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Updated on Friday, March 15, 2019
Domestic violence shatters a victim’s sense of physical and emotional safety, and financial abuse makes it even harder for victims to break free from the grip of their abuser.
Financial abuse is “using money and financial tools to exert control,” according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Abusers may give victims an allowance, harass them at work or ruin their credit by opening credit cards or borrowing money and refusing to pay it off.
An abusive partner limiting a victim’s ability to save money, find housing or develop financial independence makes financial abuse one of the main reasons victims decide to stay in or go back to abusive relationships, said Kimberlina Kavern, senior director of the Crime Victim Assistance Program at Safe Horizon, a New York-based nonprofit victim assistance organization.
And it is frighteningly common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women and one in nine men have been the victim of intimate partner violence, which includes sexual and physical violence and stalking. In a 2008 study published in the journal Violence Against Women that included accounts from 103 survivors of domestic violence, 99% reported they had experienced financial abuse.
Here’s how to identify financial abuse in a relationship, and the steps to take to find safety.
How to recognize financial abuse
Financial abuse can happen alongside physical and other types of emotional abuse, including intimidation, isolation and coercion. “What’s backing that behavior up is the constant threat of actual physical or sexual violence,” said Kim Pentico, director of economic justice at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
An abusive partner may engage in financial abuse in the following ways, according to Kavern, Pentico and Rosemary Estrada-Rade, director of digital services at the National Domestic Violence Hotline:
- Stealing credit cards or cash
- Taking out debt in the victim’s name, or forcing the victim to cosign on a loan
- Hiding money
- Forcing the victim to file fraudulent tax returns
- Giving the victim an allowance
- Demanding the victim hand over receipts for purchases
- Limiting how much a victim can work or preventing them from working
- Requiring the victim’s paycheck be deposited into the abuser’s account
- Using the victim’s credit cards without permission
- Harassing a victim at work or forcing them to be late, putting their job at risk
- Refusing to work and forcing the victim to be the sole breadwinner
- Withholding food, clothing, medication or other necessities
- Buying items for themselves but not providing for the victim or children
“Financial abuse, like other abusive tactics, starts very subtly,” said Kavern. For instance, an abuser may offer to take care of the family’s finances to reduce the victim’s duties at home. “Over time, you see that the abuser is giving them less control, and it’s serving as a way to isolate the victim,” she said.
How to get out of a financially abusive relationship
Safely ending an abusive relationship requires making careful preparations that will protect you from the abuser.
“When you are leaving an abusive relationship, that’s when victims are in the most danger,” Kavern said. “You should have a good safety plan in place.”
That can include identifying where the abuser will be when you leave and how he or she might respond, as well as whether you’ll pursue an order of protection against them. You may also consider saving money in ways the abuser is unlikely to discover.
For instance, Pentico says survivors have brought coupons with them to the store, but instead of using them at the register, they asked the customer service desk for a refund on the difference between the regular and sale prices. It appeared on the receipt that all items were purchased at full price, but the victims put the cash refund in their own savings accounts. Here are other actions to take:
- Pull your credit report for free from www.annualcreditreport.com and note whether the abuser has opened any accounts in your name. If he or she has, you may have been a victim of identity theft. You can report it and receive a free, personalized recovery plan through the Federal Trade Commission’s IdentityTheft.gov website.
- Also, if the abuser ran up unpaid debt on these accounts, which affected your credit score, you can consider disputing any negative marks on your credit report. Do so at each of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — or contact the FTC for personalized advice on your situation.
- Consider opening your own checking account, if you can do so safely, and getting a credit card in your name only. That will help you build your own credit history and develop financial independence.
- If leaving your relationship results in financial hardship, resources like the Moving Ahead Curriculum, a five-part online program developed for survivors of domestic violence by the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Allstate Foundation, can help you explore how to rebuild your finances.
The bottom line
You’re not alone as a victim of financial abuse. In a 2018 survey administered to domestic violence survivors who contacted the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 67% said they stayed in or returned to abusive relationships due to financial concerns.
If you’re struggling to free yourself from your abuser, there is a community of support available to assist you at any point. To get help:
- Call 911 if you’re in immediate danger.
- Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline to talk to an advocate who can connect you with resources in your area and help form a plan to get out of the relationship safely. Experts are available 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE or via online chat.
A National Domestic Violence Hotline advocate can put you in touch with local agencies that provide support finding housing and getting public benefits. Each state also has its own organizations that offer resources to victims. There is hope and happiness on the other side of financial abuse; the first step is to ask for help.