Money Rehab Offers Hope for Some Financially-Troubled Americans

PHOTOMichael Pressman/ABC News

According to a recent poll by the American Psychological Association, two-thirds of Americans say the economy is a significant source of stress in their lives. Yet for a nation in the midst of an economic panic attack -- not to mention a crisis brought about by overspending -- there are surprisingly few options for the treatment of money disorders.

Onsite Workshops, located west of Nashville, Tenn., is trying to fill this void. Their intensive one-week money rehab program is currently the only residential treatment program in the country for people with troubled relationships with money.

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Recently, "20/20" followed nine diverse Americans who had one thing in common: they were at their wit's end financially, and had come to Onsite to confront their money woes head-on.

These financial troubles are manifested in a variety of different ways.

"Compulsive buying disorder, workaholism, financial enabling, financial incest [the inappropriate involvement of children in adult financial matters], and compulsive hoarding. Those are the main ones we see," says Brad Klontz, a clinical psychologist who specializes in financial psychology.

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Brad Klontz leads Onsite's money workshop along with his father, Ted Klontz, a psychologist, and Rick Kahler, a financial planner.

For the duration of the program, participants must say goodbye to cell phones, Blackberries, TVs, and cars. The focus each of the rigorous sessions -- which run from eight in the morning until eight at night -- is taming out-of control money habits and the unhealthy attitudes behind them.

At Rehab, Money is Symptom, Not the Disease

The core belief at Onsite is that money issues, no matter how serious, are never really about money.

"Money is basically the symptom but it's actually not the disease," explains Brad Klontz.

The real disease is a complicated mix of psychological baggage, often dating back to childhood. The goal of the week-long program is to get participants unpack this baggage, determine the root of the problem, and commit to changing the behavior.

To this end, the program uses a variety of different activities: interactive exercises, meditation, closed-door group therapy, end even financial literacy tutorials.

Each participant must determine their personal "money script," or pattern of unconscious beliefs about money that drive their financial decisions and behaviors. They also draw a "money egg," which is a list of influential life experiences -- both positive and negative -- related to money.

The counselors also ask provocative "what if" questions that force the participants to re-evaluate their priorities.

"You've just come from the doctor ... he told you that you have 24 hours left in your life. The question is not how will you live the next 24 hours. The question is, what dream or longing will you leave unfulfilled? What do you wish that you had done or become? What are your regrets?" asks Rick Kahler.

Overspending Common Trait Among Clients

For Mary Lockwood, a divorced single mother from Dothan, Ala., Kahler's simple but profound exercise tapped into something powerful.

"I just melted and I could not do the assignment. I had never been asked, what are your dreams? What are your goals? What do you wanna be when you grow up?" says Lockwood.

Now an overspender who refuses to buy anything used, Lockwood's money problems are closely linked to painful childhood memories.

"When I get out of here, I'm gonna buy new things and they're gonna be nice," she recalls thinking as a child.

Not surprisingly, overspending is a common trait among the clients.

Will Steih of Franklin, Tenn. is desperate to rein in his lifestyle. In his race to "keep up with the Joneses," even in the face of financial difficulties, Steih fears he's lost sight of what really matters.

"It really started to dawn on me, with the birth of my daughter, my first girl, that I needed to get a handle on my own money issues," says the father of three.

The irony is that Steih is an accountant and financial advisor who helps others organize their money for a living, yet Steih has not adjusted his own household budget to reflect his recent decline in income. Even worse, he has even tapped into the equity on his home to sustain his lifestyle.

Like the other participants, Steih has deeply ingrained beliefs about money: it buys power, love and happiness. "The only way to be okay is to look like and talk like the tribe, no matter what, I got to fit in," he says.

Unlike Lockwood and Steih, Kevin Hays of Birmingham, Ala. does not spend too much money. In fact, he has the opposite problem: he hordes it.

"I have probably some money that I don't even know that I have," says Hays.

Hays is terrified of spending money, and this fear drives the father of two to work excessively, to the detriment of his family life.

Experts Say Understanding Pain is Key to Recovery: 'When There's a Hole in the Wallet, There's a Hole in the Heart'

"Last year I was working more and missed all my son's baseball games ... and he told me 'Dad I really want you to be here,'" says Hays. "I just feel trapped. What the f*** am I supposed to do? Where do I go? I want to work, I love my job. I want to do more of it, but not at the expense of my family."

Ted Klontz believes that painful and traumatic childhood events are a frequent trigger for money disorders. "I'm always profoundly moved by the way children experience like what we would call normal everyday events."

Onsite helps clients identify these formative experiences. These discoveries, in turn, lead to breakthroughs for many of the participants,"a-ha" moments in which they are finally able to grasp the psychology behind their irrational behavior.

Steih, the financial planner obsessed with "keeping up with the Joneses," was able to piece together early episodes that shaped his intractable ideas about money and status.

As a pre-teen, he desperately wanted a "Members Only" jacket. "[It] was an important status symbol. And when I came home to talk to my very thrifty mother, wonderful dear soul that she is … she did what she thought was a solution and that was to go get a knock-off 'Members Only' jacket. I can't put that on and go to the bus stop -- those kids are going to laugh at me and make fun of me."

By the end of the week, all of the graduates say they are taking home a simple, yet powerful new understanding of what drives their bad relationships with money and have resolved to curb their unhealthy behavior.

"When there's a hole in the wallet, there's a hole here in the heart. That's it," says Ted Klontz.