Recognizing Financial Abuse

Domestic (or partner) abuse, whether it’s emotional or physical, shatters lives. But if there’s anything positive we can say on this topic, it’s that, as a society, we’ve finally begun recognizing it, and taking steps at least towards helping those who are experiencing it and those who have survived it. But if we are just talking about emotional or physical abuse, we’re actually failing to recognize a serious form of abuse that either comes before or goes hand-in-hand with other types of abuse, and is often the reason that someone cannot leave their abusive situation: financial abuse. Knowing the signs of this type of abuse is vital to protecting yourself or someone you love from spiraling into a situation that you, or they, might not be able to get out of.

Financial Abuse by the Numbers

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “financial abuse,” or have never really thought about it, you’re not alone: although financial abuse occurs in at least 98% of abusive situations, 78% of Americans don’t recognize it as a form of abuse. Not only that, but a study by the Allstate Foundation found that only 3% of Americans thought financial abuse would likely cause long-term effects, compared to emotional (43%) and physical abuse (22%). financial abuse infographic

But the above couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only is financial abuse the number one reason people return to toxic relationships, which already makes this type of abuse a serious crisis for those experiencing it, but it also has long-lasting effects on their lives, and even society at large. For example, someone who has had their credit cards maxed out by a partner who refuses to pay the bills will have their credit ruined, and will then have issues finding housing, purchasing a vehicle, or obtaining student loans. And without access to economic resources, survivors will then find their safety and long-term security at risk.

And the above happens in a majority of abusive situations: 59% of people who experience financial abuse have their credit ruined by their partner, and 70% are not able to have a job, with 59% of them having lost their job because of their abuser. Survivors lose nearly $53,000 in lost wages over their lifetime; not only that, but their communities and society at large suffer losses, as well, since victims of financial abuse lose a total of 8 million paid work days a year, with the estimated overall workplace productivity costs totaling $1.3 trillion.

These are some pretty grim statistics, and should be eye-opening. Financial abuse is a real problem and is happening all around us – so how can you recognize it in either your or someone else’s relationship?

Recognizing the Signs of Financial Abuse

According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, financial (or economic) abuse “is when one intimate partner has control over the other partner’s ability to access, acquire, use or maintain economic resources, which diminishes the victim’s capacity to support themselves and forces intentioned dependence.” In other words, one partner controls the other’s finances, isolating them and trapping them in the relationship, and they are left unable to see a way out of their situation. That’s why it’s so critical for people to be able to recognize financial abuse before it escalates into a totally ruined credit history and an inability to work to earn a living. 

And, while it can be difficult to identify, because there isn’t one way to handle money in all relationships, there are some common tactics that abusers use:

Preventing you from using your resourcesillustration of a man in a suit tugging at money with a woman in a dress on the other side

  • Withholding money or giving an “allowance”
  • Not giving you access to bank accounts
  • Hiding or lying about joint assets
  • Keeping you in the dark about or not allowing you control over household finances or how your money is spent
  • Refusing to pay child support
  • Denying access to a car, a phone, the internet, or other utilities
  • Making large financial decisions without you
  • Withholding financial information such as account passwords, account numbers, and investment information
  • Making threats to cut you off financially when you disagree

Preventing you from getting or keeping a job

  • Forbidding you from working outside of the home, or telling you where you can or cannot work
  • Stalking or harassing you at your workplace
  • Forcing you to be late, or to miss or leave work (for example, they might promise to watch the children, but not show up)
  • Cutting off your transportation to work
  • Forbidding your from attending trainings or opportunities for job advancement, or interfering with further education
  • Criticizing and minimizing your job or career choices
  • Pressuring you to quit your job (sometimes by using guilt, and using your children as an excuse)

Exploiting your resources

  • Forcing you to sign financial documents without explanations
  • Insisting you share your income, but not sharing theirs
  • Forcing you to write bad checks or file fraudulent legal financial documents
  • Pressuring you to be a co-signer or guarantor
  • Coercing you to go into debt, or forcing you to overspend on credit cards
  • Using your personal information or assets against your will or without your knowledge
  • Converting your assets into their own
  • Keeping all assets their name, while forcing you to keep all debt in your name only
  • Requiring you to bail them out of difficult financial situations
  • Ruining your credit history by running up bills and then not paying them
  • Intercepting or opening your bank statements and other financial records

It’s important to remember: someone who uses any of these tactics, whether it’s one or all or them, is financially abusive. So if you are experiencing any of the above, what can you do? 

What You Can Do

green phone in a green conversation bubble
If you experience financial abuse, reach out to someone you can trust, like a counselor or domestic advice counselor.

If you’ve ever heard someone wonder why someone experiencing domestic or partner violence doesn’t just leave, all of the above is a big part of the answer. In fact, as we pointed out above, financial abuse is the number one reason cited for staying in an abusive relationship – that’s why it’s so vital to address financial abuse right away before it escalates.

It’s unfortunately true that leaving an abusive situation is more than just difficult emotionally – it can also be life-threatening, and the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is post-breakup. If you or someone you know needs to get out of a situation like this, it is important to have a plan. First, reach out to someone you can trust, like a counselor or domestic advice counselor; if you don’t know who to turn to, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

Next, make copies of your financial data like credit cards and financial statements if it’s unsafe to take the originals, so you can prove later who owns (and owes) what. Keep these documents in a safe place where your partner can’t access them until you’re able to safely leave the relationship.

Financial abuse is just as damaging to someone experiencing it as any other kind of abuse; in fact, this type of abuse is usually inextricably linked to other types of abuse. Having your financial independence taken away can destroy your whole life, and trap you in a situation that gets more and more dangerous to your emotional and even physical health – that means it’s vital to get help as soon as you recognize the above signs in your life, or in the life of a loved one.

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