Although physical, emotional and sexual abuse often dominates the headlines, financial abuse occurs in over 98% of abusive relationships. This broad term can encompass indirect forms of control, such as sabotaging the victim’s attempts to get a job or dragging down her credit score, as well as more aggressive forms, including forcibly taking the victim’s money or refusing to provide enough money to subsist on. This has a clear impact on the victim’s self-esteem, safety, physical well-being, and ability to get back on her feet if she leaves the relationship.
Please note: although we use the female pronoun for the victim and the male pronoun for the batterer, we want to emphasize that women and men alike can be victims or abusers.
Why does financial abuse occur?
Although a number of financial abuse victims give up control of their finances because they feel subordinate or powerless, financial abuse also happens to successful people with high self-esteem. These people may feel like they are being loving or helpful by giving their partner access to their bank account or credit card, even when that money is spent recklessly. They may not be aware of the abuse, or they may try to rationalize their partner’s behavior. If the victim does not have her own source of income, or access to a bank account or credit card, she has an even greater risk for financial abuse, since her partner legally controls all her assets.
Types of financial abuse
Preventing the victim from earning or keeping an income: The abuser may simply demand that their victim not work, or they may sabotage her efforts at finding or keeping a job. If the victim is employed, the abuser may take her wages by force, or spend it without her permission.
Making the victim account for every penny she spends: Abusers may require their victims to provide receipts for every single purchase, account for all credit card transactions, or get permission for any purchase they wish to make, no matter how small. If the abuser decides that the victim has lied to him or purchased something without permission, he may “punish” her. This type of situation can easily escalate into verbal or physical abuse.
Denying victim access to money or other financial resources: The abuser may prevent the victim from accessing her accounts, or he may keep bank accounts or credit cards hidden from her. In more extreme cases, they may not let the victim have her own bank account, or require that she keep her money exclusively in joint accounts that he controls.
Running up debt on a joint credit card: If they have bad credit, abusers may piggyback on a credit card account belonging to their spouse or child to continue their bad spending habits. Debt or missed payments will lower the credit scores of all account signers, not just the person who incurred the debt. Some abusers use this to their advantage and ruin their victims’ credit scores in the process.
Insisting all the household accounts are in the victim’s name: This is another way for abusers to avoid accountability for reckless spending behavior. If the abuser controls the money and is unable to afford the payments, the victim is held responsible.
Not permitting the victim to spend money on themselves or their children: Abusers may set strict limits on how money is to be spent in the house, and may not allow any money for the victim or her children. Alternatively, an abuser may spend money budgeted for household necessities, such as food, diapers, or cleaning supplies, on themselves.
Forcing victim to beg or commit crimes for money: Abusers may force their victim to resort to other means to make money, either by force or by leaving them with no other options.
Draining the victim’s funds with legal fees: An abuser may take advantage of the civil court process to drag out divorce, order of protection or child custody proceedings, forcing the victim to essentially keep a lawyer on retainer. This financial hemorrhaging can be detrimental, especially to a single parent.
Other resources for financial abuse victims
General domestic violence resources