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Home Articles Identifying Abuse What Is Financial Abuse?

What Is Financial Abuse?

A comprehensive guide to understanding, escaping and recovering from financial abuse

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woman leaving abusive partner struggles to find money

When we think about domestic violence and abuse, we don’t often think about how money plays into everything. Yet nearly all survivors who speak out say an abuser also subjected them to financial abuse. The Center for Financial Security found all but one survivor of abuse in a 2008 study endured financial abuse by their partner. 

In fact, financial abuse is oftentimes cited as the reason why a survivor feels trapped indefinitely with an abuser. Finances were listed as the second most common barrier survivors encountered when trying to leave abuse, according to our survey. Without one’s own financial autonomy, how can a survivor afford to leave and start over? For abusers, taking away a victim’s ability to earn or access money is the ideal way to control them. 

Financial Abuse Can Begin Under a Caring Pretense

Financial abuse, also sometimes called economic abuse, may start off feeling something like care or concern from a partner. The abuser may not want the survivor to keep going to school to earn a degree because they want them to be at home. The abusive individual misses them. 

In reality, the abuser often doesn’t want the survivor to have the freedom of broader job opportunities. 

The abuser may also tell the survivor they don’t need to find a job, or encourage them to quit their current job. The abuser claims he or she will provide everything the survivor needs. They’ll “take care” of them. The survivor doesn’t have to worry about money. 

The abuser may not want the survivor to be concerned about where their “shared” money is going. They don’t allow the survivor access to bank accounts or credit cards because the survivor doesn’t need to trouble themselves with those details. 

After a while, this “care and concern” the abuser claims to have may start to feel more like power and control. The survivor may come to realize the only way to pay for something is to ask their partner. A power structure is established. The survivor’s needs are determined by the abuser, and the survivor is dependent on them for all basic needs, like food, housing and clothing. 

The Red Flags of Financial Abuse 

Of course, there are many other facets of financial abuse than what was described above. An abuser may not start off with care and concern, but rather jump right into full control of the finances. Potential victims of financial abuse may recognize an abuser doing some or all of the following during financial abuse:

  • Sabotages employment opportunities.
  • Forbids their partner from working.
  • Controls how money is spent.
  • Denies their partner direct access to bank accounts.
  • Gives their partner an “allowance.”
  • Forces a partner to write bad checks or file fraudulent tax returns.
  • Runs up large debts on joint accounts without their partner’s permission.
  • Forces a partner to work in the family business without pay.
  • Refuses to pay bills for accounts that are in a partner’s name in order to ruin your credit.
  • Forces a partner to turn over paychecks or public benefits checks.
  • Forces a partner to account for all money spent by showing receipts.
  • Applies for credit accounts using a partner’s name and personal information.
  • Withholds money for basic necessities like food, clothing, medication and housing.
  • Spends money on himself or herself but doesn’t allow a partner to do the same.
  • Expects something in return after giving presents or paying for things. 
  • Forces a partner to work while he or she does not and yet still controls all the money.

Financial Exploitation

In addition to controlling shared finances, another tactic of financial abuse is exploitation, or when an abuser takes advantage of a survivor’s financial resources. This may include:

  • Outright stealing
  • Forcing the survivor to give money to the abuser 
  • Spending money that was intended for rent or other important bills on personal items
  • Manipulating credit and debt (intending to destroy a survivor’s credit)  
  • Refusing to work or contribute to household expenses (and then often demanding the home if the couple divorces)
  • Damaging expensive items in fits of anger

Financial Sabotage

An abusive partner may also sabotage a survivor’s efforts to gain financial independence, another tactic of financial abuse. This can look like:

  • Preventing a survivor from working or completing their education
  • Damaging the supplies or equipment a survivor needs to work
  • Denying her access to a car in order to get to work
  • Creating other barriers for the survivor to get to work or complete their work
  • Trying to get a survivor fired

How to Escape from Financial Abuse

The good news is there are people ready and able to help survivors of financial abuse break free from the cycle of control. If you are being financially controlled or abused by a partner, first consider reaching out to a trained domestic violence advocate in your area (search for one on our Find Help page) who can help you safety plan, find local resources for free or low-cost housing, secure an order of protection (which is always free) as well as access free lay legal help, support groups, and more. 

Survivors may also want to look into something called The Compensation Compass from the nonprofit FreeFrom. This tool helps survivors quickly determine what compensation they may be entitled to in their state as a victim of domestic violence. 

If a survivor shares a lease with an abuser, there are ways to break that lease without incurring a penalty. Read “Breaking Your Lease Without Breaking the Bank” for more info. And, if there are damages to the home, also read, “Who Pays for Damages?” for tips on how to talk to your landlord about culpability, or who’s to blame.  

A Before-You-Go Checklist

Before leaving an abuser, a survivor of financial abuse may want to see if she or he can get any money matters in order without raising the suspicion of an abuser. In other words, if it’s safe to do so, a survivor may want to consider…

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__ Gather Documents. Try to ensure you have access to shared accounts. Compile PIN codes, passwords, copies of credit reports, printouts of any financial records or bank accounts, birth certificates for yourself and your children, your driver’s license, your Social Security number and tax records. 

__ SetUp Your Own Accounts. If you feel you can set up accounts safely (i.e., secretly), open a bank account in your name and have the statements delivered electronically to a friend or family member’s address, or a P.O. box your abuser does not know about. A community bank or credit union may offer a credit card that’s tied to your checking account so you can start to build a credit history. 

__ Accumulate cash reserves. You’re going to need money when you leave so, if possible, stash away some cash in a safe place other than a bank. In “How to Stash Cash,” we list six ways survivors can secretly stow away money in order to have a pad when they leave an abusive partner. 

__ Change Beneficiaries on Accounts. For individual insurance plans (such as health or life insurance you hold through your job) and accounts such as a 401k retirement account through your place of employment, you should change your beneficiary to someone other than the abuser. 

__ Make a Budget. Planning out finances ahead of time can save you a lot of worry when it is time to go. Figure out how much you’ll need to live on when you’re on your own by listing out all possible expenses, and then compare that to all sources of income and make cuts where needed. Read “Ask Amanda: How to Make a Household Budget” for more tips. 

Rebuilding Your Finances is Possible 

After separating from a partner who was financially abusive, a survivor’s credit could be ruined. He or she may be left without many housing or job options. But rebuilding financial independence is possible. At DomesticShelters.org, this is a topic we’ve covered in depth. Consider starting with some of these articles to learn more about how to get back on your feet financially. 

We've prepared a toolkit “What Is Financial Abuse?” to help you understand even more what emotional abuse is so you can better assess your relationship and understand your situation.