Financial control is a common element in abusive relationships, with up to 99% of domestic violence survivors experiencing financial abuse in some form. The financial challenges created through this abuse are often cited as a reason victims stay with or return to an abusive partner.
"Domestic abuse is about power and control, and financial matters hold so much power in our lives," said Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Financial hardship and unemployment can contribute to domestic violence, and economic abuse tactics can leave victims without resources to safely leave.
If you suspect you or someone you know might be experiencing financial abuse or domestic violence, the first priority is safely navigating the situation.
Learning more about domestic violence and financial abuse can help you recognize the signs and understand your situation. Then, with safety in mind, you can begin to navigate financial obstacles and create a plan to safely leave an abuser.
What Is Financial Abuse?
Domestic violence is "a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship," according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Those behaviors include economic or financial abuse and control.
So what is financial abuse? It’s a pattern of control over financial resources, opportunities, and decisions. "Frequently, the abuser controls the money and makes all of the financial decisions, leaving the other person in the dark," Paul Golden, spokesperson for the National Endowment for Financial Education, told The Balance via email.
Tactics of financial abuse can include:
- Not allowing the victim to work or attend school, or sabotaging their employment.
- Withholding access to shared funds, bank accounts, or credit cards.
- Monitoring and controlling how money is spent, such as being given an allowance.
- Leaving the victim off of a mortgage or rental agreement for a shared home.
- Financial infidelity, which may include hiding assets, large transactions, or debts.
- Coerced debt, such as applying for accounts in the victim’s name or forcing the victim to take out debt.
- Destroying, controlling, or stealing income, assets, property, or possessions.
In a nutshell, financial abuse is about controlling money and economic opportunity in a way that decreases the survivor’s financial autonomy. "When you remove that, you're not only maintaining power over them, but removing their power to determine and understand what their financial future looks like," Glenn said.
The Importance of Financial Independence
No one wants to go into a relationship preparing for the worst—and no one expects the worst to happen to them. But 10 million Americans are affected by domestic violence each year, and one in four women and one in nine men have experienced domestic abuse. "Quite frequently, survivors don’t understand that what they’re experiencing is domestic violence," Glenn said. "They just know the situation has become unbearable."
This can be especially true of financial abuse. "The financial aspects can often blindside women who didn’t at first realize the severity of the situation and danger they are in," said Jessica Byrne, a money coach and founder of Financial Mechanic who has coached clients experiencing financial abuse, in an email to The Balance. "The person you trust the most can also wreak the most havoc on your financial situation at a moment’s notice without the proper protections."
If you’re experiencing domestic violence or financial abuse, it’s not your fault.
Taking steps to stay financially independent and autonomous, however, is a smart way to protect yourself and your finances in any relationship.
- Make sure you have steady work with an income that can support you and any dependents.
- Stay involved with and informed about shared financial decisions.
- Save and maintain an emergency fund that only you can access.
- Safeguard personal and financial information such as bank account logins or your Social Security number.
- Check your credit reports regularly for fraudulent activity.
- Watch for warning signs of financial control and abuse.
Financially Preparing To Leave an Abusive Relationship
If you’re preparing to leave an abusive relationship, or you’re helping someone else prepare, safety must come first. The most dangerous time for an abuse victim is when they are planning and preparing to leave, Glenn said.
Only the person in the abusive relationship can accurately assess the risks of leaving and create a safety plan. This plan includes:
- Strategies to safely manage your situation.
- Options for getting yourself (and any dependents or pets) to safety under different sets of circumstances.
- Steps to collect the necessary resources so you can safely leave.
Creating such a plan will likely involve outlining financial steps you can take to prepare to leave and support yourself. 'Regaining personal control over money and financial resources leads to greater confidence and can increase the ability to make informed and responsible financial decisions,' said Golden.
If you share children, other dependents, or pets with your abuser, your considerations for leaving may be more complicated. Refer to the resources at the end of this piece for help keeping yourself and your dependents safe and navigating child custody arrangements.
As you prepare your finances to escape abuse, be cautious and proceed safely, carefully, and at the right time.
Assess Your Situation
Inventory your resources, including your income, cash, savings, investments, and property such as a car or home. For shared assets like a jointly owned car or a lease you both signed, you may want to review your state’s laws and talk to a victim advocate to understand your rights. Next, add in non-monetary resources and support, such as help offered by a friend or assistance from a local domestic violence shelter.
Create an emergency stash of important documents, financial records, and cash. Find a safe place to store it somewhere your partner can’t access, such as with a trusted friend who is aware of your situation or in a bank safety deposit box.
Finally, list your expenses and liabilities, such as debt, bills, a mortgage, or a shared lease. "Consider a budget of all living expenses you will need to cover once you safely leave," Golden said. "This will give you an idea of what needs to be accounted for and immediate expenses that you are likely to incur."
Set Up Independent Accounts
"It is critical for any person in a partnership to have their own money in case of emergency—abusive relationship or not," Byrne pointed out. You might already have an independent account, or you could open one. If you can't safely do so, you might ask a trusted friend or family member to safeguard your escape fund.
Set money aside in this fund, aiming to cover your projected costs of leaving the relationship and reestablishing yourself. "This money may come from income or bonuses at work, but also friends and family, or support organizations who may be able to provide some financial assistance," Golden suggested.
Find Ways To Earn More Money
In your safety plan, include steps to generate extra income, find new work, or protect your existing employment. Here are some ideas to get you started—and as always, keep your safety as the top priority.
- Sell some extra belongings for cash.
- Look for online earning opportunities through Fiverr, Upwork, or similar sites.
- Take up a side hustle, such as dog sitting, selling handmade goods, or handling household jobs.
- Let your network know you’re looking for work, and what kind—from odd jobs to a full-time position.
- Update your resume, brush up on interviewing skills, and apply for jobs.
- If your abuser has or might cause issues with your employment, alert your manager and ask for support at work.
Protect and Build Credit
Pull your free credit reports and review all accounts, Golden advised. "If you are worried about your partner adding additional debt in your name, you can place a fraud alert freeze on your credit bureaus," he added.
If you previously shared login info for bank or credit accounts with your partner, updated those passwords so they can no longer access those accounts.
If you need to build good credit, identify one or two actions you can take this month to work toward improving your scores. You might open a prepaid credit card, for example, or pay down credit card balances.
Change Your Insurance Policies
If you have health insurance through your abusive partner's employment, for example, look into alternative coverage through your employer, the ACA exchange, or Medicaid.
Make a list of insurance policies you share with your partner, such as car or renters insurance. Start researching the costs of purchasing a separate policy, and use this list to remove yourself from shared accounts after leaving.
Where To Get Help
You don't have to do it alone. Reach out to national domestic violence organizations:
- Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) if you're in crisis and need immediate support.
- WomensLaw.org offers legal information and resources for victims, an email hotline, and a state-by-state directory of domestic violence advocates and resources.
- Use DomesticShelters.org's search tool to find shelters near you.
- An internet search can also help connect you with local domestic violence organizations and resources.
"It won't be an easy process to leave a difficult relationship and rebuild your life," Golden said. "It will take time to heal physically, emotionally and financially. Utilize the resources that can help support you during this time."