Help for Financial Disorders






by Dr. Paul Schmidt


Forty years ago, some research I was doing proved that people with upper-upper income levels tend to live their lives in some ways very much like people with lower-lower incomes.  Both groups were preoccupied with money and work issues, and these hang-ups kept both groups from having close, comfortable relationships. With the rapid decline of the middle class we have seen during the ensuing four decades, it is not surprising to me that we have had accelerating growth in the prevalence of money and work disorders, such as those mentioned in the title above.

Research has identified sixteen bad habits with money and work that have similar causes and cures, sometimes called Dysfunctional Financial Behaviors (DFB’s):  under-earning, deprivation (consumer anorexia), codependent giving, financially sick love relationships, aversion to saving and keeping up with money, stealing (shoplifting, embezzlement), workaholism, chronic job dissatisfaction, adrenaline jobs, risky investments, addictive entrepreneurship, gambling, compulsive debting, compulsive spending (online or in stores), and hoarding. These money and work choices all serve to lower a person’s anxiety in the short-run, but increase stress for self and others in the longer run.

These habits can easily become addictions.  When should we use that term for it?  Addictionology widely recognizes ten signs that any behavior has become an addiction, and having three or more of these ten is the usual minimum for diagnosing a habit as an addiction:

  • Impulse control – recurrent failure to resist acting out DFB impulses
  • Broken plans – the frequency or duration of the DFB keeps exceeding what’s planned
  • Can’t quit – persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to stop for good
  • Time loss – the DFB takes up excessive amounts of time
  • Preoccupation – thoughts about the DFB keep intruding
  • Irresponsibility – the DFB takes away time needed for obligations or responsibilities
  • Social fallout –social, occupational, or recreational activities are skipped for the DFB
  • Behavioral escalation – it takes more and more cost and risk to get the same emotional relief
  • Withdrawal symptoms – anger, tension, or mood changes come when DFB can’t be acted out

One big problem with overcoming any bad habit or addiction is that giving it up is usually soon followed by picking up another addictive habit that serves the same purpose.  Recovery from the first habit diverts attention from how the new habit is growing under the radar.  Like the original addiction, the new habit “acts out” anxiety so that the person’s tension quickly goes away.  But all too soon, the stress comes back stronger than ever, for the addict, and for his or her loved ones.

Freud called this problem “symptom substitution,” and the process is usually non-deliberate, or as Freud taught us to call it, subconscious. Bad habits are maintained with “defense mechanisms”  such as rationalizations (“If you had my life, you’d do it too”), minimalizing (“I don’t do it that much”), normalizing (“Lots of people have habits like this”), bargaining (“I can fix this with my cleverness and will power”), and denial (“I don’t have a problem with this, you do”).

The first step toward gaining freedom from any addiction or bad habit is taking responsibility for it.  This involves learning how the habit came into being, how it operates, and how it could be dislodged.  Effective diagnosis must precede effective treatment, and in the case of DFB’s, good diagnosis must involve:

  • Identifying which of the 16 types of DFB’s are currently involved, and which are potential substitutes due to early fantasizing about doing them;
  • Looking at underlying causes and triggers, such as low self-worth, unresolved conflicts in current or past relationships, and emotional pain from buried issues or memories;
  • Describing values and beliefs which could help or hurt treatment for recovery; and
  • Surveying the damage that has been done to self and others by each DFB.

The best personality test available today to help people understand problems like this is the Money And Work Adaptive Styles Index, the MAWASI.  This instrument measures and describes symptoms of all 16 DFB’s.  Based on insights from theories of addiction, attachment, neural marketing, and behavioral economics, the MAWASI also helps people with these problems to discover underlying causes, identify painful triggers, point out most likely potential substitute addictions, and plan the most effective treatment strategies.

Just like eating food, working and spending money are natural parts of life.  Financial disorders operate in many ways quite similarly to eating disorders, such as bulimia, anorexia, and obesity.  In fact, research has consistently found that people who have eating disorders are more likely to have money and work disorders as well, and similar in type.  For example, people with impulse-control disorders are prone to both binge eating and binge shopping.  People who put too much food in their bodies tend to keep too much stuff in their homes and storage units as well.  In a January 2016 article entitled “Your Weight, Debt, and Clutter may be Connected,” Dinah Wisenberg Brin cites many studies that have found these problems tend to go together, so she concluded that all these disorders probably have similar causes, and similar cures.

The most effective recoveries involve thorough evaluation, professional counseling, intensive homework, and finding a community of others who are recovering from similar bad habits.  If you know somebody with a problem like this, give them this article, and then ask them how they see themselves in it.  “In addition to yourself, who is getting distressed and worn out from your behavior, and how are you feeling now about all this?”

Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt