07/15/2013 05:15 EDT | Updated 09/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Financial Dilemmas Are Really About Emotion

"I found your website and I need financial help. I don't know anything about finances and I have a decision to make." This is how the conversation started when Mandy called me today. I listened to her story as I've listened to so many others. It had an air of familiarity to it. Mandy had been married for 30 years, has four children, and had given up her career to care for her family.

Her marriage wasn't going well, her husband controlled all the finances, only giving her money when she needed it for food or household expenses. She had secretly enrolled in a university program so that she could upgrade her skills. Her dilemma: how was she going to pay for it? She had a few options and reached out to me for support.

As Mandy told her story, I realized that she was confusing an emotional and personal dilemma with a financial one. First, she needed to figure out the numbers. This was simple. The more difficult task was understanding her thoughts, intentions and emotions.

Often, starting with the numbers feels easier. The process is familiar and controlled. The busy work masks the fear and dread that sometimes comes with thinking about the future or making tough decisions involving money, easier. It keeps the emotional realm, which is often a hornet's nest of unacknowledged feelings and conflict, at bay. When the numbers don't work, a knot of anxiety settles into the pit of your stomach. The more anxiety builds, the more difficult it is to think clearly. At this point, you need to abandon the process and look at the emotions that are swirling around.

I helped Mandy take each option and consider the consequences. For example, if she took the money from the line of credit, was she prepared to respond to her husband's anger when he found out? If she applied for a student loan, would she have access to the financial information needed for the application? More importantly, was secretly going back to school even sensible? When Mandy considered these questions, she realized that her issue wasn't where to get the money from but what she wanted to do with her future. She had some inner work to do in planning both her next steps and future.

If you find yourself overwhelmed or stuck in making a financial decision, look inwards. This hesitation is a sign that there is an underlying issue you're struggling with. It can also mean that you are not considering the proper context. Are you too focused on the future and forgetting about today? Are you living according to your value system? Or conversely, are you so fearful of the future that you won't look at it and you live only for today? Either way, you're avoiding the real issue.

Here are some questions you can start with:

1. What does this money or decision mean to you? In Mandy's case, the decision meant her future freedom. However, she was caught up in the details and lost sight of the implications of her decision. She hadn't thought about the next steps and the practicality of going to school, managing a secret and hiding the truth for an extended period of time. She needed to think about other ways to achieve her freedom if this route was potentially blocked.

2. What are the consequences of the decision? No decision is free of implications. Think of it as a decision tree with branches representing "if" and "then". One client was trying to decide whether to continue with his freelance work or get a job. He was having a tough year and wanted the security of a paycheque. He needed to determine "if" he found a full-time job, "then" he had to give up the flexibility of being present for his kids and the freedom to create new work. "If" he remained freelance, "then" he would have to live with the uncertainty of his future but he could also find other revenue-producing avenues.

3. Who will be affected by the decision? You often forget that your decisions affect others and you need to consider how they are affected. One client's husband wanted to take early retirement. She wasn't emotionally ready to face that stage in their lives or in their relationship. He was excited about the freedom he'd have but he didn't think of what it meant for their marriage. They came to me to work through the consequences of what his retirement might mean for them, emotionally and financially.

I've seen Mandy's dilemma often. It's tough to figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to be. You go over your budget, unable to make the numbers work. You worry about your future and whether you can maintain your lifestyle in the face of job loss or retirement. You calculate and recalculate the numbers, trying to get to the answer you want, only to find the numbers don't work. What is really going on here?

There is never a perfect answer to your dilemmas, although you will try to achieve that impossible goal. Just remember, that decision-making is a process and you are never dealing with complete information. As I've written before, decision-making is emotional. The emotion is what provides the richness and complexity to our decisions. It also makes it tough.