with whom I have shared life.
The choices I made to become a helping professional and now a counselor were based on the promise of great intrinsic value and minimal extrinsic value. In the beginning, I knew I could make a living at this and be comfortable with the potential income. I have indeed been very comfortable and enjoy a good income that reflects my experience in the field. I am thankful when I look back over what I have been given, both in terms of money and experience.
As a 49-year-old graduate student, I am now transitioning into a new career as a counselor, but I continue to hear the refrain of money shame and money martyrdom in this field. At the same time, I have also begun to see changes in some counselors’ attitudes toward money and their expectations of income. There is increasing conversation about money shame and rediscovering ourselves as highly trained professionals who deserve fair compensation for our time and expertise.
Origins of money shame
Where does this shame and fear originate? Is it just an ingrained general response to the idea of helping professions? Is it a cultural expectation? Are we unable to do good works if we have an “ulterior” motive to make money? Is it ethical to be profiting from others’ despair and suffering?
Each person — counselor and client — brings his or her own personal relationship with money into the counseling relationship. It is important for counselors to be aware of their feelings about money and finances and how those feelings inform the client-counselor dynamic.
Some common refrains I hear from other helping professionals and counselors:
Predicting: “If you are going into this field, then you are not doing it for the money.”
Declaring: “We are not in this to make money.”
Defining: “If you are in this business, then you will never be rich.”
Martyring: “The money doesn’t matter; it’s the impact I have on others that matters.”
Counselors often work with those who have been compromised by life circumstance, economic or cultural limitations, mental illness or a combination of these and other factors. The resultant position that many individuals face when affected by these variables is one of diminished power and income. As counselors, we are looking to be positive forces in the world and lift others up. Considering this altruistic intention, it can be counterintuitive to think that we should be profiting from our clients’ misfortune.
Counselors interact on a very close and interpersonal level with their clients. Despite the practice of remaining neutral in that relationship, something ephemeral and deeply soulful passes between counselor and client. Deep tangles of the client’s psychological and emotional self are exposed and explored within that relationship. Although we maintain a professional and ethical distance from our clients, I believe that we inevitably connect on some level. Placing a monetary value on that relationship can be difficult.
The counselor, despite that connection, remains a professional. Like physicians, surgeons and dentists, counselors have received extensive educational and clinical training that allows us to be considered experts in our field. We have the talent and skill to administer to others and create growth and healing. As professionals, I think it is important for us to consider remuneration an essential part of our practice.
Ethics and value
Do we, as individual practitioners, have money shame? If so, can we learn and grow from this? When we enter a therapeutic relationship, we carry in our own past experiences, biases and filters. I have begun to ask myself a question: Is money important to me? On the surface, this seems obvious. After all, I need an income to survive and thrive. But the deeper question is about my relationship to money and income. It is a question on which I continue to reflect.
I am considering what message it might send to my future clients if I were to charge a very low fee for my professional services. My internal intent may be to make more services available to those of limited means. But externally, from a client’s viewpoint, it might say how little I value my own services. If I offer my services at a rate equal to or above that charged by my peers, I can project the belief in my value to potential clients.
I plan to make sliding scale and pro bono work an essential part of my practice. This is a concept counselors are ethically bound to offer. Here are what two standards in the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics state:
Standard A.10.c., Establishing Fees: “In establishing fees for professional counseling services, counselors consider the financial status of clients and locality. If a counselor’s usual fees create undue hardship for the client, the counselor may adjust fees, when legally permissible, or assist the client in locating comparable, affordable services.”
Standard C.6.e., Contributing to the Public Good (Pro Bono Publico): “Counselors make a reasonable effort to provide services to the public for which there is little or no financial return (e.g., speaking to groups, sharing professional information, offering reduced fees).”
The reduction of my fees to help better serve a portion of clients adds value to my services. I not only have the power to charge what I am worth, but I also choose to reduce my fee to further give back to those in need.
Reasons to change
Getting buy-in: The concept of buy-in is important for counselors and clients to take on. It comes down to what expectations the client has for the relationship. If a client “buys in” financially to the idea of counseling, then it is really an investment in his or her own future. The agreement that you both value the time spent in session can have a positive effect on the therapeutic alliance.
Modeling our own self-worth: Counselors can model what it means to view our own self-worth in a very concrete and public way. Rarely do people have a chance to monetize their education, experience and skills in such a public forum.
Strengthening the relationship: By broaching the subject of money with clients, counselors can seize an opportunity to establish the professional relationship and set the ground rules for what can become a highly personal relationship/interaction.
Being a maverick: Take time to reexamine what other professionals are saying about money and challenge some of the old beliefs or the “should.” Change is the beginning of growth.
Tom Gilley, a graduate student in the University of Southern Maine counseling program, is on track to graduate this spring with a master’s in counseling. He previously earned an M.B.A. from Southern New Hampshire University. He utilizes psychodynamic, existential and relational perspectives in his work, but sees each person as an individual first. He has worked for 20 years as a therapeutic houseparent serving adults with developmental disabilities. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.