How to Recognize Financial Abuse

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There are several types of abuse, and throughout the month of March 2019 you’ll be able to find articles on the following types of abuse (links coming soon!):

But first, let’s define what “abuse” actually means.

The word comes from Latin and Old French words that mean “misused” and “to use wrongly.” Basically, something’s happening that shouldn’t be happening! It’s wrong.

If nothing else, the one thing you should always remember is that abuse is NOT your fault. 


Financial Abuse

Financial abuse is one of those things many people don’t think about, especially if one grows up in a household that minimizes the importance of money or teaches their children that it’s okay for the spouse to control the purse strings.

But in a study by the Centers for Financial Security (pdf warning), financial abuse occurs in 99% of domestic abuse cases.

Financial abuse can commonly occur in married couples, but I’ve heard multiple stories of it happening to teenagers and young adults too—any earned money (even when past the age of adulthood) is confiscated or taken to “pay back” the parents for the cost of raising their child.

Now that’s messed up.

What Is It?

Financial abuse is when a partner or parent controls all your financial resources. You are restricted from doing so many things, and it can leave you feeling despondent and trapped.

Which, of course, you are.

Those without access to financial resources are hamstrung from escape. Without money, you can’t book a motel room to get away from your abuser. You can’t buy a plane or train ticket to put distance between you. You can’t pay to fill the car with gas. Even if you need food—or clothes—you have to request “permission” from your partner or parent in order to get it.

The control can be subtle or overt—in either case, the abuser is exacting control over your life. They may convince you that you don’t need to worry about money, and yet question you whenever you ask for access to it.

I have heard so many stories of women leaving all the money decisions to their husbands and then being unable to handle any of it when they either A) attempt to leave the relationship for reasons of abuse, or B) experience the loss of their husband and they realize they don’t know where to even begin when it comes to handling money.

B) is less “abuse” but still not okay. As a point of personal responsibility, everyone should learn how to handle and manage their money.

How to Recognize It

Financial abuse can be incredibly easy to spot—but often not by the person experiencing it. When others look at the relationship or family dynamic, it’s easy to see when financial abuse is happening. You might be entirely unaware that it is.

Here are a few ways to recognize financial abuse:

  • You are prevented from getting a job at all, or a job that pays well.
  • Any money you do make is confiscated or restricted.
  • All your accounts are joint, but you’re not allowed access to them.
  • Even worse—you don’t have access to any of your “marital” accounts.
  • Your parent tells you that anything you earn is “family income” and it’s about time you paid them back for raising you.
  • They don’t consult you when they spend money, but they scrutinize every single one of your purchases.
  • If you’re the breadwinner, they expect you to pay for everything—all the bills, their obligations, their habits, their preferences, but don’t contribute anything themselves—and make you feel guilty if you question any of their purchase decisions.
  • Insisting that big purchases or investments—mortgage, apartment lease, car, retirement accounts, phone bills—be in their name only.
  • Threatening to “cut you off” if you make them mad or disagree with something.
  • Forcing you to sign financial documents without letting you read them or explaining why.
  • Pressuring you to quit your job to be a “stay-at-home parent” when you don’t want to.
  • They criticize your job or career goals and make you question yourself about it.

There are plenty of other signs you may be experiencing financial abuse. But step one is just recognizing that it’s happening—the much more difficult part is yet to come.

What do you do about it?

There are several types of abuse. Some are more common and obvious than others. No matter what, financial abuse is not your fault, and you can get out.

What to Do About It

You’ve identified that you’re being financially abused—now what?

Important Documents

Quietly and secretly gather important documents in two places—both digitally and offsite. This includes official documentation that proves you exist and are required for opening new bank accounts and getting a job.

  • Birth certificates (yours and your children’s)
  • Marriage certificates
  • Social security cards
  • Passports and driver’s licenses
  • Bank statements or other statements/bills in your name (these can be used as proof of residency in certain municipalities)
  • Joint- and single-ownership documents that have your name on them

Find an Ally

Of your friends and extended family members, are there any you can trust to have your back 100% when stuff hits the fan? You might be surprised how many friends and family members already know or suspect your situation and are willing to help.

This can be the person with whom you store your important documents. They might have the couch or guest bed you crash on.

They should also be able to help you develop your escape plan.

Assistance Programs

You’ll need to research local domestic violence assistance programs or locate a domestic violence shelter if you can’t make it to your ally’s house when you first leave.

Some assistance programs have a lot of paperwork to muddle through and it’s a good idea to be prepared and know what steps you need to take to get that assistance when you most need it.

Prevent Additional Debt

If your name is on any credit cards or joint accounts, get your name OFF those accounts. Call the credit card issuer or the bank—or go in person if possible—to remove your name from those accounts. While it won’t make a difference for past debt racked up in your name (if any), it prevents new debt as well.

Another really good idea here is to freeze your credit with the three credit bureaus. This will prevent anyone from opening new credit cards in your name (identity theft). You’ll have to call them to unfreeze it when you apply for new credit cards or loans, but locking it down in the beginning keeps you safer.

Break Free

The scariest part is actually leaving. Ask yourself some questions to better prepare for it:

  • Can you do it in the middle of the night?
  • Or when your abuser is on a trip or out late with buddies?
  • Do you need to take anyone with you, like your children?

Timing is critical and another reason why it’s ideal to have an ally.

  • Can you have your parents watch your kids under the pretense of “grandparent time”?
  • If it’s your parents you need to escape, can you do so while they’re at work?

The sooner you break free, the easier it will be.

There are several types of abuse. Some are more common and obvious than others. No matter what, financial abuse is not your fault, and you can get out.

Resources & Helplines

Bankrate has a fantastic guide on how to rebuild after leaving financially abusive situations by slowly taking back control of your money.

They include steps such as opening new bank accounts, making a budget—and providing different budget guidelines—rebuilding your credit, turning saving into a habit, and other resources to rebuild your life.

You’ll likely need therapy to work through the emotions and feelings that arise because of your situation.

Take note of the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233.

Call to Action

What tips do you have for someone experiencing financial abuse? Do you know someone who needs to get out of that situation?

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  1. Thank you so much for this much needed post! I’m a survivor of domestic violence and I’m grateful to be here today! I also have a FB page called Surviving your abusive ex.
    I love all your detailed info!
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  2. Wow, this was so insightful and informative. I never thought you could abuse someone financially, but now I how and know what to look out for. Thanks so sharing this.

  3. Yes! finally someone is touching on this. as a survivor of domestic violence and emotional abuse, financial abuse went hand in hand with my experience and we don’t have enough coverage of this.