My internship is in an agency that charges sliding scale fees. One of my clients hasn’t paid for the last two sessions, saying he forgot his check both times. I know he can afford it because he just came back from a big vacation to Hawaii. How can I bring this up with him and get him to pay on time?
This is a difficult clinical issue, and it’s a good experience to have during your training. If you plan to work in a private practice after licensure, you will find that the meaning and emotions associated with client payment and fees become more complicated when it represents your income and livelihood. Having this experience while you are in training and not dependent on the fees for income allows you to come to a better understanding of the issues involved for you as well as your clients.
I recommend that you approach the exploration of money and fees by reflecting first on the meaning and emotions that are present for you both personally and professionally. Often money is a way of expressing and experiencing value or validation, and it may be used as a tool to exert interpersonal power. Feelings related to self-worth are often associated with the exchange of money in a relationship. These may include entitlement, comfort, envy, shame, deprivation, and pride. Think about the role that money plays in your family relationships and the meaning of money in your cultural community. You may become aware of implicit messages like “it’s not polite to talk about money,” “you have to fight for everything you get,” “you’re only worth what people give you,” or “if you work hard enough you’ll get what you deserve.”
In addition to your personal and cultural history with money, your current status as a therapist in training includes complex relationships with money. You may have taken on significant student loan debt or received support from a partner or family member. You are probably working as a volunteer or receiving a small salary while you are accumulating hours toward licensure, and you may be working another job in or outside the mental health field to pay your expenses. All of these factors will contribute to the feelings that arise in you when your clients pay or don’t pay their assigned fees. These will become heightened when you are in a private practice and your client fees are a source of income.
Once you have become more clear about how money impacts you in your clinical work, you can move to reflecting on the meaning of money for your client. Some of the things to consider are his early family experiences related to money, value, and power; cultural messages related to money and gender, since there may be different expectations for men and women; the meaning it has for him to seek services at an agency that offers a sliding scale; and the emotions associated with his financial choices. Think about conversations and interactions you have had in setting his fee, in sessions when he brings payment and when he doesn’t, and when he tells you about purchases or expenses like his recent vacation.
Your understanding of how you and your client think and feel about money will help you begin to identify the relational and cross-cultural dynamics in this therapy relationship and specifically in his recent lack of payment. A few possibilities to consider are: your client feels shamed by requesting a sliding scale fee and manages his shame by withholding payment; you are reluctant to discuss money openly and have had difficulty setting an appropriate fee and clear expectations about payment; your client devalues his emotions and needs for nurturing leading him to forget payment for a service that involves both emotions and needs for nurturing; your client associates masculinity with interpersonal power and is attempting to balance the power differential. What is important in your examination is to consider the contribution that you and the client are each making to this current conflict which will help you identify what you need to do internally and interpersonally to address your client’s lack of payment.
It may be helpful to use some of the guidance in a prior blog post about client attendance to identify a therapeutic response to your client forgetting his payment. Attendance and payment are two therapeutic frame issues that are often avenues for clients to repeat problematic relational patterns, especially those they aren’t able to articulate directly.
I hope you are able to use these suggestions in understanding clinical issues related to money. Please email me with comments, questions, or suggestions for future blog topics.