Financial abuse occurs when a person (the abuser) takes control of someone’s finances or assets without regard for their well-being. The financial abuse survivor can suffer not only from financial repercussions but also the emotional impact of being taken advantage of. Financial abuse trauma can be treated through evidence-based approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Financial Abuse Definition
Financial or economic abuse occurs when an individual or entity takes control over another person’s assets to fulfill their own goals or desires. While most commonly seen in reference to elderly individuals having their assets misused (elder abuse cases), financial abuse in marriage and relationships is also common when those relationships are physically or emotionally abusive as a tactic to maintain control.1 It’s also seen in sexual abuse cases and instances of coercion.
Impact of Financial Abuse
The long-term financial consequences of financial abuse can include damaged credit, insurmountable debt, legal problems, and difficulty obtaining employment, loans, and even stable housing. It is already difficult to leave an abusive relationship, but when you are being financially abused, your inability to access your own funds can greatly contribute to feelings of being trapped.2
Tactics Used for Financial Abuse
Financial abuse tactics serve to limit the survivor’s access to funds, maintain the abuser’s control over any and all finances, and prevent the survivor from feeling empowered to make changes or escape the relationship.
Financial abuse tactics fall into three categories:
1. Financial Control of All Assets and Resources
Financial control tactics serve to both limit or eliminate the survivor’s access to money, whether their own or not, and to prevent the survivor from feeling able to leave or change the relationship.
Signs of financial abuse related to financial control include:
- Demanding receipts for any spending
- Limiting or preventing access to cash
- Locking you out of online financial accounts
- Locking credit/debit cards
- Forcing you to ask for permission to spend money
- Taking control of any and all paychecks you receive
2. Sabotaging Employment or Education & Opportunities
Employment and education sabotage serve to limit the survivor’s means of making money and fostering independence through obtaining employment or believing that they can. This sabotage is a way to prevent them from having the means to leave the relationship while maintaining the deception that the abuser is entitled to complete control and power in the relationship.2
Signs of financial abuse related to employment or education sabotage include:
- Your partner prevents you from going to work or intentionally makes you late
- Your partner intentionally prevents you from looking for jobs or going on job interviews
- Your partner harasses you at work (calling you frequently at work or showing up unannounced)
- Your partner tells you that you shouldn’t attend class or professional training
- Your partner criticizes and minimizes your job or choice of career
- Your partner pressures you to quit your job
3. Exploiting Resources
Economic exploitation is all about the abuser and what they can get out of you and the relationship. By doing things like using your money to fund their pursuits, whether business or personal, and using your credit for their benefit, the abuser is able to benefit from the abuse and squander the survivor’s funds so they cannot be used or accessed.1
Signs of financial abuse related to economic exploitation include:
Trying to control your use of or access to money you have earned or saved
- Ruining your credit history by running up limits and then not paying bills
- Expecting you to pay for their bills or their obligations
- Coercing you to take out loans or credit cards on your own credit
- Convincing you to sell assets to put into theirs or a joint account they control
Examples of Financial Abuse
Financial abuse can present in many ways, including monitoring and questioning; however, it looks different depending on things like social status, wealth status, and family makeup.
Here are some examples of what financial abuse can look like:
Monitoring & Questioning Spending
In a financially abusive relationship, monitoring and questioning spending looks different than it does in a healthy relationship where you might be trying to maintain a budget. The abusive partner will often perform daily checks, set up alerts when any spending occurs, and pressure or question the survivor. Over time, this is used to eliminate the survivor’s ability to spend their own money without repercussion.
Even in relationships where the survivor has relatively high income or wealth, the abuser uses tactics such as gaslighting, threats, and physical and emotional attacks to control the survivor. Ultimately, the abuser ends up making the decisions on how to spend available money. This dependence on the abuser can leave the survivor feeling powerless and isolated.
Partner Takes Over Management of Money & Assets
In healthy relationships, it may be normal for one partner to manage the funds for the family; however, in financially abusive situations this management is used as a means to gain access and control over funds. It may start out as the abuser managing and tracking spending, maybe telling you they are helping to make sure your financial standing is secure. Eventually, it can lead to being locked out from access to “joint” accounts, and the inability to see what is being spent while the abuser monitors all of the survivor’s spending and uses this information and control to their own benefit.
Partner Takes Out Loans or Credit Cards in Your Name
This tactic is used by the abuser to gain access to more funds and damage the survivor’s credit. This creates a situation where the survivor may be liable for the incurred debt. Furthermore, since the abuser likely controls any spending, they may allow the loans to default and miss payments on credit cards, additionally damaging the credit of the survivor.
This often will prevent a survivor from leaving the relationship if they do not believe they can face the debt and credit damage. It can also prevent the survivor from being able to obtain stable housing or employment if they leave.
Partner Sabotages Your Job or Career
The survivor maintaining employment is counterintuitive to the abuser’s agenda, as this can not only provide the survivor with a means of independence but also a venue for outside relationships. The abuser will do things like hide keys, promise to babysit but not show, disable your vehicle, hide a work badge, interrupt you at work, or sabotage your productivity. They may also try to make you feel guilty about working in the first place, or belittle your career choice or job.
If the abuser is successful in either getting the survivor fired or convincing/guilting them into quitting their job, they cut off a lifeline of work relationships, and an income that could potentially allow the survivor to support themselves if they left the relationship.
Partner Uses You as Free Labor
When an abuser owns and runs a business, they will often use the survivor as a free source of labor. The abuser may have the survivor work excessive hours without pay. The survivor may be made to feel obligated to do this for the family. If the survivor does receive pay, it is likely very little and used only to maintain the household or care for the children or the abuser.
How to Escape a Financial Abuse Situation
Whether or not you have access to funds, connect with a domestic violence agency. They can help you plan and make that exit smoother and safer, as well as provide support afterward. If you’re hesitant to connect to an organization, friends or family may be an option to help make you and any children safe.
When you realize you’re in an abusive relationship, here are steps to take to escape safely:
- Identify your resources (e.g., money you have access to, a vehicle you can use)
- If it’s unsafe to take the originals, make copies of your financial data like credit cards and financial statements. These copies will be useful later in proving who owns what. Keep this documentation in a safe place until you’re able to safely leave3
- Identify and connect with your supports (e.g., domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233, a local shelter, supportive friends or family)
- Coordinate with your supporters to have a plan to leave (e.g., where you will go, how to get there, when you will leave, who will be involved)
- Commit to leaving and follow through with your plan
How to Recover From Financial Abuse
Everyone may have a different experience of financial abuse, so each person’s recovery will also vary. Some may experience other types of abuse along with financial abuse and some may not. It’s important to create a plan to determine the impact of the financial abuse and to lay the foundation for recovery.
Get Financially Educated
It’s important to speak up about your experience with financial abuse with supportive friends and family and consider getting education on your finances and how the system works.
Here are a few tips to consider when looking for financial literacy:
- Call your bank and ask to meet with someone to learn about your personal finances
- Meet with a financial planner
- Speak to an attorney
- Check your credit score and learn about the impact of credit scores
Pull & Freeze Your Credit Reports
After you leave the abusive relationship, you will need to do a few things, but start by getting all your information in order.4 Get a credit report and copies of your tax returns. Access and change passwords to your bank accounts, or go in-person to a branch to request access and get statements for all accounts. These things should give you an idea of what kind of damage has been done to your credit, cash holdings, and taxes.
Set Up Your Accounts & Get Legal Services If Necessary
After taking these steps, start setting up independent accounts, secure email, and phone. Close any joint credit cards with $0 balances and consider signing up for a credit monitoring service. Once your financial situation is secure, start looking into legal options for repairing credit, addressing the abuse, and filing for divorce if you were married. There are legal aid organizations in most areas that will provide free or discounted legal services for survivors of domestic abuse.
Get Emotional Support
As you do this, seek support. Any kind of abuse likely has emotional and psychological effects that should be addressed by a professional. Finding a therapist may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. An online therapist directory can be a great place to start.
Take Recovery One Step at a Time
It can be a challenge to deal with recovery, but it’s important to take it one step at a time. Recovery from financial abuse, like any abuse, is going to take time as you need to heal and deal with the practical impacts from the abuse. Taking small steps consistently is a great way to build a foundation and gain your confidence back.
How to Get Help For Someone Who Has Been Financially Abused
If you plan on talking with someone about the abuse you think they’re experiencing, only voice your observations and concerns, and offer to hear them out and help where you can if they want it. Try to avoid criticizing their partner, or directly confronting the suspected abuser as this could worsen the situation.4
If they do voice a desire for help, you’ll have to decide how involved you can and want to get. At the least, you can offer them the domestic violence hotline 1-800-799-7233. Additionally, you can potentially connect them with a local shelter or, if you’re able and willing, provide them with a place to stay if they choose to leave the relationship.
Final Thoughts on Financial Abuse
Financial abuse is never okay. If you’re struggling with some form of financial or economic abuse, remember, you are not alone. There are safe ways to leave and find support. Don’t forget, therapy can advance the healing process along. For immediate assistance, contact a domestic violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233.