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Financial Therapist Delivers Reality Check

February 05, 2010

Brian Farr joined the fray in the pits of the Chicago Board of Trade in 1977, shouting and gesturing to make his bids and offers on financial futures. A member of the Board of Trade and a broker at 23, he felt at ease in the frenzied world of commodities trading.

“I was fortunate to make good money, which offered me a degree of financial security and freedom,” he says. “I also got a glimpse into the lives of some very wealthy people. Other than a few extra zeroes attached to their portfolios, they had many of the same problems as everyone else.”

After his nine-year stint in Chicago, he purchased and managed a San Francisco personnel agency, which he sold for a profit to a regional firm in 1993. He then moved to Oregon and cofounded a successful investment management firm. But something was missing.

“By 1999, I realized I was more interested in people’s relationships with money than with their rates of return,” he says.

Farr went back to school and earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling. He worked in public mental health agencies, and then opened his own counseling practice, specializing in financial therapy.

At his office in downtown Portland, Farr counsels both individuals and couples. To begin to get a clear picture of clients’ relationship with money, he asks them to write down every dollar they spend for two to four weeks. He finds that some are spenders, and some are savers. Spending habits, in particular, are frequently fraught with assumptions and miscommunications.

“Money can be a proxy for power in relationships. It’s also related to self-esteem issues,” he says. “Most people don’t grow up in families where finances are talked about openly. They arrive in adulthood without having seen money management modeled in a healthy way.”

Farr’s new clients fill out a financial balance sheet, a snapshot of their monthly income and expenses, and take a self-test for financial troubles, all available for free on his website.

“Americans have more secrets in their wallets than they do in their bedrooms,” he says. “There’s an entire population out there, 20to 40-year-olds, who grew up with increasing affluence and are now having to adjust their expectations.”

When the economy tanked and real estate values tumbled, so did creative financing options.

“People got away with sloppy financial habits because they could refinance their homes every three to five years to pay off credit card debt,” he says. “In the past five years, the financial therapy portion of my practice has increased from 10 percent to 60 percent.”

Some of Farr’s clients arrive at his office knowing something is amiss, but need help sorting out the details. Others, often referred by local counselors, come to the first session ready to tackle their financial problems head on.

“Some couples are truly fond of each other. They have a good relationship, but deal with money in a don’t-ask-don’t-tell silence or live in a financial battle zone,” says Farr. “I feel blessed when I can help them open up, tell the truth, and develop successful financial strategies. It strengthens their partnership, romantic relationship, and parenting skills.”

When it comes to his own style, Farr considers himself a saver. His wife, Jeanne, he says, is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, leaning toward the spender side. Early on in their relationship, Farr included conversations about finances as part of their getting-to-know-you courting ritual.

“Lucky for me, she was open to it,” he says. “Having the right tools doesn’t insulate us from stress, but it allows us to have difficult conversations about finances that ultimately bring clarity.”

—by Pattie Pace

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