Using finances as a means to assert power or control over another person is known as financial abuse. Not having access to bank accounts is one sign, among many, of financial abuse.
Financial abuse, also known as economic abuse, can be a subtle tactic used in relationships of all kinds, from parents to children, children to parents, and between romantic partners or elders and caregivers.
Financial abuse can sometimes be enacted under the pretense that you’re being “helped.” For example, finances can be a burden, so giving over complete control may initially feel like a relief.
But when you’re not allowed access to money for your needs or find out loans have been taken out in your name, you may be experiencing financial abuse.
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Financial abuse is the use of economic resources to control or hold power over another person. It can also be the misuse of another person for financial gain and is considered a form of domestic violence.
The reasons behind financial abuse are complex and can involve intentional domination tactics or control factors that stem from personal challenges, such as an instilled fear of financial ruin.
“Some people use financial abuse as their primary method of controlling the person,” explains Dr. Jeff Ditzell, a psychiatrist from New York City. “Other people may use financial abuse to manipulate the victim into staying with their partner or spouse.”
He adds that some forms of financial abuse may begin as an honest attempt to make sure another person’s affairs are in order or that they’re in a safe and secure position, especially in the case of elder care.
“But it can become abusive if the caregiver acts without the older person’s permission and without first asking permission,” Ditzell says.
According to statistics reported by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, 78% of Americans don’t recognize financial abuse as a form of domestic violence.
But a 2008 study interviewed 103 domestic violence survivors, and 99% of them (all but one) reported experiencing financial abuse.
Experiencing other forms of abuse may be one of the primary indicators of financial abuse.
“One aspect of financial abuse is that it often co-occurs with other forms of abuse (psychological, emotional, and physical),” indicates Lindsey Ferris, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Seattle, Washington. “It’s rare to see it as a stand-alone form of abuse.”
Other signs you may be experiencing financial abuse can include:
- being pressured to give money
- being kept from work or seeking employment
- experiencing employment sabotage
- not having access to personal or joint accounts
- being uninformed about password and login changes
- not having input on expenditures
- being berated for small spending
- having to ask for money for basic needs
- not listed as an owner on the legal paperwork for assets
- working excessively to cover a partner’s expenditures or lifestyle
- feeling unworthy or incapable of financial decisions
- valuables or funds go missing
- debt is racking up
- unauthorized loans or credit cards appear under your name
- being asked to share financial or identity information early in the relationship
- financial information sharing is one-sided
Financial abuse is used to achieve the same ends as other forms of abuse. It can be used to instill fear, intimidate, demean, manipulate, and create a sense of dependency.
“Some people who use financial abuse exploit a relationship to get money,” explains Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor from Austin, Texas. “Romance scammers, parents who steal their children’s identities, and extortionists fall into this category.”
According to Nassour, others use money as a way to control the relationship. “These people might forbid their child or partner from getting a job, insist on access to all that person’s bank accounts, or only let them have a limited allowance,” she says.
These methods can create a sense of dependency and entrapment. If you want to leave the relationship, for example, but have no access to your money, it could make you change your mind.
Controlling the finances can also be used to keep your self-esteem low so that you begin to believe you’re not even able to manage money — a way of instilling doubt that you could be independent.
Finances may even be used as a way to “prove” your commitment in an abusive relationship in extreme cases. Statements such as “If you loved me, you’d want me to have expensive things” can pressure you into everything from writing bad checks to digging yourself into debt.
Recovering from financial abuse is possible. Like other forms of abuse, it may take the guidance of a mental health professional as well as a financial expert who can help you build economic skills you may have been denied.
The mental health impact of financial abuse
The effects of financial abuse don’t necessarily vanish once you’ve regained control of your finances. It’s a type of abuse that can have long lasting impacts.
Ferris points out that you may experience:
- lack of ability to believe you can manage finances
- guilt around money
- desire to rebel and spend money because it’s been restricted for you
- urge to hide spending from future partners
Financial abuse can be just as impactful as any other form of abuse, states Ditzell. “This type of abuse is, unfortunately, more common than we think but is an often overlooked form of domestic violence that leaves victims isolated, ashamed, and discouraged.”
If you’re the one living with financial abuse behaviors, help is also available. Speaking with a mental health professional can help you explore underlying causes that may manifest as a need for control over finances.
Working with a financial expert can help you develop beneficial habits and can offer a way to share financial responsibility and insight with an uninvolved party.
If you believe you’re experiencing financial abuse, consider trying these strategies.
Determining the value of the relationship
Some relationships in your life may not be necessary to maintain, and rather than working on improving behaviors, it may be in your best interest to leave.
“If the person who is abusing you is a romance scammer, it could be enough to block them on all your devices,” says Nassour. “If it’s a person you’re financially dependent on, you’re in a much tougher situation.”
Freezing your credit lines
If you’ve discovered that your name is being used to open credit lines and take out loans, you can put a freeze on these accounts because they’re in your name — even if you didn’t know about them.
Avoiding paying another’s debt
Nassour cautions that helping someone else pay off their debt may set you up for responsibility in the long run.
If you pay their debts, she cautions that “debt collectors may hold you liable.”
Creating financial boundaries and compromise
Ferris recommends that those in long-term relationships use both joint and private accounts for shared costs.
“A joint account covers shared expenses, and individual accounts cover your own discretionary,” she says. “I see many couples putting a percentage of income into a joint account so that it’s based on sharing the equal weight of the household expenses to pay, not on a dollar amount, as that could favor one partner more than the other.”
Calmly and openly talking about finances may help in situations where financial abuse is an unintentional consequence of poor economic literacy or past experiences.
“It can be difficult to spot signs of financial abuse within a relationship, but once you identify them, you can work toward addressing them and stay in your relationship for the long term if you choose to,” Ditzell says. “One thing you need to remember is to approach the situation calmly. You can discuss your household expenses and work together on a financial plan that you both agree with.”
Distancing love and money
“Remember that giving someone money isn’t the same as love,” says Nassour. “Even if they are genuinely having financial trouble, you can’t fix financial problems for them.”
While you may experience guilt-tripping, anger, or manipulation tactics as a result of denying someone financial assistance, financial services are the go-to option for a true resolution of money management challenges.
If you’re experiencing financial abuse, help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text “START” to 88788 at any time.
Temporary housing can be found by visiting DomesticShelters.org.
To help build your financial literacy and learn about economic management, the Allstate Foundation’s Financial Literacy Program offers education and support services for survivors of domestic violence.
If you need access to emergency funds, you may qualify for a financial abuse recovery loan through the Independence Project, a part of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) initiative.
Financial abuse can be any economic tactic that takes away your control or keeps you under someone’s power.
This type of abuse can occur in any relationship dynamic and can be an intentional or unintentional consequence of underlying personal challenges.
While money management education, financial boundaries, and compromise can help ease financial abuse behaviors, you don’t have to stay in a relationship of abuse.
Help is always available for support and protection.