Most of our content on relationships has assumed that you can discuss your finances openly and request changes if something in your joint finances isn’t working for you. But the suggestions in our past articles have assumed you’re in a healthy, equal relationship. It might not work if you’re dealing with financial abuse.
Maybe you’ve tried some of the tips in past articles and found that your partner refuses to have this conversation with you. Or you might realize that even the thought of bringing up the subject fills you with dread. If that’s the case, consider whether you might be dealing with financial abuse.
What Is Financial Abuse?
Financial abuse can be particularly insidious and difficult to identify because every couple handles finances differently. There’s nothing wrong with being in a relationship where one of you handles the nitty-gritty of paying bills and managing accounts, or one of you makes more than the other, or any number of other arrangements.
However, any financial arrangement between you and a partner should be something you both agree to—freely, without coercion or guilt trips.
Red Flags of Financial Abuse
- Your partner refuses to allow you access to joint accounts or won’t tell you about major aspects of your finances
- They make you account for every penny you spend and second guess even everyday necessities like food or clothing
- They have double standards where they can make major purchases without consulting you, but you have to ask them every time you want to buy anything
- Major assets (cars, house, etc.) are in their name only and they refuse to change this
- They make you deposit your salary into a joint account but keep their money separate
- Your partner uses money/restricting access to money as a threat or a way to win arguments
- They take out lines of credit in your name, without your permission
Another sign of financial abuse is your partner undermining your ability to work. This doesn’t just look like forbidding you from having a job. It can look like a partner who calls you incessantly when you’re at work or who frequently shows up at your workplace. It can look like a partner who coincidentally always picks a fight the night before you have important meetings. Or it can look like a partner who says they’re going to pick the kids up at school but then doesn’t, so you have to leave work unexpectedly.
Sometimes people will justify problematic behaviors because they “aren’t that bad” or “it’s not like they’re beating you.” However, abuse is abuse even if it doesn’t leave marks. Moreover, financial abuse pretty much always escalates over time and can escalate to other, more overt types of abuse.
You don’t need to have an argument that will hold up in the court of public opinion before you leave a relationship that makes you uncomfortable. And it’s far better to recognize early warning signs and cut your losses than it is to gloss over them and end up too deeply entangled to escape.
Freeing Yourself from Financial Abuse
If you’re already deeply entangled in financial abuse, there are many different hurdles to leaving the relationship. It’s also necessary to be cautious when making an exit plan because many abusers ramp up their abuse when they realize they’re losing control.
Many victims of financial abuse will have poor credit or a sporadic employment history. Their abuser might even have stolen their identity.
Keeping yourself safe is of paramount importance, but if you can safely remain in a shared home with a financial abuser for a short time there are steps you can take to make leaving easier.
- Get a P.O. box or have important correspondence sent to a trusted friend or relative.
- Collect copies of important documents—birth certificates, social security cards, tax records, etc.—and put them in a safe deposit box or stash them with a trusted person.
- Close any joint credit accounts and freeze your credit so your partner can’t take out any debt in your name.
- If possible, take out a credit card in just your name and start slowly building credit.
- Open a bank account that your partner doesn’t know about and can’t access and put aside as much money as you can. Even a little bit might get you taxi fare or a night in a hotel if someday you need to leave in a hurry.
- If you don’t have a job (or can’t safely access your paychecks), look into getting a job or side hustle. Otherwise start reaching out to people you know who might be able to help you get a job quickly after you leave. Even volunteer work can help build your resume if you’ve been out of the workforce for a while.
Protect Yourself Legally
In many cases you’re legally entitled to half the money in any joint accounts. (Consult a lawyer or domestic violence advocate if you’re not sure.) Many abusers will drain joint accounts to punish a partner who leaves, so taking your share preemptively can make life a lot easier. On the other hand, this could make your life a lot harder if you do it while still living with your abuser, so having an alternative source of funds is a good idea.
Document everything! If your partner sends you texts or emails relating to finances, save those. You can also document conversations, violent incidents, spending patterns, etc. If you end up in a legal battle over division of assets, documentation can be a huge help.
Is Someone You Know Being Financially Abused?
What if it isn’t you suffering this abuse, but a friend or family member? Make sure that they know you are willing to support them in the above scenarios. Offer any help you can with storing documents, making an exit plan, packing up their stuff to move out, and so on. Even if all you can do is provide a listening ear, this can help the victim resist falling back into the trap of an abusive relationship.
Plan for a Bright Financial Future
If you need help getting out of an abusive relationship, look into resources provided by the National Domestic Violence Hotline. If you need help recovering your finances after you’re safe, contact us to connect with an experienced financial advisor.