In order to negotiate the steep white water rapids of money and finance, everyone needs to sort their own shadows. Our heads are cluttered by our subjective sense of our own value – alternating overestimated and undervalued distortions of our inherent worth. We yearn for more security. We believe we are entitled, and don’t believe it. We suffer from inflation and deflation and depression. We accumulate, inherit, hoard, freeze, withhold, squander, control, and bankrupt our emotional assets. The language of feeling, of personal energy, and the language of finance draw metaphors from each other continuously.

We have internalized conflicting financial proscriptions about money from every faith tradition, fairy tale, and cliché: A rich man will never enter the kingdom of heaven, but the poor will be always with you. Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow…. a penny saved is a penny earned.

We are surrounded by a culture driven by advertising, baiting us to consume, accrue, spend, stockpile, display, and disperse our wealth. Spending is our patriotic duty. In America, the streets are paved with gold.

The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, in their Book of Symbols, reminds us that our present day “currency” in its primal form derives from “current” embodying energetic flow. Anciently talismanic, our present day coins and bills were most originally numinous offerings to the gods – and we continue to seek their magic. Money is power, freedom, an extension of ourselves, a weapon, a tool, an illusion, and a cold, hard reality. There are people who are money-starved who have gone numb to their hunger, and people who never, ever feel full no matter how much they consume. There are people who have far too much who think they have too little, and people who are being devoured by crushing debt who think they are living in abundance.

And there are as many different ways to be money-crazy as there are stars in the sky.

How do we even begin to chart an intentional course through all we project onto money? How do we begin to create a healthy enough, more conscious financial transaction in the treatment room?

Here is how I inch my way into the deep, and how I set my fees:

My goal is to find the fee that is the healthiest one for our relationship.

We need to find the number that honors the need for balance and mutuality between us, a figure that respects both of our real needs. We may take some time to discover what that number is. Sometimes we won’t finalize the fee for several weeks as we explore our needs, hopes, fears, and realities together.

On the client end, there are several things that I ask you to consider: your assets, income, debts, your reimbursement, if any, from insurance, what amount of money will make you feel sufficiently invested in pressing through to the changes you seek; it needs to feel financially uncomfortable to waste time in treatment. The amount should be enough to maintain some drive and pressure to move things forward.

The fee should also purchase your right to feel impatient with me when necessary – so that you feel entitled to express irritability, unhappiness, anger, to express any unpleasant feeling that you need to. If you pay less than you should, you may feel that you have to make up for it by being polite. Manners are nice and all, but extreme politeness is generally not so useful in the therapeutic process.

I also ask clients to consider how much they are investing in anything that is unhealthy, undermining, distracting, or destructive for them. Therapy needs to cost more than any vice, habit, or compulsion that you wish overcome. How much are you spending on alcohol? Cigarettes? Compulsive shopping? Bad dates?

Therapy needs to cost more than the things that are hurting you. You need to invest more in your growth than you do in your pain.

If you are in significant debt, especially credit card debt, you need to think of a number which will not add to it – and which can be managed on a monthly basis by eliminating other unnecessary or destructive spending. Debt is a kind of energetic cancer, stealing your peace of mind, your freedom. Therapy will do you no good if it feeds the debt tumor, causing it to grow. Debt or no, the out-of-pocket amount you spend on therapy should not injure you, and needs to be realistic and sustainable.

I’ve certainly met folks, bargain shoppers, who simply want to pay as little as possible for therapy – and they either take very little out of it, or my work suffers as I waste valuable relational energy managing the resentment that emerges when I realize that their manicures, their marijuana expenses, or their designer clothing bags indicate where their real investment lies, demonstrating that I am more invested in the changes they seek than they are themselves.

But I also meet folks who feel so chronically inadequate and guilty that they agree to pay my full fee without assessing whether they can afford it or not. Quickly, the number proves to be unsustainable, fees and anxiety accrue, and I become another creditor – a source of guilt, fear, and shame – undermining the inherent purpose of the relationship, reenacting financially old emotional patterns of withholding, guilt, power and control.

I’ll ask you to think about this optimal number – after thinking deeply about your financial realities and the symbolic investment. I want to hear the real, true number. The one that will serve growth, the one that might pinch, but won’t do damage.

Many people hem and haw at this juncture – worried that I will be insulted. I won’t. If the real number is $20, then that is the real number.

If I do have a low fee slot open, it’s yours. If I don’t, I can make an informed referral and try to find a good match with a low-fee clinic or a therapist who takes your insurance when that is the healthiest, self-respecting choice.

While you work on these questions, I make my own internal assessment: the fee is the primary transaction in the relationship where my needs will explicitly be addressed, since in all other areas, our transactions will focus on you. That is why money must change hands. All relationships need balance in order to remain healthy. Any and all relationships will languish without mutuality.

So I also must think deeply about my own “right” number. I consider many things: am I meeting my obligations to my family? Are my lower fee slots full? What time of day can you meet? Are you asking me to come in earlier or stay later than usual to accommodate your schedule? Do I have the energy necessary to set out on a new journey? Do we have an easy rapport? Or am I hungry for a challenge? Has my office rent increased? What investment, on your end, will make me feel that my energies are being matched, met fairly? Will the proportional commitment you make allow me to make a sufficiently deep commitment?

Most of the time, our numbers will come out very near to each other, and are easily reconciled.

There are times when my own financial needs intensify, or reorganize suddenly, and I have less room to negotiate than I would like. When external factors – the march of history and the national economy – drive many of my clients into financial crisis, I do my best to abandon no one who has begun the work and wants to continue it in earnest. The fee we start out with may or may not be the fee we end up with. It may rise and reduce, ebb and flow over the course of time.

I’ve seen clients move from the drought of severe economic hardship to abundance. I’ve seen finances dry up overnight for people who thought that their well of security was deep and permanent.

And in therapy, money – like any other aspect of human relatedness – must function as a fluid action, as a living transaction between two people trying to respect and address each other’s needs.